Nickel and Dimed

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The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Labor Theme Icon
Shame and Solidarity Theme Icon
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon
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Shame and Solidarity Theme Icon

Compounding the taxing nature of their work, low-wage laborers are often forced to feel like low-class citizens both by their employers and by society at large. Though Barbara is only temporarily inhabiting this world, she too is unable to escape the sense of shame she comes to feel from the way she is treated as a low-wage laborer. This is especially the case for occupations in which the economic gap between employers and employees is highly visible, such as housekeeping. Barbara describes how demeaning it feels to be scrutinized by a homeowner while scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees. At these homes as well as at places like Wal-Mart, videocameras and other tools—including the ubiquitous drug test—serve as means of surveillance, making workers feel that they are under constant suspicion and are not to be trusted.

In a broader sense, Barbara shows how low-wage workers are made to feel both invisible and unwanted, a shameful underclass, by the rest of society—even as society is in vital need of their labor. Customers at restaurants pay little attention to the fact that their waiters and waitresses are overworked and underpaid, failing to tip and making unreasonable demands. Barbara also seeks to disprove the kind of worldview that understands poverty as the fault of the poor. She shows, for instance, how difficult it is to eat healthfully while poor, even as many look disapprovingly on the obesity of the working poor.

Partly as a result of this shame, Barbara shows, low-wage workers often band together and support each other. Barbara’s coworkers cover each other for bathroom breaks, offer each other a place to stay, and swap tips for how to deal with chronic pain stemming from their jobs without health insurance. These kinds of relationships reveal a solidarity that helps to combat the social and personal disapproval placed on such workers from outside.

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Shame and Solidarity Quotes in Nickel and Dimed

Below you will find the important quotes in Nickel and Dimed related to the theme of Shame and Solidarity.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

What these tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine, since the “right” answers should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of hierarchy and subordination.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara has gone to a job fair put on by Wal-Mart, where she is handed an opinion survey. She's told that there are no wrong or right answers: she just has to state how much she agrees with certain statements, such as the ethics of denouncing a coworker or whether management is to blame when something goes wrong. Barbara immediately sees that the apparent lack of right or wrong answers is a sham—there is clearly only one "right" way to perceive the situations given, at least from the perspective of the potential employer. By hewing closely to the assumptions of "hierarchy and subordination," Barbara can be sure to tell the prospective employers what they want to hear.

As a result, she cannot really understand why such surveys are at all helpful to the employer, since it is so easy to fake a meek and subordinate attitude. As she will conclude at other moments, these kinds of requirements seem more directed towards ensuring that employees know their proper place.

How poor are they, my coworkers? The fact that anyone is working this job at all can be taken as prima facie evidence of some kind of desperation or at least a history of mistakes and disappointments […] Almost everyone is embedded in extended families or families artificially extended with housemates. People talk about visiting grandparents in the hospital or sending birthday cards to a niece’s husband; single mothers live with their own mothers or share apartments with a coworker or boyfriend.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 78-79
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara has begun to notice some signs of acute economic distress among her coworkers: even though they are working a strenuous, labor-intensive job, some of them barely eat lunch. She resolves to stay quiet and listen as much as she can in order to better understand the situation of each one of them. Barbara has already been struck by the grueling, difficult nature of the job and by the relentless corporate-speak of the management, such that she recognizes that this job would not be a first choice for anyone.

However, what Barbara learns here has less to do with her coworkers' view of the job itself than with the ways in which they all, however precariously, are making things work. Each woman relies upon a network of family members, friends, or housemates, even as each often also serves as a support for other people in her own network. There seems to be little space for solitude or independence in their lives, and much of what they discuss here reflects the duties that they have in visiting or taking care of members of their networks. However, there also seems to be an added layer of safety and continuity in the very size and extent of such networks as well.

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.

