Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job—any job—can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour?
To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly "unskilled," that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.
Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity—a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich's perspective and for a rare view of how "prosperity" looks from the bottom. And now, in a new foreword, Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, explains why, twenty years on in America, Nickel and Dimed is more relevant than ever.
“Captivating . . . promise that you will read this explosive little book cover to cover and pass it on to all your friends and relatives.”—The New York Times
"A valuable and illuminating book . . . We have Barbara Ehrenreich to thank for bringing us the news of America's working poor so clearly and directly, and conveying with it a deep moral outrage . . . She is our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism."—Dorothy Gallagher, The New York Times Book Review
"Nickel and Dimed is a superb and frightening look into the lives of heard-working Americans . . . policymakers should be forced to read the last ten pages of Ehrenreich's book in which she concludes that affordable rent, food and health care should be among the chief measurements of a healthy economy, not simply high productivity and employment."—Tamara Straus, San Francisco Chronicle
"This book is thoroughly enjoyable, written with an affable, up-your-nose brio throughout. Ehrenreich is a superb and relaxed stylist, and she has a tremendous sense of rueful humor, especially when it comes to the evils of middle-management, absentee ownership and all the little self-consecrating bourgeois touches gracing the homes she sterilizes, inch-by-square-inch, as a maid in Maine."—Stephen Metcalf, The Los Angeles Times
"There is much to be learned from Nickel and Dimed. It opens a window into the daily lives of the invisible workforce that fuels the service economy, and endows the men and women who populate it with the honor that is often lacking on the job . . . In the grand tradition of the muckraking journalist, [Ehrenreich] goes undercover for nearly a year . . . What emerges is an insider's view of the worst jobs (other than agricultural labor) the 'new economy' has to offer."—Katherine Newman, Washington Post Book World
"Piercing social criticism backed by first-rate reporting . . . Ehrenreich captures not only the tribulations of finding and performing low-wage work, but the humiliations as well."—Eric Wieffering, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Compulsively readable . . . Ehrenreich proves, devastatingly, that jobs are not enough; that the minimum wage is an offensive joke; and that making a salary is not the same thing as making a living, as making a real life."—Alex Ohlin, The Texas Observer
"Engaging . . . Hopefully, Nickel and Dimed will expand public awareness of the real-world survival struggles that many faced even before the current economic downturn."—Steve Early, The Nation
"Salient . . . A compelling and timely book whose insights transcend the obvious."—Julia Klein, The American Prospect
"A tough, engaging, revealing look at life as a low-wage worker . . . Sobering."—Shelley Donald Coolidge, Christian Science Monitor
"Impassioned, fascinating, profoundly significant, and wildly entertaining . . . I kept grabbing family members and phoning friends to read passages aloud . . . Nickel and Dimed is not only important but transformative in its insistence that we take a long hard look at the society we live in."—Francine Prose, O, The Oprah Magazine
"Ehrenreich is a wonderful writer. Her descriptions of people and places stay with you. If nothing else, this book illuminates the invisible army that scrubs floors, waits tables and straightens the racks at discount stores. That alone makes Ehrenreich's odyssey worthwhile."—Sandy Block, USA Today
"Nickel and Dimed is an 'old-fashioned,' in-your-face exposé . . . this important volume will force anyone who reads it to acknowledge the often desperate plight of Ehrenreich's subjects."—Anne Colamosca, Business Week
"Jarring, full of riveting grit . . . This book is already unforgettable."—Susannah Meadows, Newsweek
"I commend Barbara Ehrenreich for conducting such an important experiment. Millions of Americans suffer daily trying to make ends meet. Ehrenreich's book forces people to acknowledge the average worker's struggle and promises to be extremely influential."—Lynn Woolsey, former member of Congress
"A brilliant on-the-job report from the dark side of the boom. No one since H.L. Mencken has assailed the smug rhetoric of prosperity with such scalpel-like precision and ferocious wit."—Mike Davis, author of Ecology of Fear
"With this book Barbara Ehrenreich takes her place among such giants of investigative journalism as George Orwell and Jack London. Ehrenreich's courage, empathy, and the immediacy with which she describes her experience bring us face to face with the fate of millions of American workers today."—Frances Fox Piven, author of Regulating the Poor
"I was absolutely knocked out by Barbara Ehrenreich's remarkable odyssey as a waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman, nursing home aide and sales clerk. She has accomplished what no contemporary writer has even attempted-to be that 'nobody' who barely subsists on her essential labors. It is a stiff punch in the nose to those righteous apostles of 'welfare reform.' Not only is it must reading but it's mesmeric. You can't put the damn thing down. Bravo!"—Studs Terkel, author of Working
