In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara sets out to experience the working life of low-wage laborers first-hand. She is, of course, interested in poverty in general—as a journalist, Barbara had covered the topic extensively before writing this book—but here she is particularly concerned with the plight of the working poor. Labor is defined in economic terms throughout the book, as work performed in exchange for payment. But the term also serves to encapsulate the notion of physical, emotional, and mental toil faced by the country’s lowest class of workers.
Low-wage labor is often directly linked to physical pain: from eight-hour shifts without a bathroom or sit-down break at a restaurant, to the physical exertion required to clean a home, hourly-wage workers must often exhaust themselves physically in order to earn their income. This physical labor can sometimes lead to medical problems—often compounded by a lack of insurance, which many of these workers cannot afford—which endanger their ability to work, leading to a devastating cycle. Over the course of the book, Barbara realizes that this physical exhaustion is mirrored by mental and emotional exhaustion as well. In her experiment as a low-wage worker, her energy is constantly directed towards the well-being of others, usually at the expense of her own. With little time to relax and no extra money to pay for even small luxuries like a movie or a dinner out, there is no respite to be found from a grueling daily schedule—especially when it becomes necessary to work up to seven days a week in order to survive.
Ultimately, low-wage labor is portrayed not as a proper exchange for income but as an arduous, unsustainable system whose victims are the low-wage workers themselves. By explicitly describing the physical and emotional toil of low-wage labor, Barbara argues against the prevailing social rhetoric of work as noble and meaningful, showing that many Americans simply can’t afford to subscribe to this notion of labor.
Ehrenreich had written extensively about poverty in America prior to embarking on Nickel and Dimed, so the revelations of her endeavor do not come so much as a surprise to her as a confirmation of her suspicions—namely, that poverty has not been helped by the late-nineties boom, and that if anything it may have been worsened by it. Ehrenreich writes of poverty, especially toward the close of her book, with the verve and vibrancy of a Dickens or Sinclair, excoriating society’s indifference to this endemic problem. America, with its paucity of social programs, seems particularly unconcerned with its least privileged citizens—the low-wage workers whose ranks Ehrenreich temporarily joins. Poverty is not just a side-effect of unemployment; rather, those fully employed can slip into the deepest poverty, with wages too low to cover rising rents. What is more, low-wage work itself is often grueling, withering, leading the way to ailments and pains, and permeated with a callow sense of dehumanization: Wal-Mart treats its employees like babies, while The Maids instructs ill workers to “work through it”. Ehrenreich calls the state of the poor in America “a state of emergency” and concludes her book with a plea for help.
Throughout her journey as a low-wage worker, Ehrenreich rubs up against notions of theater and performance that complicate her journalistic stance. She is reminded again and again of the safety net she enjoys, even as a low-wage worker, with a bank account and health insurance waiting in the wings should the ceiling drop. What happens to a “real” low-wage worker when the ceiling drops? That said, how is Ehrenreich not a “real” low-wage worker? One does not pretend to be a waitress, she notes; one either is one or is not, whether for a short period of time or a long period of time. When Ehrenreich turns to her old dermatologist to treat a rash developed at The Maids, she laments her own slipping out of “character”; at the same time, however, when she undergoes her umpteenth job interview, she reflects on the performances required of all prospective low-wage employees. Perhaps her acting is not so different from that of her co-workers.
If Ehrenreich is not surprised to find that the lot of the poor in America is a tough one, she does seem startled by the attitudes of the low-wage workers she encounters. Holly submits to Ted, goes to work when unwell and apologizes in tears to him for likely breaking her foot; Colleen, also a maid and a single mother of two, shrugs off the abuses of the workplace: “I don’t mind, really, because I guess I’m a simple person, and I don’t want what they have. I mean, it’s nothing to me. But what I would like is to be able to take a day off now and then…if I had to…and still be able to buy groceries the next day.” Where is the anger? Where is the propensity for rebellion? Where is the spirit of revolution? Where is the proletarian solidarity that has battled against oppression throughout history? In its stead, Ehrenreich finds complacency, humility, and defeatism. She resorts at the end to spreading the word of a hotel workers’ strike among Wal-Mart employees, or lashing out at The Maids’ owner herself—both to little avail. The low-wage workplace is so demeaning, it seems, and in a way so intimidating—with its constant reminders of the power hierarchy—that it effectively strips employees of their will to fight. Is this the way of a democracy—or of a totalitarian state?
