Nickel and Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich Character Analysis

The narrator and protagonist of the book, Barbara Ehrenreich is a middle-aged writer and journalist from Key West, Florida. Relatively well-off, though from a family of humble beginnings, she often uses her personal experience to compare and contrast with life as a low-wage worker. Barbara is energetic, funny, and wry: she often deals with the difficulties of her experiment by joking with others or using dry humor in the text. Barbara is an activist, clearly left-wing and firmly on the side of low-wage workers. She takes a dim view of corporate power—and also often uses her ironic humor to critique the self-centeredness and greed of upper-class people, even while acknowledging that she herself can be considered one of them.

Barbara Ehrenreich Quotes in Nickel and Dimed

The Nickel and Dimed quotes below are all either spoken by Barbara Ehrenreich or refer to Barbara Ehrenreich. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Henry Holt & Company edition of Nickel and Dimed published in 2008.
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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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Barbara Ehrenreich Character Timeline in Nickel and Dimed

The timeline below shows where the character Barbara Ehrenreich appears in Nickel and Dimed. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Introduction: Getting Ready
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Barbara Ehrenreich tells the reader how the idea for this book came about: at a lunch... (full context)
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Labor Theme Icon
Barbara comes from a family familiar with low-wage work: her father and other relatives were miners,... (full context)
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
In addition, Barbara knows she could already figure out the numbers herself, paying herself an entry-level wage and... (full context)
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Barbara ultimately decided to think of the task as a scientist—in fact, she has a Ph.D.... (full context)
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Barbara would describe herself as a divorced homemaker reentering the workforce after a long break. She... (full context)
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Labor Theme Icon
Barbara is quick to say that she is in a comfortable financial position and could certainly... (full context)
Labor Theme Icon
Shame and Solidarity Theme Icon
During her jobs, Barbara talked about her real-life husband and relationships. People later asked her whether her co-workers couldn’t... (full context)
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Labor Theme Icon
While Barbara notes that her story is far from a typical case, she claims that it is... (full context)
Chapter 1: Serving in Florida
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Barbara begins her project near her real home, in Key West, Florida. She first attempts to... (full context)
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Shame and Solidarity Theme Icon
Barbara admits Key West is expensive, but notes that like New York City, the Bay Area,... (full context)
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon
Barbara looks through want ads, hoping to avoid certain jobs, like waitressing, because she remembers how... (full context)
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Barbara is told to go to a doctor’s office the next day for a urine test:... (full context)
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At one hotel, Barbara notices that the housekeepers look like her, “faded ex-hippie types” with long hair in braids.... (full context)
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No one calls Barbara back for three days, and she realizes that the want ads do not necessarily mean... (full context)
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Barbara works there for two weeks from 2pm until 10pm for $2.43 an hour plus tips... (full context)
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When Barbara arrives, a red-faced, long-haired man is throwing frozen steaks against the wall and cursing: the... (full context)
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As she learns about the job, Barbara no longer fears being overqualified—instead, she misses being simply competent. While she understands the procedural... (full context)
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Barbara is surprised to realize how much she cares about doing good work—a philosophy given to... (full context)
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Barbara and other servers are indulgent to customers, often sneaking on a higher amount of croutons... (full context)
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Ten days in, it seems like a livable lifestyle. Barbara likes Gail and Lionel, the teenaged busboy from Haiti, as well as the older Haitian... (full context)
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...theoretical entity which is based far away. Managers try to prevent any downtime, meaning that Barbara drags out little chores so as not to be exhausted during slow periods. On one... (full context)
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...new hires will be tested, and current employees could be subject to random drug tests. Barbara finds herself blushing: she hasn’t been treated with such suspicion and felt so ashamed since... (full context)
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...gossip that Stu, who has been in a worse mood than usual, is to blame. Barbara is ready not to trust him, since he doesn’t seem to have a clear role... (full context)
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Housing is the top source of difficulty in most of her coworkers’ lives. Barbara learns that Gail is sharing a room in a flophouse (a cheap boarding house) for... (full context)
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For Barbara, some of these living arrangements don’t seem to make sense. Gail tells her she is... (full context)
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There are no secret economies or tricks for the poor, Barbara realizes: if you can’t afford a deposit, you end up spending far more for a... (full context)
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Barbara’s tips usually cover her meals and gas, with a little bit left over. But as... (full context)
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Barbara starts making the rounds again at hotels. Almost all the working housekeepers she sees are... (full context)
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...to dishwashers. Often customers come fifty at a time from their tour buses. Rarely does Barbara have time for conversation with fellow servers or customers. (full context)
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For two days, Barbara manages to work both the breakfast/lunch shift at Jerry’s and the later shift at the... (full context)
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Barbara finds she can only survive at Jerry’s by treating each shift as a one-time-only emergency.... (full context)
