Book Notes: Nickels and Dimes


I just finished the book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America“. It was written by Barbara Ehrenreich about her research project. In 1999 and 2000, she researched what lives were like for the workers living on the lowest wages in the US.

She hid her real identity as a popular writer, columnist, and her PHD degree. She looked for job by acting as a divorced Caucasian woman, who had been a longtime house wife and desperate to find a job.

She worked in Key West, Florida, Portland area in Maine, and Minneapolis in Minnesota. to see if she can make enough money to pay for her rent and expenses.

When she was in Key West, Barbara worked two jobs in a restaurant and a hotel in order to make ends meet, but she found she can’t afford straight 14 hours’ of work. so she gave up;

When she was in Maine, she was able to make enough money for next month’s rent by working two jobs, 7 days a week.

In Minnesota, she worked at the dress department in Walmart, but because she can’t find another job or a cheaper place to live, she had to terminate the project.

For all the jobs, Barbara has earned about the minimum wage. In 2 of the 3 locations, even though she worked her butt off, she still can’t afford living.

Since her project was around 1999 and 2000. I wonder how much it has changed after so many years.

I remember that several months ago, I sent my car to maintenance in the local Toyota dealer. I was chatting with the shuttle driver. He works in San Rafael, lives in Petaluma and has three daily jobs. He has three young kids, one of whom was a new born. His wife doesn’t have a job and is taking care of children at home. He gets home after midnight and wakes up before dawn every day. His life is hard.

But I didn’t have further data about the people who barely make ends meet with minimum wage. Therefore, I honestly don’t know whether his life can be a typical example to represent these people.

In the book, Barbara evaluated her work experience. One of her major conclusions on why it was so hard for lowest wage people to live is because wages were too low, while rent was too high. In 1997, the average family expense on food takes about 16%, while rent takes 37%. There were a lot of job opportunities in downtown area and suburbs, while it’s more expensive to live there. If you want to live in a cheaper area, you’ll have to bear the long commute. Tourism season also contributed to high rent.

She also found that several reasons that contributed to the facts that her co-workers didn’t stand up to demand higher wages, or even just to find a new job with higher pay.

First, at that time, resources for finding new jobs are very limited. Internet wasn’t popular. People needed to rely on newspapers, flyers, ads in the store.

Second, the poorer you are, the less mobility you have. It’s not convenient if you don’t have a car in this country on the wheels. Or you bear with the expenses for cars and gas.

Third is psychological reasons. Once start a new job, everything starts over, building friendship, learning about the job. It was challenging.

Fourth, if there’s no way to organize people to demand high wage together, then it’s possible that those who demand would be fired. Then there’s no source of income. So, most of her co-workers stayed silent and kept doing what they did.

At the end of the book, Barbara truly wished the lowest waged workers could stand up and fight for themselves, wished the rent would be more affordable and wage can become higher, and recommended that education is a valuable investment.

I appreciate her observations and evaluations, and I think many of her evaluations are still valid even in 2015.

I’ve seen some common patterns in my own country as well, not just for poor people: my friend in Beijing complains to me about rising rent and spending 4 hours roundtrip commuting to work. These issues are likely to exist in other country as well.

I found this is a practically complicated issue, it’s not as simple as raising minimum wage and force rent to be lower (which could potentially crash the economy), and I’m not even knowledgeable to make valid comments on it, but I believe this has to be addressed. So I’d like to share her book with you, to provoke thoughts and spark new ideas. Discussions are welcomed.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *