Summary of Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

In the book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, the author Barbara Ehrenreich investigates the impact the 1996 welfare reform act had on the working poor in America from the perspective of an undercover journalist. On August 22, 1996 then President Bill Clinton signed “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996” or the 1996 welfare act which replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

The bill reconstructed the United States welfare system so that the poor were required to work in exchange for time-limited assistance.

The TANF program grants each state their own welfare program and has several requirements and limits that the poor have to abide by in order for them to receive welfare aid.

Throughout the book, Ehrenreich puts herself in the shoes of low wage American workers as she tries to experience how it is to live a life of poverty. The purpose of her experiment was for Ehrenreich to have a firsthand experience on the struggles and hardships that low wage workers go through, in trying to make enough money in order to survive.

In addition to the financial struggles Ehrenreich gives multiple examples of how these low-wage workers are underpaid, treated poorly, and forced to work in tough conditions.

She decides to temporarily leave her upper middle class life as a writer with a Ph.D. in Biology, in order to experience and show the world what it’s like to live as a poor low-waged worker in America.

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According to the book, “With all the real-life assets I’ve build up… there was no way I was going to “experience poverty”” (Ehrenreich 6). Ehrenreich understands that because of her past success she cannot truly experience the struggles of poverty, but she wants to see what its like to have just enough money to survive and how long she can sustain it.

She conducts this experiment by living in a different location each month, for 3 months, finding different low-waged jobs and places to stay. Her goal for the experiment was to see whether or not she could earn enough money working these low waged jobs, in order to pay for next month’s rent. Throughout her experiment, Ehrenreich experiences firsthand the everyday struggles that poor low-wage workers go through in order to put a roof over their head and food in their stomachs.

In the first chapter of the book, Ehrenreich begins her experiment in Key West, Florida because of the proximity to her home. She starts off by applying for a job as a housekeeper in a hotel called Hearthside but is instead hired as a waitress. Going into the experiment Ehrenreich had worries that she would be too qualified for these jobs, but contrary to her belief, she considers that she might be underqualified for the job as she finds her job as a waitress to be quite demanding and difficult at times.

According to the book, “The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly “unskilled”” (Ehrenreich 193). The second job she gets is as a server at another restaurant called Jerry’s. After her first days working both jobs, Ehrenreich quits from Hearthstone as she becomes to overwhelmed and exhausted with the amount of work that is asked of her between both jobs. Throughout her experience as a waiter Ehrenreich learns about the struggles that her co-workers go through living a poor low-wage life. She learns that many of her fellow employees struggle to pay the weekly rent for their shared trailers, motels, and hotel rooms.

Many of her colleagues are mistreated by managers, receive no benefits or overtime pay, no retirement funds, no health insurance, and have to heavily rely on their family in order to survive. Ehrenreich finds out that one of her coworkers George, a dishwasher from Czech Republic who can barely speak English is not paid by the restaurant, but by the “agent” that sent him to the United States. She explains how George, because of the language barrier, only makes $5 an hour, which is less than the other dishwashers. In addition tonbeing paid very low wages, George was also accused of stealing items out of the storage room at Jerry’s.

Ehrenreich becomes increasingly irritated with the situation as she believes that George is innocent and is being exploited by the management, but she does not stand up for him in the end. According to the book, “My guess is that he had taken-if he had taken anything at all-some Saltines or a can of cherry pie mix and that the motive for taking it was hunger.” (Ehrenreich 41). George is subsequently fired, and this plays a role in Ehrenreich eventually quitting from Jerry’s. The third job Ehrenreich gets in West Key, is a housekeeping job at the hotel that is connected to Jerry’s. At the housekeeping job, Ehrenreich meets Carlotta, a middle-aged African American woman.

In addition to her struggles at work, Ehrenreich also has trouble finding affordable housing to live in. She finds a trailer to live in but decides to find another job as she is not sure the income, she makes from waitressing will pay for the rent. Nearing the end of her month long stay in Key West, Ehrenreich decides to move closer to her job as the gas costs and commute are becoming too expensive for her. In addition, to saving money, Ehrenreich also moves so she can work two jobs at once. She puts all of her start-up savings to put down a deposit on her new trailer and gets another job as a housekeeper at the hotel that is connected to Jerry’s. 

In the second chapter of the book, Ehrenreich moves to Portland, Maine. She chose to move here so she would not stick out as the demography of the town was mostly white. According to the book, “… but it made the perfect place for a blue-eyed, English-speaking Caucasian to infiltrate the low-wage workforce, no questions asked” (Ehrenreich 51). Ehrenreich gets her first jobs in Maine as a house cleaner and a weekend meal-saver for a company called The Maids, where she earns $6.65 and $7 an hour. Ehrenreich finds out that her and her fellow coworkers are being substantially underpaid as she overhears a manager saying that the company makes $25 an hour per cleaner.

According to the book, “The company gets $25 and we get $6.65 for each hour we work? I think I must have misheard, but a few minutes later I hear her say the same thing to another inquirer” (Ehrenreich 72). Throughout her month in Maine, Ehrenreich finds the work conditions for the cleaning service she is working at intense, as her team barely has anytime to even eat lunch. According to the book, “In my interview, I had been promised a thirty-minute lunch break, but this turns out to be a five-minute pit stop at a convenience store, if that” (Ehrenreich 77). Furthermore, the author goes on to discuss the neglect that the maids received from the management.

Ehrenreich explains how because of the painful and tiring labor, she has developed rashes on her arms and legs. Her manager Ted does not see it as a big problem as he brushes it off as the cause of something else and insists that she continues working. According to the book, “Must be a latex allergy, is Ted’s diagnosis. Just stay out of the latex gloves we use for particularly nasty work; he’ll give me another kind to wear” (Ehrenreich 87). This whole ordeal ends up costing Ehrenreich $30, as she has to make a visit to her local dermatologist because she was in so much pain.

According to the book, “The whole episode-including anti-itch cream, prednisone, prednisone cream, and Benadryl to get through the nights-eats up $30” (Ehrenreich 88). Later in the chapter, Ehrenreich expresses her concern for her 23-year-old colleague Holly. Ehrenreich explains that Holly, who is working to support her family of three, is very pale and thin. Holly explains to Ehrenreich that she often feels nauseous and thinks she might be pregnant.

After hearing this, Ehrenreich becomes very concerned, as she tries to lighten Holly’s workload by doing her work for her. Ehrenreich advises Holly to go home as she is horrified, seeing a pregnant woman work a job that is so physically tasking, and works with so many chemicals. According to the book, “The problem is that she’s pregnant. It’s been seven weeks and the nausea is out of control, which is why she can’t eat anything and gets so weak, but she wants it to be a secret until she can tell Ted herself” (Ehrenreich 97).

Later in the chapter, Ehrenreich threatens to quit when Holly hurts her foot, and the manager Ted again does not take it very seriously. Throughout the chapter, Ehrenreich gives multiple examples of how these low-wage workers are underpaid, treated poorly, and forced to work in tough conditions.

Throughout the chapter, Ehrenreich struggles with her finances. The author begins her stay in Portland, Maine by looking for a place to live. She discovers that many poor people in Portland live in hotels during the tourist off-season but have to move once the summer starts as the prices start to increase as tourist come. As there are very few low-rent options in Portland, Ehrenreich rents an apartment for $120 a week at a motel called the Blue Haven about 30 minutes away from Portland.

Later in the chapter, Ehrenreich discovers that she is expected to pay more than the original $120 for her rent, as the motel switched to the summer season rate. Additionally, after her first paycheck was withheld as insurance that she would return the next week, she tries to call several agencies in order to get a free voucher from the grocery store, so she had food to eat.

The author explains that it takes her a lot of effort to get a voucher, but she is finally given one. According to the book, “I run through my time and geography constraints once again, underscoring that I work seven days a week, at least eight hours a day, and that I happen to be in her geographical jurisdiction at the moment.” (Ehrenreich 102). Throughout the chapter, Ehrenreich’s experiences laminate the financial struggles low-wage workers go through on a daily basis.

In the third chapter of the book, Ehrenreich moves to Minneapolis, Minnesota. She finds life here easier than her first two locations, as the states minimum wage was higher, and housing was more affordable. The first job she applies to is a job at Wal-Mart, however Ehrenreich is later scared away as she tells her readers she has recently smoked marijuana, and the job required her to pass a drug test before she could get the job. Marijuana is one of the only drugs that stays in your system for a long period of time, as you can fail a drug test 30-45 days after smoking marijuana.

The second job she applied for is a job at a local hardware store. Similarly, to Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich has to pass a personality test and drug test before she can get the job. She spends the next weekend detoxing, as she has no other option but to try and pass the drug test. She researches online for products that could help her, but because of her finances, she instead decides to buy just two gallons of water to drink at all times of the day in hopes she will pass.

Ehrenreich finds these required drug tests to be quite unfair. According to the book, “It rankles-at some deep personal, physical level…to know that the many engaging qualities I believe I have to offer-friendliness, reliability, willingness to learn-can all be trumped by my pee.” (Ehrenreich 128). It is unfair to not give someone who has good personality traits and is a hard worker a job, just because they failed a drug test. Especially, for low-wage jobs like Ehrenreich is applying for where many of the people that apply to those jobs come from poor, bad neighborhoods where all types of drugs are available, and it can be tough to not go down that road unless you have some help from others.

Ehrenreich takes the drug test, but because she is scared, she will not pass, she continues to search for other jobs. However, to her relief she receives a phone call a few days later explaining that she got the job and needs to come in for orientation. Later in the chapter, Ehrenreich attends orientation for her new job at the hardware store. Ehrenreich is told that she is required to wear a belt with a knife and tape measure, and that the expenses would be taken out of her first paycheck.

Additionally, she is shocked to here that she will be getting paid $10 an hour, not the $8.50 an hour she was previously told she would make on the interview. According to the book, “I think I haven’t heard him right, nor can I quite believe the wage Walt tells me I’ll be getting-not $8.50 but an incredible $10 an hour” (Ehrenreich 142). However, she is told that her shift is from 12 p.m. to 11 p.m., an outrageous 11-hour shift. Later that day, Ehrenreich receives a call from Wal-Mart, where they offer her a job for $7 an hour without having to pass a drug test, as they must have been desperate for workers.

Ehrenreich decides to attend the 8 hour long Wal-Mart orientation where she learns about some of Wal-Mart employee policies, most notably what they call no “time theft”. According to the book, “time theft” is, “Doing anything other than working during company time, anything at all” (Ehrenreich 145). Ehrenreich is outraged by this, as she believes its unfair that the employees cannot steal the companies time, but the company can steal the employees time.

According to the book, “Theft of our time is not, however, an issue. There are stretches amounting to many minutes when all three of our trainers wander off, leaving us to sit there in silence or take the opportunity to squirm” (Ehrenreich 145). Ehrenreich comes home from the orientation exhausted and is unable to face an 11-hour shift at the hardware store the next day and she resigns over the phone.

Ehrenreich reflects on her experiences and believes that future employees for these types of jobs are hustled into the job. She believes that by speeding up the process, they eliminate the opportunities for employees to bargain and ask for more wages. According to the book, “You’re handed the application form and, a few days later, you’re being handed the uniform and warned against nose rings and stealing. There’s no intermediate point in the process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitles to cut her own deal” (Ehrenreich 149).

Ehrenreich struggles to finding affordable housing in Minneapolis. She gets recommendations from friends to stay in hotels that rent week by week, but even those are too expensive for her to afford. Finally, she finds a run-down motel called Twin Lakes where she is promised a floor on the second floor. However, later in the chapter, when Ehrenreich is playing to move into her room at the Twin Lakes motel, she finds out that her room has been given to someone else.

Originally, she is relieved by this as she finds another motel called the Clearview Inn, that has a cheaper weekly rent. However, for $245 a week, she is placed in a room that is in terrible condition, and for the first time, Ehrenreich is genuinely frightened for her safety. According to the book, “…the single small window has no screen, and the room has no AC or fan. The curtain is transparently thin; the door has no bolt” (Ehrenreich 151).

Throughout the chapter, Ehrenreich receives a lot help from some friends she knows in Minnesota, as she is allowed to stay in their apartment for a few days wile they are out of town. Additionally, another one of her friends Caroline gifts her with a large container of chicken stew. 

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Summary of Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. (2023, May 05). Retrieved from

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