"One of the great American social critics, Barbara Ehrenreich has written an unforgettable memoir of what it was like to work in some of America's least attractive jobs. Nickel and Dimed is a passionate meditation on the blindness of those with money and power. It is one of those rare books that will provoke both outrage and self-reflection. No one who reads this book will be able to resist its power to make them see the world in a new way."—Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk
"Drunk on dot-coms and day trading, America has gone blind to the down side of its great prosperity. In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich does more than open her own eyes wide to the hidden human costs of the boom. She immerses herself in the practicalities of being poor, a subject rendered exotic by decades of media neglect. Once inside, Ehrenreich expertly peels away the layers of self-denial, self-interest and self-protection that separate the rich from poor, the served from the servers, the housed from the homeless. This is a brave and frank book that is ultimately a challenge to create a less divided society."—Naomi Klein, author of No Logo
"Barbara Ehrenreich is the Thorstein Veblen of the 21st century. And this book is one of her very best-breathtaking in its scope, insight, humor, and passion."—Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Time Bind
"Between spring 1998 and summer 2000, Barbara Ehrenreich entered the world of service work. She folded clothes at Wal-Mart, waitressed, washed dishes in a nursing home, and scrubbed floors 'the old fashioned way—on her hands and knees' for The Maids. Her account of those experiences is unforgettable—heart-wrenching, infuriating, funny, smart, and empowering. Few readers will be untouched by the shameful realities which underlie America's boom economy. Nickel and Dimed is vintage Ehrenreich and will surely take its place among the classics of underground reportage."—Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American
"Barbara Ehrenreich's new book is absolutely riveting. I was drawn into the narrative so quickly that it took me 50 pages to remember to get angry at the vicious economic cruelties she was unveiling. But that is the power of the book—it is terrific story-telling, filled with fury and delicious humor and, repeatedly, these stunning moments of the purest empathy with those who toil beside her. With utter honesty about her own unique and (ultimately) privileged position and, at the same time, not a hint of condescension, she enters a grimy and humiliating world we all try to ignore and somehow, by the sheer force of her prose, makes us eager to go with her. It's a beautiful work of personal nerve and ethical audacity that takes the reader by surprise and then disarms us by its tenderness. I am grateful to Barbara Ehrenreich for writing this."—Jonathan Kozol, author of Ordinary Resurrections
"This is social critic Ehrenreich's twelfth book, an on-the-job study of how a single mother (or anyone else) leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing and child-care subsidies. To find the answers, Ehrenreich left her home in Key West and traveled from Florida to Maine and then to Minnesota, working in low-paying Jobs. Ehrenreich, who holds a Ph.D. in biology, resolved not to fall back on any skills derived from her education or usual work and to take the cheapest accommodations in motels and trailer parks as long as there was 'an acceptable level of safety and privacy.' The 'working poor,' Ehrenreich concludes, 'are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high.'"—George Cohen, Booklist
"In contrast to recent books by Michael Lewis and Dinesh D'Souza that explore the lives and psyches of the New Economy's millionares, Ehrenreich turns her gimlet eye on the view from the workforce's bottom rung. Determined to find out how anyone could make ends meet on $7 an hour, she left behind her middle class life as a journalist except for $1000 in start-up funds, a car and her laptop computer to try to sustain herself as a low-skilled worker for a month at a time. In 1999 and 2000, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress in Key West, Fla., as a cleaning woman and a nursing home aide in Portland, Maine, and in a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Minn. During the application process, she faced routine drug tests and spurious 'personality tests'; once on the job, she endured constant surveillance and numbing harangues over infractions like serving a second roll and butter. Beset by transportation costs and high rents, she learned the tricks of the trade from her co-workers, some of whom sleep in their cars, and many of whom work when they're vexed by arthritis, back pain or worse, yet still manage small gestures of kindness. Despite the advantages of her race, education, good health and lack of children, Ehrenreich's income barely covered her month's expenses in only one instance, when she worked seven days a week at two jobs (one of which provided free meals) during the off-season in a vacation town. Delivering a fast read that's both sobering and sassy, she gives readers pause about those caught in the economy's undertow, even in good times."—Publishers Weekly
Introduction: Getting Ready
The idea that led to this book arose in comparatively sumptuous circumstances. Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, had taken me out for a $30 lunch at some understated French country-style place to discuss...