Nickel and Dimed

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Nickel and Dimed Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich’s childhood was spent moving frequently around the country, as her father worked his way up from mining into middle-class status. She attended Reed College in Oregon, and received her Ph.D. in cell biology at Rockefeller University. After the birth of her first child, she became involved in the fight for better women’s health care. She ultimately became a full-time writer, breaking into the field with articles on women’s rights and social justice issues. She continues to balance her journalism and book-length projects on social and inequality issues with her activism in health care, women’s rights, and economic justice.
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Historical Context of Nickel and Dimed
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” a piece of welfare-reform legislation that drastically reshaped welfare programs, reduced federal spending on welfare, and required many to work in exchange for receiving social benefits. As Ehrenreich was beginning her experiment, this law was beginning to kick in, meaning that millions of Americans formerly on welfare were now about to join the workforce (in most cases the low-wage workforce). This was also a time of economic growth and near-full employment for the United States, which many today—especially after the 2008 economic crisis—remember as a time of relative wealth and abundance. In fact, part of Ehrenreich’s goal was to show that this time, perceived by the mainstream as prosperous, was not a period of prosperity for everyone, and that most low-wage workers were entirely left out of the economic growth benefiting many other Americans. Her book also sought to counter the idea that economic growth and full employment would do away with desperate poverty, since both were in evidence at the time she was writing.
Other Books Related to Nickel and Dimed
Nickel and Dimed taps into a long American tradition of “muckraking” journalism, in which writers investigate abject social conditions and corrupt corporations in order to promote reform. The Progressive Era, around the turn of the 20th century, was witness to multiple muckraking exposés. One of the most famous was Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890, which revealed the awful conditions of New York City’s immigrant slums through a photojournalism exposé. Another was Upton Sinclair’s 1906 The Jungle, in which he exposed shocking conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry. Sinclair’s work eventually led to legislation that sought to put an end to such conditions. More recently, “investigative” or “watchdog journalism” have been the terms used in describing the kind of activist-related writing that Ehrenreich pursues and achieves in her book.
Key Facts about Nickel and Dimed
  • Full Title: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
  • When Written: 1998-2000
  • Where Written: United States (Florida, Maine, Minnesota)
  • When Published: 2001 (with an afterword from 2008)
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Reportage/Memoir
  • Setting: Key West, Florida; Portland, Maine; Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Climax: Each chapter has its own climax, but one scene in Maine is particularly climactic. After growing increasingly frustrated with the way her team leader at The Maids, Holly, must stoically work through dizziness, pain, and stress, Barbara screams into the phone at her boss, Ted, fuming at his willingness to put profits above the well-being of his workers.
  • Antagonist: In general, Barbara’s antagonist is economic culture in America, which accepts the acute distress of low-wage work as a given. She recognizes that such an antagonist is intangible and difficult to pin down, so she constructs more material antagonists in her bosses, including Ted and Howard, as well as the more faceless corporations for which she works.
  • Point of View: First person
Extra Credit for Nickel and Dimed

Seeing Things? Though Ehrenreich calls herself an atheist in Nickel and Dimed, she describes her experiences of mysticism and “seeing God” as an adolescent in her most recent book, Living With a Wild God.