Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
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When one is charged a little bit at a time until the expense grows beyond expectations, that is called being "nickel and dimed." In 2001's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, essayist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich applies this notion to minimum-wage workers. She argues that their spirit and dignity are chipped away by a culture that allows unjust and unlivable working conditions, which results in their becoming a de facto, or actual without being official, servant class. Spurred on by recent welfare reforms and the growing phenomenon of the working poor in the United States, Ehrenreich poses a hypothetical question of daily concern to many Americans: how difficult is it to live on a minimum-wage job? For the lower class, what does it take to match the income one earns to the expenses one must pay?
Rather than simply listen to other people's accounts, Ehrenreich herself assumes the role of a minimum-wage worker. In different states and in several different jobs, she attempts three times to live for one month at minimum wage, giving up her middle-class comforts to experience the overlooked hardships of a large sector of America. While she freely admits that hers is an unusual situation, she stresses it is also a best-case scenario; others face many more difficulties in their daily lives, such as the lack of available transportation. Due to an accessible style and subject matter, Nickel and Dimed became a bestseller that helped restart dialogue on the current state of American work, American values, and the consequences of letting a national emergency remain unacknowledged for too long.
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However, in Key West, Barbara earned $1,039 in one month and spent $517 on food, gas, toiletries, laundry, phone, and utilities. She could have been able to pay the rent if she had stayed in her $500 efficiency with $22 left over (though sooner or later, she would have had to spend something on medical and dental care). But by moving to the trailer park in order to take a second job, she had to pay $625. She could have bought a used bike instead of using the car, but she still would have needed two jobs—and she learned she could not sustain two physically demanding jobs.
Here Barbara delves into line-by-line calculations of the economic realities of her experiment. At the start she’d noted that she could simply add up income and expenses from a desk, but now the reader can recall specific moments and choices that led to Barbara’s struggles to pay the bills. In Key West, there was no ideal situation: even having a bike wouldn’t have solved her financial troubles.