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Barbara does take breaks sometimes, but increasingly her old life seems strange and distant, her emails... (full context)
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...at Jerry’s, except for the manager, Joy, whose moods vary wildly within a shift. On Barbara’s third night, Joy pulls Barbara aside abruptly only to tell her she’s doing fine, except... (full context)
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Barbara makes friends with the other “girls” on her shift, including the fiftyish Lucy, who limps... (full context)
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Barbara’s favorite is George, the 19-year-old Czech dishwasher who has been in the States for one... (full context)
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Barbara decides to move closer to Key West, because gas is costing $4-5 per day, and... (full context)
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...a working husband or boyfriend seems to have a second job, from telemarketing to welding. Barbara thinks she can get a second job if she doesn’t have a forty-five minute commute,... (full context)
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Barbara wishes she could say she stood up to Vic and insisted George be given a... (full context)
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Barbara isn’t to find out, since near the end of the month she finally lands a... (full context)
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On this first day, Carlotta or “Carlie” and Barbara move through nineteen “checkouts” (rather than “stay-overs”), which require more work. They work four hours... (full context)
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All Barbara learns about Carlie is how much she is in pain, making her move slowly—while the... (full context)
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Barbara asks to leave at about 3:30, and another housekeeper warns her that no one has... (full context)
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At Jerry’s, George is distraught. Barbara resolves to give him all her tips that night. She takes a short break for... (full context)
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Barbara simply walks out, without finishing her work or picking up her tips. She is almost... (full context)
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Barbara moves out of the trailer park and gives her keys to Gail. Gail tells her... (full context)
Chapter 2: Scrubbing in Maine
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Barbara chooses Maine because of how white it is—from college students and professors to the hotel... (full context)
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On August 24th, Barbara arrives at the Portland bus station and takes a cab to the Motel 6 where... (full context)
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Barbara has arrived with a laptop and suitcase with some clothes, a tote bag with books,... (full context)
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Barbara reasons that it should feel exhilarating to blow off all old relationships and routines and... (full context)
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Barbara goes to check out a room share instead, for $65 per week. The landlord shows... (full context)
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Barbara decides to forgo the room share, and visits the SeaBreeze motel, but at $150 a... (full context)
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Barbara now knows to apply for as many jobs as possible. She’s ready to move on... (full context)
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...flustered since, as she explains, she just works there and she’s never interviewed anyone before. Barbara fills out a four-page “opinion survey” with, apparently, no right or wrong answers. The form... (full context)
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At a housecleaning service called The Maids, Barbara is given the “Accutrac personality test,” which warns at the beginning that there are multiple... (full context)
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Barbara is surprised to learn from her job hunt that Portland, despite its labor shortage, is... (full context)
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After two days of job applications, Barbara sits and waits in her small, dingy Motel 6 room (she can’t move into the... (full context)
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The next day Barbara wakes up early to be at the Woodcrest Residential Facility (also a made-up name) by... (full context)
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As a former waitress, Barbara finds this work relatively simple, rushing around pouring decaf-only coffee and taking “orders.” The fact... (full context)
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...meal, before bending down to the floor with the full rack of 15-20 pounds. Though Barbara is used to washing dishes at home, it’s a struggle to make sure there’s always... (full context)
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Barbara chats with Pete, one of the cooks, during the midmorning break. She’d like him to... (full context)
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Pete continues asking Barbara questions, and she feels awkwardly that Pete might be treating this as a date. He... (full context)
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At lunch, Barbara is surprised to find that many residents seem to recognize her and are happy to... (full context)
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That night, Saturday, is Barbara’s last at the Motel 6, and she decides to try to see what there is... (full context)
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Barbara thinks it would be nice if the preachers mentioned income inequality and Jesus’s precocious socialism,... (full context)
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On Sunday Barbara moves into the Blue Haven, though it’s smaller than she remembered, with the toilet less... (full context)
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Barbara arrives at The Maids’ office on Monday morning at 7:30, knowing little about the cleaning... (full context)
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...by The Maids. The average age is the mid-twenties, and all but one is female. Barbara and the other new girl sit and wait while the teams are dispatched to the... (full context)
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Barbara is led into a tiny room to watch a videotape of the company’s method of... (full context)
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...When strapped in, the video seems to say, the maid will become a vacuum cleaner. Barbara is exhausted by this video and by the sterile, impersonal model home and model maid. (full context)
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Barbara realizes that there is no water involved, unlike the methods taught to her by her... (full context)
