Nickel and Dimed

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The Economics of Poverty Theme Analysis

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The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon

When Barbara Ehrenreich set out to write the book that would become Nickel and Dimed, her stated goal was pretty straightforward: to see if she could pay for rent, food, and other bills as a low-wage worker. As Barbara came to learn, and explains throughout her book, such a goal is far from simple. Barbara reveals the complications that arise from trying to survive on a minimum-age job—complications often hidden to those who aren’t working as low-wage workers—to make the case that such labor is ultimately unsustainable. One major economic lesson from this experiment is how wildly inefficient living and working in poverty can become. Without savings, Barbara cannot afford the deposit for an apartment, and so ends up having to pay far more for a motel room—a situation that, she learns, is far from uncommon. Without a full kitchen, she cannot cook and freeze large quantities of food, and so ends up having to eat both more expensively and very unhealthily at fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. Even organizations meant to assist low-wage workers only complicate things even more: food banks are often only open 9-5, when most people are at work, and the food they offer is similarly made up of unhealthy, empty calories.

Without savings to rely on, and often without financial help from parents or other family members, low-wage workers are in a constant state of emergency. One illness or other unforeseen event can mean that they are immediately facing destitution. It doesn’t help that companies often withhold the first week’s payment, which means both that a low-wage worker will be desperate even while working, and that changing jobs is far less easy or attractive than one might assume. In addition to drawing on these examples, Barbara constantly refers to prices, costs, and calculations in her own experiment. Work is not a way out of poverty, she argues, but rather a physically and emotionally damaging state in which the economic laws of supply and demand often simply don’t apply. She thus seeks to prove that low-wage workers are forced to fight an uphill, or even impossible, battle: that their problems stem not from individual weaknesses or laziness but from entrenched structural issues that make working your way out of poverty excruciatingly difficult.

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The Economics of Poverty ThemeTracker

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The Economics of Poverty Quotes in Nickel and Dimed

Below you will find the important quotes in Nickel and Dimed related to the theme of The Economics of Poverty.
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

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.

Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

“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

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.

But now I know something else. In orientation, we learned that the store’s success depends entirely on us, the associate; in fact, our bright blue vests bear the statement “At Wal-Mart, our people make the difference.” Underneath those vests, though, there are real-life charity cases, maybe even shelter dwellers.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara is driving back from the Community Emergency Assistance Program, where a woman has given her non-perishable and other food items that will be able to fit in the hotel room where she is now living. Barbara is thinking over what the woman admitted to her: that she had mixed Barbara up with another employee from Wal-Mart who had come in a few days earlier. Barbara has proof, then, that she is not alone in struggling to make ends meet even with a full-time job. And she recognizes that the bright blue vests that all Wal-Mart employees wear unite them outside the workplace as well, as emblematic members of the working poor.

For Barbara, these vests are also a cruel reminder of the gap between the cheery, employee-first language that Wal-Mart strikes as a corporation, and the reality of those individual employees. Wal-Mart may claim that their employees "make the difference," but ultimately they are not interested in what it takes for the employees to arrive at work each day and even to achieve the basic necessities of food and shelter. Barbara's point is that the blue vests create an abstract, homogeneous group of "employees" that denies the lived experience of each one.

Alyssa looks crushed, and I tell her, when Howard’s out of sight, that there’s something wrong when you’re not paid enough to buy a Wal-Mart shirt, a clearanced Wal-Mart shirt with a stain on it.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker), Howard, Alyssa
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

Alyssa has been paying close attention to a clearanced seven-dollar polo shirt, and has found a stain on it. As she tries to ask the fitting-room lady to lower the cost for her, the manager Howard appears and says that there is no employee discount on clearanced items. Alyssa is frustrated and upset, and Barbara's words are meant less to cheer her up than to confirm her frustration with the unfairness. At the very least, Barbara claims, Wal-Mart employees should be able to afford the items that they sell, especially when Wal-Mart champions its reasonable prices. In addition, Howard seems far more concerned with keeping a hawkish eye on his employees, preventing them from straying at all from the company regulations, than with the potential contradiction with which Alyssa is faced—that of struggling to afford a shirt that would most likely just be used as part of her uniform.

Evaluation Quotes

Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara goes back through her budget for each of the places she lived, asking herself how she could have made better choices or been more strategic in order to create a more sustainable lifestyle. However, she concludes that few of those mistakes ultimately made a difference. Instead, what remains striking to her is how precarious her life was in each of these places, despite the fact that she is healthy and mobile, with a car that has allowed her to seek a much greater variety of jobs. 

Barbara had gone into this project at the historical moment of welfare reform, which was characterized in part by the assumption that incentivizing people to work would reduce poverty. Here Barbara argues that this assumption was flawed, because even working difficult and strenuous jobs has not been enough for her to support herself. With low-paying jobs as the only avenue for the working poor to ensure the basic necessities of food and shelter, the disconnect between rent prices and the wages that such jobs pay is unsustainable.

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.

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.