Nickel and Dimed

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Themes and Colors
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Labor Theme Icon
Shame and Solidarity Theme Icon
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Nickel and Dimed, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Labor Theme Icon

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.

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Labor ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Labor appears in each chapter of Nickel and Dimed. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Labor Quotes in Nickel and Dimed

Below you will find the important quotes in Nickel and Dimed related to the theme of Labor.
Introduction Quotes

So this is not a story of some death-defying “undercover” adventure. Almost anyone could do what I did—look for jobs, work those jobs, try to make ends meet. In fact, millions of Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fanfare and dithering.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

As Barbara lays out the source of her decision to "go undercover" and attempt to live like the working poor, she is eager to point out that her story is not a heroic tale of adventure—she does not want to be seen as particularly exceptional or clever for doing what she did. Instead, she attempts to make clear that for many Americans, the battle to make income equal expenses takes place each day. Furthermore, rather than complain or protest about it—although that can and does happen—the working poor are often silent, if not willing, participants in this unfair system.

Of course, part of the reason why Barbara says she wrote the book is because those battles are, to another part of the American population, largely invisible. Barbara will stress throughout the book how little she, along with the audience she presumes to speak for—that is, educated, middle- to upper-class Americans—fully comprehend the struggles of the working poor. Part of her goal will therefore be to educate the public about the quantifiable facts behind trying to make ends meet. 


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Chapter 1 Quotes

Cooks want to prepare tasty meals, servers want to serve them graciously, but managers are there for only one reason—to make sure that money is made for some theoretical entity, the corporation, which exists far away in Chicago or New York, if a corporation can be said to have a physical existence at all.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

As Barbara begins her job at Hearthside, the restaurant, she begins to witness a disconnect between the lowest-rung employees, the servers and busboys, for instance, and the management. Even though managers are often former cooks, Barbara argues that once they are promoted they are no longer as interested in keeping employees and customers happy, but rather become more concerned with following the instructions from a far-away corporation. For a place like Hearthside (not the restaurant's real name) there may be thousands of franchises across the country, all accountable to this corporation, often at the expense of those on the ground in each location. Indeed, Barbara claims that often these two groups have competing, even opposite interests—that making money and preparing and serving well-made meals are often at odds with each other. Still, Barbara shows how this is hardly a well-matched fight, since the disembodied, abstract nature of a corporation can be difficult to understand when one is working on the ground. Furthermore, all the money comes from the corporation, and when one is living hand-to-mouth, one often has to sacrifice quality for cash.

There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara has learned that her coworker Gail is thinking about leaving a horrendous roommate situation and moving into the Days Inn. She is shocked that Gail would consider spending $40-60 per night, but she has not taken in to account how difficult it can be to find the money for a month's rent plus a deposit, which are almost always necessary to move into an apartment. As a result, Barbara begins to realize, the poor end up paying a huge premium simply because they lack the necessary savings.

Barbara had assumed, like many of her readers, that things always somehow "work out," that the poor find ways to support themselves and live off a small income. Here, she begins to understand just how impossible poverty can make any kind of economic choice. Not only are the working poor unable to make enough of an income to live comfortably, they are actively punished for doing so, as they are made to pay premiums and special costs that simply do not exist for those who are better off. Barbara's claim is part of her general desire to counter those who would critique the poor for taking advantage of welfare or other economic breaks.

I had gone into this venture in the spirit of science, to test a mathematical proposition, but somewhere along the line, in the tunnel vision imposed by long shifts and relentless concentration, it became a test of myself, and clearly I have failed..

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

In the midst of the most hectic, stressful shift she has faced thus far, Barbara leaves Hearthside and takes off her apron, resolving not to return. She has been yelled at by customers and managers and is on the verge of tears, something to which she is not accustomed. In the introduction, Barbara had laid out her careful, well-reasoned plan for how she would go about her experiment. But the scientific spirit she had embraced now finds itself clashing with the harsh realities of actually living out this job and this economic level of society. The acute stress of the job has prevented Barbara from acting rationally, instead forcing her to give in to her feelings of helplessness. In addition, Barbara seems to see this failure not just as one of science but as a failure of her own character, or her ability to face difficulty and to see it through. Confronted with the facts of her reactions, and with a great sense of shame, Barbara has to reconsider the proper or even possible attitude that one can have in such a situation.

Chapter 2 Quotes

The hands-and-knees approach is a definite selling point for corporate cleaning services like The Maids. […] A mop and a full bucket of hot soapy water would not only get a floor cleaner but would be a lot more dignified for the person who does the cleaning. But it is this primal posture of submission—and of what is ultimately anal accessibility—that seems to gratify the consumers of maid services.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

It is a 95-degree day as Barbara participates in the cleaning of Mrs. W's house, and as she moves, sweating, from room to room, she muses on the nature of the task at hand, and the disconnect between the service she is really supposed to provide—a cleaned home—and the rhetoric and appearances around the job. By getting on her "hands and knees," Barbara is supposed to show just how hard she is working: the management of The Maids therefore can "prove" to their customers that the money they spend is worth it for the labor they get in return. 

Barbara recognizes that the posture is much more about symbolism than about competence: she could clean the floor much better with a soapy mop standing up, but she realizes that the hands-and-knees approach is not about providing as good a service as possible. Instead, it places the employees in a position of subordination, echoing the hierarchical relationship between customer and employee by the very space that each takes up, one standing over the other bent over. The posture is not just painful but also lacks dignity, Barbara shows, serving only the purpose of gratifying both management and customer.

So ours is a world of pain—managed by Excedrin and Advil, compensated for with cigarettes and, in one or two cases and then only on weekends, with booze. Do the owners have any idea of the misery that goes into rendering their homes motel-perfect? Would they be bothered if they did know, or would they take a sadistic pride in what they have purchased—boasting to dinner guests, for example, that their floors are cleaned only with the purest of fresh human tears?

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara has been congratulating herself on her ability to keep up with women who are often much younger than her. However, she recognizes that the main quality they do share is their various physical ailments and the ways they find to treat and medicate them. Barbara's interest in work throughout the book is, in this section, described explicitly in terms of physical labor, the aches and pains that such work can wreak on the body. Such pains cannot be done away with for her coworkers, who can't afford real treatment nor the time to rest, but can only be "managed" by medication, cigarettes, or alcohol.

Barbara once again ponders the relationship between such pain and the customers that are the indirect cause of these troubles—a relationship that so often remains theoretical, since each group can seem abstract to the other. Barbara seems undecided as to whether the customers' knowledge of that suffering would really horrify them, or whether they would take it in stride. She certainly uses hyperbole in imagining the homeowners bragging to their dinner guess about the "fresh human tears" that result in their gleaming floors, but the exaggeration is meant to underline the disconnect between the painful reality of the workers and the sparkling result that is all that the wealthy customers notice.

I am wondering what the two-job way of life would do to a person after a few months with zero days off. In my writing life I normally work seven days a week, but writing is ego food, totally self-supervised and intermittently productive of praise. Here, no one will notice my heroism on that Saturday’s shift. (I will later make a point of telling Linda about it and receive only a distracted nod.) If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in?

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara has just finished her shift at Woodcrest, which was more stressful than usual, and has gone to a state park to rest and to think over her past few weeks working two jobs, with no days off. Once again, Barbara brings up the topic of validation and recognition for one's work. This is something that she is used to having regularly as a result of working as a writer, since her work is published and responded to by many. It is this kind of validation that gives her the strength and motivation to work hard and to refrain from becoming exhausted or disillusioned. Such positivity is entirely absent in Barbara's work as a maid and as an aide at a home for Alzheimer's patients. Even when she seeks out praise, it is barely given to her. 

Barbara has previously discussed the physical and bodily harm that can stem from grueling menial labor. Here, she wonders about other kinds of harm—emotional, even spiritual—that can stem from such jobs, with no rest or days off to break up the monotony and recover.

“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 tot ake a day off now and then…if I had to…and still be able to buy groceries the next day.”

Related Characters: Colleen (speaker)
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of her time with The Maids, as she does at each place where she works, Barbara shares with a few of her coworkers that she is actually a reporter and has been investigating working conditions at places like The Maids. She asks Lori and Colleen what they think about the owners of the houses that they clean. While Lori says she's inspired to get to the level of these owners, Colleen has a different reaction. She is not envious of the wealthy customers, nor angry about the obvious disparity between her wealth and theirs. Instead, her goals are more limited, confined to the level of her own expectations. Colleen doesn't expect or hope for an entirely new way of life, but rather wistfully imagines a world in which she could work hard but also take days off, without that decision affecting her very ability to eat and to feed those she supports. In essence, what she expresses to Barbara is a desire to find a way out of the precariousness that characterizes the lives of so many of the working poor.