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On her first day, Barbara realizes the video had been in slow motion—the team races to the car and from... (full context)
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...fruit, while the younger ones tend to eat pizza or a small bag of chips. Barbara recalls a poster showing the number of calories burned per minute for each task—on average,... (full context)
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Barbara doesn’t want to ask straight out about her coworkers’ economic situations, so she listens. Eventually... (full context)
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On Barbara’s first Friday, it’s 95 degrees, and she’s teamed with Rosalie and their leader, Maddy, who’s... (full context)
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In this case, Barbara is grateful for The Maids’ special system, since it means she only needs to move... (full context)
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Next, Maddy assigns Barbara to clean the kitchen floor, following The Maids’ corporate “hands-and-knees” approach. It’s a selling point,... (full context)
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At the end of the day, Barbara rushes home and congratulates herself on her first successful week, accomplished without a breakdown. Still,... (full context)
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Soon, though, Barbara starts to suffer from a skin disease. At first she thinks it’s poison ivy from... (full context)
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Barbara, Rosalie, and Maddy fantasize one day in the car about full water immersion after cleaning... (full context)
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Barbara has been proud of how she’s kept up with women twenty or thirty years younger.... (full context)
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...walls of the shower stall, which she says have been “bleeding” onto the brass fixtures. Barbara wants to say that it’s not her marble bleeding but rather the working class, which... (full context)
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For instance, Barbara is shocked the first time she encounters a shit-stained toilet. There are several kinds of... (full context)
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Barbara isn’t interested in decorating and lacks the vocabulary to describe in detail all the intricate... (full context)
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...a quarter to a third of the houses seem middle-class rather than rich. However, once Barbara asks her team leader, Holly, if the next house is “wealthy,” and Holly responds says... (full context)
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In late September, Barbara starts being assigned to Holly’s team day after day. This is a serious team, and... (full context)
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One day Holly admits that she’s a little nauseous, but refuses to say any more. Barbara suggests Holly refrain from vacuuming, but Holly refuses. When Barbara finishes her task, she rushes... (full context)
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They take a cigarette break, and Barbara muses that she has to get over her “savior complex,” her desire to save the... (full context)
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At the next house, the liquid around Barbara’s toilet brush spills out on her foot. In normal life, she would take off the... (full context)
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Barbara also has problems of her own: money issues. She didn’t get a check her first... (full context)
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...help for the working poor exists, it takes determination and, ironically, resources to find it. Barbara calls the Prebles Street Resource Center one evening after work and learns that it closes... (full context)
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So Gloria connects Barbara to Karen, who finally tells her she can pick up a food voucher at a... (full context)
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After picking up the food, Barbara calculates that she’s acquired $7.02 worth of food in 70 minutes of calling and driving,... (full context)
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At the Woodcrest on weekends, Barbara tries to forget, like the residents, about the functioning people they used to be, and... (full context)
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One Saturday, though, Barbara arrives to find that the other dietary aide has failed to show up and she’ll... (full context)
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After work Barbara visits the state park, and wonders what a few months with zero days off would... (full context)
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Barbara starts her third week at The Maids committed to staying detached, like the others seem... (full context)
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As Barbara scrubs and Windexes, she tries to cobble together a philosophy of nonattachment, melding a socialist... (full context)
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Only a day later, Barbara’s mood of detachment is shattered when Barbara cleans the home of an actual Buddhist, with... (full context)
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On the ride back, Barbara imagines the rousing argument against human indignity she’ll give when Ted fires her for insubordination.... (full context)
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Ted doesn’t fire Barbara—he says he’s sent Holly home, but that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to... (full context)
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Barbara wonders why anyone puts up with this job when there are so many others. But... (full context)
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Barbara wonders if Ted’s approval means so much because of the chronic deprivation and lack of... (full context)
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Low-wage work may have the general effect of making one feel like an outcast, Barbara thinks. On TV, nearly everyone makes $15 an hour or more, and all the shows... (full context)
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On Barbara’s last afternoon on the job, she tries to explain what she’s been doing to the... (full context)
Chapter 3: Selling in Minnesota
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From the sky Minnesota looks lush and picturesque. Barbara isn’t sure why she chose Minneapolis as her next destination: she knows Minnesota is a... (full context)
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Barbara gets a $10 map of the Twin Cities at the airport and picks up her... (full context)
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The next morning, Barbara starts her job search, this time looking for a change to retail or factory work.... (full context)
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After going through the questionable answers, Roberta introduces Barbara to Sam Walton’s personal philosophy—service, excellence, and something else Roberta can’t remember. Barbara expresses wholehearted... (full context)