Yes, I want to help Holly and everyone else in need, on a worldwide basis if possible. I am a “good person,” as my demented charges at the nursing home agree, but maybe I’m also just sick of my suddenly acquired insignificance. Maybe I want to “be somebody,” as Jesse Jackson likes to say, somebody generous, competent, brave, and perhaps, above all, noticeable. Maids, as an occupational group, are not visible, and when we are seen we are often sorry for it.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker), Holly
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara had noticed her coworker Holly feeling faint and nauseous at one of the houses. Holly thinks she is pregnant but doesn't want to tell Ted until she's sure, so that she doesn't risk losing her job. Barbara has convinced Holly to eat one of her sports bars and has taken on some of Holly's responsibilities: she feels strong, in control, and benevolent until she makes a mistake and drops a pan onto a fishbowl in another home. 

Now Barbara wonders whether her desire to "help" Holly is truly motivated by her essential goodness, or whether her desire is more selfish than that. By helping out and "being good," she realizes, she is more likely to be noticed and appreciated by other people. As a maid, she understands, she has entered a group that is not only invisible and unacknowledged but often actively looked down upon. As a result, it becomes more appealing to look for any way to regain some of that social recognition, even in the smallest of ways.

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. 

Today [Melissa] seems embarrassed when she sees me: “I probably shouldn’t have done this and you’re going to think it’s really silly…” but she’s brought me a sandwich for lunch. This is because I’d told her I was living in a motel almost entirely on fast food, and she felt sorry for me. Now I’m embarrassed, and beyond that overwhelmed to discover a covert stream of generosity running counter to the dominant corporate miserliness.

Related Characters: Melissa (speaker), Barbara Ehrenreich
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

Melissa is a coworker of Barbara's who began at Wal-Mart around the same time that Barbara did, and the two have forged a friendship around the hectic, stressful pace of the working day. Part of Barbara's reaction to Melissa's generosity in bringing her a sandwich stems from the embarrassment that comes from knowing that Melissa, unlike her, is probably living in truly precarious conditions. But she is also touched by this action. Barbara has spent much of the book realizing that the corporations for which she works care little about their employees and are eager to wring as much out of them as they can in pursuit of profits above all. But here she recognizes that an alternative economic mindset does exist, one in which a kind and generous act is not considered a liability, even though the working poor are among the least able to afford such generosity.

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.

The money taboo is one thing that employers can always count on. I suspect that this “taboo” operates most effectively among the lowest-paid people, because, in a society that endlessly celebrates its dot-com billionaires and centimillionaire athletes, $7 or even $10 an hour can feel like a mark of innate inferiority.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara attempts to apply the laws of economics to the realities that she's experienced, and identifies several ways in which these laws fail to be confirmed. One is in the assumption that workers are well-informed and well-educated enough to choose rationally between a number of options, such that they are always maximizing their self-interest. Barbara argues that in practice this doesn't happen, in large part because of what other social scientists have labeled the "money taboo." In a society that celebrates wealth but looks down on sharing one's own salary or financial information in public, such a disconnect virtually ensures that low-wage workers keep quiet about their own situations, both out of shame that their wages are so low, and out of a socially prescribed norm that disapproves of their discussing such wages. As a result, companies benefit, since they don't need to keep up with other companies in order to ensure that they have enough employees or are paying reasonable wages.

What surprised and offended me most about the low-wage workplace (and yes, here all my middle-class privilege is on full display) was the extent to which one is required to surrender one’s basic civil rights and—what boils down to the same thing—self-respect.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Related Symbols: Drug Tests
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara asks why, if workers are discouraged from seeking better wages and conditions elsewhere, they don't just simply demand better ones at the places where they do work. She identifies one reason as being the community-oriented corporate rhetoric that attempts to make employees feel like part of a team and invested in the company. Here, she proposes another possibility: the routine interruption of basic civil rights. This takes place, as we have seen, in the process of drug testing, which is embarrassing and degrading, as well as in purse searches and in the constant monitoring by managers, which creates an environment of suspicion. 

Barbara argues that these infringements on civil rights are not just shocking to someone from the (white) middle class who has never had to question her own freedom in a democratic society. In addition, these procedures create a fundamental gap between different socioeconomic levels of society, ensuring that those who make the least are constantly reminded of their proper place and making it difficult for them to ever question this place. Without the self-respect that comes from understanding oneself as a free member of a democracy, it is unlikely for a low-wage worker to consider him- or herself as worthy of better wages or conditions.

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.

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.