Chapter 3 Quotes

There’s no intermediate point in the process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitled to cut her own deal. The intercalation of the drug test between application and hiring tilts the playing field even further, establishing that you, and not the employer, are the one who has something to prove. Even in the tightest labor market—and it doesn’t get any tighter than Minneapolis, where I would probably have been welcome to apply at any commercial establishment I entered—the person who has precious labor to sell can be made to feel one down, way down, like a supplicant with her hand stretched out.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Related Symbols: Drug Tests
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara has gone through the job application process at two places, Menards and Wal-Mart, and now she realizes that she's technically been hired at both, almost without realizing it, and without the chance to negotiate her salary or work hours. Barbara argues that corporations string potential employees along, making them feel like contingent, replaceable figures, until they can benevolently extend a job offer that one can only gratefully accept. Drug tests, for Barbara, are a clear example of how corporations subject individuals to embarrassing, undignified procedures in order to underline the true balance of power between them.

By describing her experience in a place like Minneapolis, which at the time Barbara was there was in great need of labor, Barbara argues that it's impossible to explain this hierarchical process as a result of high supply and low demand. Instead, she claims, the purpose of such processes is to put the potential employee in his or her "proper place." Part of the motivation for this might stem from the need to keep workers feeling lucky to have a job and less likely to pose problems or leave for another place. In addition, Barbara believes that another result is to cut off the possibility for salary negotiation, so that companies can get away with paying their employees as little as possible. 

Evaluation Quotes

The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly “unskilled.”

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

As Barbara looks back over what her experience as part of the working poor has taught her, she first draws several conclusions on the personal level before going on to make broader, more sociological claims. Here she echoes something that she had mentioned at the beginning of the book, when friends had asked if people could "tell" that Barbara was undercover. That attitude presumes, she had claimed, that the relatively educated and wealthy are smarter and more clever than others, mapping onto the distinction often made between "skilled" and "unskilled" labor.

Barbara concludes from her time at the various low-paying jobs that this distinction doesn't mean much. A job may be paid little and may have little dignity or prestige associated with it, but it involves its own challenges and its own skill set. Indeed, at several points in the book, Barbara had grown frustrated at her inability to keep up with others, such as at the moment when she quit Hearthside. It is easy, she shows, for more educated people to consider that they earn what they should relative to the skills they provide, which implies that those who aren't earning as much simply have less valuable skills. Barbara is seeking to challenge such an attitude.

My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers—the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being “reamed out” by managers—are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you’re actually worth.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Related Symbols: Drug Tests
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Barbara explicitly identifies a number of the procedures that work to keep low-wage workers "in their place." She calls them "indignities," but they are just a synonym for what earlier has been labeled infringement on civil liberties. For Barbara, the economics of the working poor are not to be isolated from the social and ideological elements of their lives. Indeed, she argues that the shame workers are made to feel, the degrading nature of the procedures to which they are subjected, are directly tied to the absurdly low wages that they are paid. Indeed, as she has argued elsewhere, it is in companies' interest to prevent their workers from considering themselves as worthy of a higher wage, so it is also in their interests to make employees feel as unworthy as possible.

These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment. They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations. And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans—as a state of emergency.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

At an earlier moment, Barbara had sought to challenge the notion that there are "secret economies" on which the poor draw—economies that the non-poor assume somehow exist, but in reality are entirely absent. Here, she once again challenges the idea that poverty is difficult and unpleasant but ultimately sustainable. She has witnessed first-hand physical and medical distress stemming from labor, such as Holly's dizziness or coworkers who have been forced to live in a van when not at their jobs. 

Indeed, Barbara argues that if we consider poverty merely as a difficulty like any others, we fail to realize that the situations of many low-wage workers are emergency situations. That they go on for so long, she shows, does not make them any less of an emergency. By employing the term "state of emergency," Barbara places poverty on the same level as a natural disaster or war. By doing so she makes a powerful case for the significance of the working poor and their experiences as a battle to be waged in another way than through military means.

The “working poor,” as they are appropriately termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

As she concludes the book, Barbara introduces another new term that, like "state of emergency," is meant to shock her readers into understanding and ultimately inspire them to take action against the status quo. We are used to thinking of philanthropists as wealthy individuals who give out of charity and generosity to people like the working poor. Here, Barbara argues that often the opposite is the case: that the working poor are the true philanthropists. She had seen this reality most explicitly while working at The Maids, during which she saw how grueling, exhausting labor worked to keep the homes of the wealthy spotless while actively denying the human labor that went into that process. 

Barbara broadens that example to make a point about low-wage labor in general. In order for wealth to exist elsewhere, in order for the economy to be apparently thriving and growing, a substantial part of the population must sacrifice its own security and standards. Barbara thus argues that the experiences of the working poor are not an aberration from society, but a necessary part of how society functions: any solution, therefore, will have to take into account this relationship.