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So Barbara goes back to the help-wanted ads, and heads to an interview for an assembly job... (full context)
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After a full day of job searching, Barbara is feeling worn down from having to lie throughout the personality tests—she wouldn’t snitch on... (full context)
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On Saturday Barbara also goes through all the apartment agencies, and comes up only with 12-month leases and... (full context)
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...with her family in a three-bedroom for $825 a month, which doesn’t seem bad to Barbara, though the block is full of drug dealers and the dining room ceiling leaks. But... (full context)
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Caroline is a real-life version of Barbara’s experiment: she’d been working in New Jersey when she left a difficult home situation and... (full context)
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When Barbara leaves to go, Caroline comes back with a family-sized container of homemade stew. Caroline truly... (full context)
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On Monday, drug test day, Barbara goes to a chiropractor’s office for the Wal-Mart test. She is sent into a regular... (full context)
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Barbara continues applying for jobs, since she doesn’t yet know the drug tests results. She applies... (full context)
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...the vacancy rate is apparently less than 1 percent, and even lower for “affordable” housing. Barbara is only now realizing how vast Minneapolis is, and that her two job possibilities are... (full context)
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The rental agents that Barbara does reach recommend finding a weekly motel until something opens up. But the lowest is... (full context)
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On the job front, though, Barbara is told to show up for orientation at Menards on Wednesday morning. A blonde in... (full context)
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Barbara meets her supervisor in plumbing, Steve, who’s nice, though she realizes the shelves contain no... (full context)
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Though Barbara doesn’t need the Wal-Mart job now, Roberta calls her telling her to come the next... (full context)
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The Wal-Mart orientation, which Barbara believes is unrivaled in grandeur and intimidation, is supposed to take 8 hours. They begin... (full context)
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Barbara drinks a caffeinated coffee—rare for her—and finds herself wired for the next steps: creating name... (full context)
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...gone haywire and refuses to return to his cage. Small things have been going wrong: Barbara had to spend $11 to replace her watch battery, three wash cycles ($3.75) to get... (full context)
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Barbara now realizes that she’s employed at both places, but the endless orientation at Wal-Marts has... (full context)
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Barbara wonders why she hadn’t bargained with Roberta about the wages. She realizes that employers are... (full context)
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On Saturday, Barbara packs up and heads to the Twin Lakes, where she finds that the room she’d... (full context)
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...There’s a stench of mold when the wife of the young East Indian owner shows Barbara in. She switches to another room with a bed, chair, drawers, and a TV fastened... (full context)
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Without a bolt, shades, or screens, Barbara feels vulnerable and is afraid to sleep. She dozes on and off, realizing at one... (full context)
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That Monday, Barbara arrives to Wal-Mart and is directed to ladies’ wear. Ellie, a manager, sets her to... (full context)
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...the “returns” and the items scattered and dropped by customers. For the first few days, Barbara struggles to memorize the one thousand-square-foot layout, from the “woman” sizes through the Kathie Lee... (full context)
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Barbara feels resentful and somewhat contemptuous the first few days: nothing’s very urgent, and no one... (full context)
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...customers shop with shopping carts filled to the brim, often leaving about 90 percent rejected. Barbara and Melissa measure their workload in “carts.” It takes her 45 minutes to return the... (full context)
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Barbara likes Ellie, who’s polite and demure, though she doesn’t like the assistant manager, Howard, who... (full context)
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When Barbara arrives at the Clearview, the sewage has been backed up in her room and is... (full context)
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...Alyssa, another new orientee, had asked whether a clearanced $7 polo shirt might fall further. Barbara hadn’t recalled that polos, not t-shirts, are required for employees, but at $7 an hour... (full context)
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That evening, Barbara scopes out the low-priced food options in Clearview—only a Chinese buffet or Kentucky Fried Chicken.... (full context)
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Barbara notices that there’s only one bed for the two African American men who live next... (full context)
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The next morning, Barbara buys hard-boiled eggs at a convenience store and takes out the trash. The owner’s wife... (full context)
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The next morning, Barbara tries to spruce herself up: she doesn’t want to look homeless, though she essentially is.... (full context)
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That day, though, Barbara arrives with bounce in her step to Wal-Mart, trying to think positively. She’d told Melissa... (full context)
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In Barbara’s second week, her shift changes from 10-6 to 2-11, so an extra half hour and... (full context)
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For the first half of the shift, Barbara manages to be helpful and cheery. But at 6 or 7, she starts to detest... (full context)
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One evening, Barbara is exhausted when she returns from her last break to find a new employee folding... (full context)
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The day Barbara moves to the Hopkins Park Plaza, there’s a new woman there, who says Barbara misunderstood... (full context)