“I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium,” Ehrenreich writes, “that ‘hard work’ was the secret of success: ‘Work hard and you’ll get ahead’ or ‘It’s hard work that got us where we are.’” She lives in the shadow of her father, who successfully climbed his way from the mines to the middle class. Her memories are filled with grade-school admonitions—work, work, work—and a vision of the American Dream—Horatio Alger pulling himself by his own bootstraps and making his way through the world. The reality of the low-wage workplace is a mockery of these notions. Ehrenreich’s fellow low-wage employees work impossibly hard, for little to no reward. Mobility is next to nil; how could it be otherwise, with the costs of transportation and changing jobs and the condescending or else outright demeaning tone of the workplace? The truth is that the old Puritan work ethic does not seem to do much good for the poor. Ehrenreich’s travails put the lie to the stereotype of the lazy poor—“If only they would get jobs!”—and lead her to question her own homegrown instincts. Why do the maids of The Maids move so quickly, she wonders, when they are paid by the hour? Why not stretch the time out? These are not questions borne of laziness, but rather of exhaustion.
Nickel and Dimed was written at a particularly momentous time for the nation’s poor. Welfare reform had just been enacted, and welfare-to-work programs were at play. This meant that scores of struggling Americans were being forced off welfare and ushered into the workplace. Theoretically, what could be wrong with increased employment? The problem, as Ehrenreich demonstrates, is that the jobs available simply do not pay enough money. Meanwhile, rent is too high, and many of the things necessary to lead a healthy life—health insurance, child care, food that is both affordable and nourishing—are hard to come by. What is even worse, despite the evidence of welfare reform’s catastrophic effects, neither party wishes to openly concede that it was a mistake—as both parties endorsed it heartily.
Ehrenreich is a writer, and remains one during the course of her low-wage journey. Every night she returns to her laptop to record the incidents of the day. That laptop serves as a reminder of her true status, a barrier between her world and the world she is visiting. That said, Ehrenreich hopes to use writing to break through said barrier—that is, to open the eyes of those in the former world to the plight of those in the latter. It’s a complicated endeavor, because writing bleeds into acting which bleeds into actual work—the aforementioned paradox of “pretending” to be a waitress. Ehrenreich must juggle multiple roles, must shift from performer to low-wage employee to observer to investigator to writer—and, as Nickel and Dimed is written in the present tense, those shifts feel all the more immediate.
Democracy or tyranny? Ehrenreich paints a damning portrait of America at the close of the twentieth century. It is the portrait of a nation increasingly beneficent to its wealthiest citizens and increasingly indifferent to its poorest. Meanwhile, the low-wage workplace seems not to operate by American values at all. “When you enter the low-wage workplace—and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well,” Ehrenreich writes, “you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift.” The Wal-Mart orientation session seems comparable to a fascist rally or a cult meeting, with Sam Walton hailed as a sort of latter-day prophet; Ted of The Maids openly breaks the law in his pressuring employees to “work through” whatever physical pain or sickness they may be suffering from; Ehrenreich refers to other instances of employers firing employees for sharing information regarding their wages with others. These people are rarely held accountable for their actions. They operate in a bubble, free from the constraints of democracy, free to treat their employees however they please. They hide their wages from prospective employees until the last minute, pry into employees’ private lives and feelings in absurdly intrusive interviews and “personality tests”, and order their employees to stay busy even when there is no work to be done. The world Ehrenreich describes is a harsh and forbidding one, a world dominated by fear and fear-mongering—and if it doesn’t seem quite a tyranny, it undoubtedly falls far short of democracy.