Nickel and Dimed to Poverty

Junior Theme Project 2014 Hayden Nollenberger

What Does the Novel Say About Poverty?

The novel Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich is a story about poverty and the lower wage earning class of America. She transforms herself into a middle aged lady struggling with poverty living day-to-day to discover more about the situation, and how the "other half" lives. At the start of the novel she believes that homelessness and poverty is caused by not having a job, or being uneducated. As she goes on with her new life she realizes that this is not necessarily true. Ehrenreich discovers that one fifth of all homeless people are employed, and you do not need to be unemployed to be stricken with poverty. She then attributes poverty heavily to race. As she works in the cleaning service industry business it comes to her attention that 36.8% of maids are hispanic, and 15.8% are black. People look down on her for being poor. This transformation of her ideas about poverty are the main idea of the novel.

"I'm getting a tiny glimpse of what it would be like to be black" (100).

This quote is stated by Barbara after working at the cleaning service in Maine. While wearing her maid uniform she notices that she is treated significantly poorer than she was when dressing normally. The negative connotation associated with maids is a problem in America today. They are not respected, but rather looked down upon. Ehrenreich was very frustrated with this fact, and equated it to racism. Black people all across America are looked down upon simply based on the color of their skin. Her situation can be most closely compared to the one of racism.
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The maid service commercial above is one of hundreds in the United States. It is a very basic, simple commercial that most companies have. It is a very similar service as Ehrenreich worked at during her experiment.

Causes of Poverty in Nickel and Dimed

Early on in her quest to understand poverty, Ehrenreich discovers that people do not become poor on accident. The recurring causes of poverty in America according to Ehrenreich are race, lack of education, and addiction in multiple forms. The people she meets along her journey are typically uneducated minorities, who often have addictions to drugs or gambling. She did, however, find some cases of impoverished citizens that had none of these qualities. White high school or college graduates are also stricken by poverty. This harsh reality hits fast and hard in the novel.

"They don't cut you no slack. You give and you give and they take" (22).

This quote signifies the anger of all of the low wage earning class in America. They believe that the corporations they work for are unfair, and unjust in the way they are treated, and the wages they are paid. The companies ask so much of their employees and they get little to nothing in return. In the case of Ehrenreich, she could not even afford to buy her work uniform, from her work salary. She was simply not paid enough.

How is the Time Period Important in the Novel?

being set in the late 20th, early 21st century, the novel obviously differed from one set in an earlier time period. As recently as the early 20th century women were not expected to have jobs at all. Due to today's ideas and morals, Ehrenreich was expected to work hard and support herself. She also lived in better conditions than she wold have in an earlier time period. Even though she was impoverished, her conditions were much better than those of somebody living in the 19th century.

"94% of Americans agree that working full time should keep you above the poverty line" (220).

Although many in America probably agree with this sentiment, it is not as high as 94%. Up to one-fifth of the homeless people have part or full time jobs, and they still cannot support themselves. Nobody in America is willing to make a change. People can talk the talk, but cannot walk the walk. The most important part of the stat are the 6% of people left over. These people generally run the big companies that employ low wage workers. They are not willing to make a change, because the relationship as worked well for them so far.