Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich [Book In Review]

closeThis post was published 10 years 2 months 18 days ago. A number of changes have been made to the site since then, so please contact me if anything is broken or seems wrong.

Over the holiday break, and continuing after I got back from New York City (which I will probably never blog about, unfortunately; it’s been too long now, and I have other posts to write), I read a series of books checked out from the local library on topics ranging from the history of eBay and Microsoft’s hiring practices to the true economic impact of big-box stores like Wal-Mart and even a book on cosmic complexity. While all of them resonated with me to a certain extent (the latter, Big-Box Swindle, being the most compelling of those I’ve mentioned so far), I found myself moved the most by Barbara Ehrenreich’s story of the low-wage workplace.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America contains a great many anecdotes that pull one into the story, encourage thoughts of “That’s all they do?”, “What?!” and “Oh yeah, that’s annoying”, and generally made me feel that a great injustice is taking place in this country. (The humiliations going on in other countries such as India and China are another topic entirely, worthy of three posts for each nation.)

Rather than summarize the book (which would probably be boring compared to reading the original), review it, or do anything of that ilk, I’ll post a few passages here that I found particularly compelling. (Please note that the final section quotes from the end. If you don’t want to read the “ending”, click the “skip” link next to the “Working Poor” heading.) I’ll begin with one particularly aggravating footnote.

Bathroom Breaks: Gotta Go? Too Bad

Until April 1998, there was no federally mandated right to bathroom breaks. According to Marc Linder and Ingrid Nygaard, authors of Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time (Cornell University Press, 1997), “The right to rest and void at work is not high on the list of social or political causes supported by professional or executive employees, who enjoy personal workplace liberties that millions of factory workers can only dream about. . . . While we were dismayed to discover that workers lacked an acknowledged right to void at work, [the workers] were amazed by outsiders’ naïve belief that their employers would permit them to perform this basic bodily function when necessary. . . . A factory worker, not allowed a break for six-hour stretches, voided into pads worn inside her uniform; and a kindergarten teacher in a school without aides had to take all twenty children with her to the bathroom and line them up outside the stall door while she voided.”

What hits the hardest, I think, is the mental image of a kindergarten teacher taking twenty five-year-olds to the bathroom with her because there’s nobody else available to watch them for a few minutes. I don’t think the awkwardness would be confined to the adult, either; I know I would have felt pretty awkward filing into the restroom with my kindergarten teacher.

At least we finally realized the omission in our laws. This quote, present on page 37, was one of the first to stir my emotions. I’m well aware of corporate greed, but to deny (or, more accurately, not recognize) such a seemingly basic right for decades after the Industrial Revolution before passing a law to remedy the situation seems a rather glaring mistake. Or is it? There are plenty of other things in the book that drew the same reaction. Besides, we Americans have been denied the right to use any cellular handset on the network of our choosing for ages.

Mother Earth cleaning service's toolsImage by greenlagirl via Flickr

“Cleaning” Services: Superficiality to the Extreme

I’ve always had a rather disdainful opinion of how well cleaning services actually, well, clean, but this was still something of a shock. The following is from page 75, continuing to page 76, and contains observations Ms. Ehrenreich made during her first day (training) at a The Maids franchise in Maine.

[…] Our antagonists exist entirely in the visible world—soap scum, dust, counter crud, dog hair, stains, and smears—and are to be attacked by damp rag or, in hard-core cases, by Dobie (the brand of plastic scouring pad we use). We scrub only to remove impurities that might be detectable to a customer by hand or by eye; otherwise our only job is to wipe. Nothing is said about the possibility of transporting bacteria, by rag or by hand, from bathroom to kitchen or even from one house to the next. It is the “cosmetic touches” that the videos emphasize and that Ted [the franchise owner], when he wanders back into the room, continually directs my eye to. Fluff up all throw pillows and arrange them symmetrically. Brighten up stainless steel sinks with baby oil. Leave all spice jars, shampoos, etc., with their labels facing outward. Comb out the fringes of Persian carpets with a pick. Use the vacuum cleaner to create a special, fernlike pattern in the carpets. The loose ends of toilet paper and paper towel rolls have to be given a special fold (the same one you’ll find in hotel bathrooms). “Messes” of loose paper, clothing, or toys are to be stacked into “neat messes.” Finally, the house is to be sprayed with the cleaning service’s signature floral-scented air freshener, which will signal to the owners, the moment they return home, that, yes, their house has been “cleaned.”7

Many of these inane policies have actually had a direct effect on my own life, as for a time we were customers of The Maids here in Minneapolis. The propensity for housekeeping services (I do not even think of them as housecleaning services, nor have I for a long time) to rearrange things simply to create an aura of tidiness without really doing anything substantial has long bothered me. Not only are things like air freshener and making “tidy messes” incredibly superficial, they have even led to me looking high and low for something moved in the process – which I invariably find, eventually… weeks or months later, after the need for it has passed and I’ve already undergone inconvenience at not having it when I was looking for it in the first place.

I have long been irked by things like the “hotel fold” to toilet paper rolls, and the fact that putting toilet paper rolls on the holders in the bathroom—even if said rolls were sitting somewhere nearby, just fine and actually easier to use—seems to be a favorite pastime of housekeeping personnel looking for something to do to make the house seem “clean” without doing anything of consequence.