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In the long run, Barbara knows things will work out if she devotes her mornings to job hunting while waiting... (full context)
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Barbara calls Caroline for any insights, and Caroline invites Barbara to move in with her family.... (full context)
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When Barbara moves into the Comfort Inn, she thinks it’ll only be for a night or two,... (full context)
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Though Barbara never finds an apartment, her last attempt is to call the United Way of Minneapolis,... (full context)
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...soap, lots of candy and cookies, and a one-pound can of ham. The woman mixes Barbara up several times with someone else who worked at Wal-Mart who came in a few... (full context)
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Now, at the Comfort Inn, Barbara lives surreally in a business traveler’s room before going out to her shabby “real” life.... (full context)
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Barbara has to wonder why anyone puts up with the wages they’re paid. Most of her... (full context)
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Barbara asks Isabelle how she can afford to live on $7 an hour, and she says... (full context)
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...days later, Melissa is assigned to bras, a new section for her. She confides to Barbara that she doesn’t like taking too long with a new task and wasting the company’s... (full context)
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...room lady when Howard appears and says there are no employee discounts on clearance items. Barbara says to Alyssa later that it can’t be right when Wal-Mart employees can’t afford to... (full context)
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At an employee meeting, Barbara is listening to another associate complain about how bad a deal the company health insurance... (full context)
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Though Barbara thinks any union could help somewhat, she doesn’t believe that unions are a cure-all. She... (full context)
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...then something does happen: 1,450 unionized hotel workers strike at nine local hotels. That day, Barbara is supposed to call two lesser-priced motels as possible options for her to move to... (full context)
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That evening, Barbara tells Melissa she’ll be quitting soon, and Melissa says she might do so too—Barbara knows... (full context)
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At Barbara’s last break, she and one other woman are watching TV in the break room when... (full context)
Evaluation
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All Barbara’s jobs were physically demanding, even physically damaging, in the long-term, and she feels proud of... (full context)
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...welfare recipients just need to get one in order to stay on their feet. To Barbara, her experience proves this is not the case. She spent no money on flashy clothes... (full context)
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However, in Key West, Barbara earned $1,039 in one month and spent $517 on food, gas, toiletries, laundry, phone, and... (full context)
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Barbara was most successful in Portland, though only from working seven days a week. She earned... (full context)
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In Minneapolis, the only way Barbara can imagine having succeeded is if she had found a $400 a month apartment or... (full context)
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Rents are too high and wages too low, Barbara concludes. With the rising numbers of the wealthy, the poor have been forced into more... (full context)
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The official poverty rate has remained low for the past several years, but only, Barbara argues, because the poverty level is calculated based on the cost of food. But food... (full context)
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While rents are sensitive to market forces, wages aren’t. Every city Barbara worked in was experiencing a “labor shortage,” yet wages at the low end of the... (full context)
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Barbara asks why workers don’t demand higher wages themselves. She was initially surprised that people didn’t... (full context)
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...people don’t demand better wages and conditions where they are is a huge one, but Barbara weighs in with her experience of the power of management in getting workers to feel... (full context)
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Barbara was also shocked at how low-wage workers are made to surrender their basic civil rights:... (full context)
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Barbara came across very few slackers, and in fact recognized that workers often consider management as... (full context)
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Barbara claims that this cycle supports a culture of extreme inequality, in which corporate actors are... (full context)
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A “living wage,” according the Economic Policy Institute that Barbara cites, is on average $30,000 a year for a family of one adult and two... (full context)
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The non-poor often think of poverty as difficult but sustainable, but Barbara shows it is a situation of acute distress—a lunch of potato chips leading to dizziness,... (full context)
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In the summer of 2000, Barbara returns to her “real life,” eating at restaurants, sleeping in hotel rooms cleaned by someone... (full context)
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...as tied to unemployment, which means there needs to be an increase in jobs, but Barbara shows that the problem goes deeper when there is nearly full employment. The welfare poor,... (full context)
Afterword: Nickel and Dimed
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While Barbara wrote this book in a moment of prosperity and growth, it was published in 2001... (full context)
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If Barbara had to account for the book’s success among middle-class people, she’d say that they can... (full context)
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Seven years later, Barbara’s question is whether things have improved or worsened for people like those in the book.... (full context)
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As she’s traveled around lecturing, Barbara has tried to show that you don’t have to go far to find the working... (full context)
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To answer readers’ questions of “What can I do?” Barbara suggests joining a community living wage campaign, volunteering for a shelter or food bank, or... (full context)