Nickel and Dimed is an investigative journalism book by American writer Barbara Ehrenreich. The book is a record of the authors experiences working at the lowest levels of the American economy, an exercise that was commissioned by Harpers, her employer. The author tackles minimum wage work conditions, poverty, and the disenfranchisement of the extremely poor and uneducated; the people who rely on welfare the most. The book posits the theory that for some American workers, being in gainful employment and working hard at the job, or even taking extra jobs, does not guarantee the comfort of a good life.
The trickle-down nature of the economy hurts those at the bottom-most positions; the waiters and waitresses, cleaners, busboys, and other untrained and unqualified workers. In the face of the widely touted American dream, the book serves as a wake-up call to policy-makers and citizens alike to open their eyes and their minds to the plight of the bottom feeders of the American economy, trapped in a vicious cycle of wretchedness.
After two years' experience of the lifestyle, the writer is best placed to narrate the plight of these workers, exposing the paradox of America's middle-class economy. The book is a sample of three wide-flung states with varying proportions of white, black, and Hispanic people. It indicates that this ghastly plight is not suffered by the minorities, but rather by all members of the community without advanced education, talent, or skills to open up doors in the higher levels of the economic infrastructure.
From the beginning, Barbara Ehrenreich aims to answer the question of what it is like for the people in the lowest rungs of economic empowerment. With minimum wages and little to no reprieve from market forces such as competition for housing, Medicare, and educational facilities, how does the lowest earner make it in America? The inequality in wage and livelihood is the primary issue in Nickel and Dimed, and it is addressed via a practical quest by the writer to survive as the minimum-wage workers do. The author discovers an intricate system of survivalist tactics, camaraderie, and grit that keeps the least appreciated workers in American society going. At the crux of the issue, welfare reform, or the lax implementation of it by the ruling class, is to blame for the sufferings of minimum-wage earners.
The moral principle of the text is that corporations ought not to be permitted to engage in practices that improve the company's bottom-line without paying heed to the plight of their unskilled workers. Poverty-level wages should be replaced with federally enforced living wages for the minimum-wage workers, as well as programs aimed at subsidizing healthcare for the poor, housing projects, public transportation, and educational grants for the children to avoid intergenerational minimum-wage families.
Written from the perceptive of a minimum-wage earner who had two years of uninterrupted contact with other workers, Nickel and Dimed give a very reliable and adequate idea of life in the minimum wage. Her answers to the problems plaguing the minimum-wage earners are pragmatic, applicable, and well-informed. However, the narrative rather than the journalistic format of the book is one weakness that may cause people to view the novel as a work of fiction rather than a research project.
Applying the lessons learned in the book would start with a whole new ideal of servers in restaurants, busboys, cleaners, check-out cashiers, and so on. Part of their suffering comes in the hands of clients and customers who are blind to their plight. The first secret to getting on board with the novel idea of improving the quality of life for unskilled workers is to treat them with respect and do all possible to make their work easier. Before going to Congress or lobbying for better welfare legislation, American citizens ought to take it upon themselves to be kind and polite to their fellow minimum-wage earners.
In regards to the issue of welfare laws and the poor in our communities, the book posits that society needs to do more for the sake of these people. She also postulates that their experiences in the lower classes may create a situation where their minds are close to the realities outside, interpreting middle and top-class living as an unattainable goal they can only admire from afar.
The book addresses issues hitherto unheard in America such as families of four squeezing into a one-roomed house. Children are often used in their parents' activities, thereby exposing them to criminals who could turn them into child prostitutes or forced laborers. In the lower echelons of power, it is almost impossible to access life-improving amenities such as entertainment, relaxation, and companionship. Often, the acquisition of facilities involves indignities such as the case above of families of four squeezed into one-room houses.
One of the most critical lessons from the book is the adversity of mindless, profit-minded capitalism. Even in this lifestyle where the difference between a meal and staying hungry, or having a roof over one's head, the employers engage in practices that aimed at profit-maximization with little or no regard to the welfare of their workers. For example, in Maine, companies advertise for job applicants on a full-term basis to ensure that there are quick replacements in the event of firings or resignations. Others, such as restaurants, pay their workers very little and leave them to scrapple with tips from an increasingly tight-fisted populace.
Ehrenreich, B. (2001). Nickel and Dimed. New York: Henry Holt and Company
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