The 7 refers to a footnote that goes on to detail specific inadequacies in the housecleaning practices used by The Maids, as commented upon by various housecleaning experts. The final two sentences of the note are my favorite:

[…] But the point at The Maids, apparently, is not to clean so much as to create the appearance of having been cleaned, not to sanitize but to create a kind of stage setting for family life. And the stage setting Americans seem to prefer is sterile only in the metaphorical sense, like a motel room or the fake interiors in which soap operas and sitcoms take place.

For as long as I can remember, my parents—my mother especially—have admonished me to never go barefoot in a hotel room, never trust the countertops in a hotel room, and so forth. Somehow, before I got this ingrained into my brain, I picked up a toe infection in New Zealand (at least, I think that’s where it came from) while on a tour with the Minnesota Boychoir; it proceeded to bother me almost constantly for the next two years or so. The end result, several years later, is me now wearing socks constantly, even in my own house (which I don’t trust any more—and quite possibly less—than a hotel room). Fortunately, this habit ties in well with my dislike for dirty feet.

Blues Brothers MemorialImage by Pete Zarria via Flickr

References to Movies and Friends

Page 122 brings a couple of gems. The first should mean something to anyone who’s watched the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers“:

I pick up my Rent-A-Wreck from a nice fellow—this must be the famous “Minnesota nice”—who volunteers the locations of NPR and classic rock on the radio. We agree that swing sucks and maybe would have discovered a few more points of convergence, only I’m on what a certain Key West rock jock likes to call “a mission from God.”

There’s no way I was going to resist the urge to mention this reference; I loved “The Blues Brothers” when I used to watch it on AMC. For bonus points, this quote also references my home state and that wonderful myth that Minnesotans are super-nice. (They’re usually only polite and courteous if you look respectable and aren’t obviously a minority, despite the common impression.)

Cockatiel with a feather stuck to his beakImage by zoom in tight via Flickr

The second—which pretty much continues where the last one left off, in the same paragraph—probably means something only to those who know my former Kumon Reading Program tutor:

[…] and an apartment belonging to friends of a friend that I can use for a few days free of charge while they visit relatives back East. Well, not entirely free of charge, since the deal is I have to take care of their cockatiel, a caged bird that, for reasons of ornithological fitness and sanity, has to be let out of the cage for a few hours a day.

My former tutor, Margaret (mother of NYC wine caper heroine Alia), has a cockatiel, too. (Sorry folks, this one was pretty superficial. No deep commentary here. I’ll make it up to you soon.)

For Rent SignImage by extremeezine via Flickr

Rent vs. Wages: A Total Imbalance

OK, I know the last two quotes were pretty trivial, but have a look at this quote from page 199:

So the problem goes beyond my personal failings and miscalculations. 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.

Yeah, I’ve been thinking that rents seem awfully high for years, ever since I was aware enough to read the advertisements for vacant apartments. With the economy as it is now, and people being laid off, the housing market can only be worse than ever (or so I believe, with my limited economic experience).

The “Working Poor”: Unrecognized, Unappreciated Philanthropists [skip]

The last pages (220 & 221) of the book holds perhaps the most heart-wrenching conclusion I have ever read (at least, in non-fiction). I don’t think I’ll even comment on it; the words speak for themselves:

But guilt doesn’t go anywhere near far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame—shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay than she can live on—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more chaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, he health, and her life. The “working poor,” as they are approvingly 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. As Gail, one of my restaurant coworkers put it, “you give and you give.”

Play Comparison

Working (musical)Image via Wikipedia

Looking back on the book, I have suddenly realized (weeks later) that the book reminds me of the Broadway musical Working. I imagine the individual descriptions of Ms. Ehrenreich’s various jobs are a bit like the interviews in Studs Terkel’s book, Working, just greatly extended (the interviews in the book are only a couple pages each). The main difference, I think, if I were to compare them, would be in the sentiments. Ms. Ehrenreich was generally displeased with the conditions of her employment; by comparison, most of the characters in Working love their jobs.
I haven’t read the book—merely looked at reviews on Goodreads and skimmed its Wikipedia article—but I was in an abridged production of the musical at StageCoach this past Spring that concluded my ninth year in the program. (For those interested, I wrote a summary of the production about two weeks later.) Both of my characters (Rex Winship and Tom Patrick; a “boss” and a fireman, respectively) were pleased with their occupations, though they weren’t low-wage positions like in Nickel and Dimed.


All these quotes and comparisons aside, the book was written from a very liberal perspective. I can’t help but agree with some of the reviews on Goodreads. I have some liberal tendencies, but I’m really more of a moderate. This book was interesting, and I’d recommend it if you’re into this sort of thing, but I realize now it’s nothing more than a creative experiment or a jumping-off point for a discussion.

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I am an avid technology and software user, in addition to being reasonably well-versed in CSS, JavaScript, HTML, PHP, Python, and (though it still scares me) Perl. Aside from my technological tendencies, I am also a theatre technician, sound designer, violinist, singer, and actor.


  1. Margaret Sch.

    Thanks for the interesting book review. It’s nice and detailed. As your former tutor, I approve! And . . . I think I forgot to tell you, but last summer, our cockatiel got away. My fault, long story. We have doves now.

  2. That’s totally my mistake, actually. For some reason, when I was writing this post, I remembered incorrectly. The last time I was over at your house, you did have doves; this is a fully qualified memory FAIL. But I’m going to leave the anecdote anyway. 😉

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