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.
Labor Quotes in Nickel and Dimed
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.
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.
There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs.
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..
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.
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?
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?
“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.”
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.
The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly “unskilled.”
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.
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.
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.