The book “Nickel and Dimed”, written by Barbara Ehrenreich investigates the resulting impact of the 1995 welfare program instituted by the U.S. in order to aid the working poor.
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Set in the perspective of an investigative journalist working undercover as a poor low wage worker, the book delves into how non-skilled workers within the U.S. attempt to live through earning the bare minimum wage given by their employers.”
The goal of the author was to work one month each in Florida, Maine and Minnesota in order to see if she could live off the money earned from working low wage jobs and still have enough to pay for her rent next month” (Ehrenreich 10).
By the end of the three month period the author found out that even working a single minimum wage job was not enough to meet the necessary cost of living in the three states. As such she needed to get a second job in order to supplement her income however this came at the cost of being physically exhausted nearly every single day with very little pay to show for it.
Main Question Addressed by the book:
Do minimum wage workers earn enough to attain a sufficient standard of living for themselves or is there a need to supplement their income?
Main Argument of the Book
The main argument of the book centers around the fact that minimum wage workers are not paid enough to reach a decent standard of living. That their situation is compounded by derogatory practices by employers which are meant to force employees to see themselves in a lowly position which facilitates better control over their actions and to keep them from demanding better pay and benefits.
Most important empirical/ Theoretical Claim
The author posits the idea that despite the actions of the government to aid the urban working class poor through better wages the fact remains that the current salary range earned by a minimum wage worker is nowhere near sufficient to meet the various “hidden costs” associated with living as an unskilled laborer.
It is often seen that unskilled laborers have to stay at cheap low end motels due to their inability to pay the security deposits needed for renting an apartment. Not only that they are unable to buy healthier and inexpensive food due to their inability to have access to refrigerators and stoves. As a result they have to rely on expensive fast food items in order to supplement their diets which are detrimental in the long run to their health.
Relating the content of the book
It must be noted that unskilled workers receive low wages not out of choice but due to the current labor and social system in place which keeps wages down in order to keep low wage workers in their positions. The current economic system does not benefit low wage workers at all, low income housing has all but disappeared, services and education are all geared towards skilled labor and unskilled labor is more often the least cared for portion of the U.S. labor force.
Ehrenreich suggests that this might be due to the fact that society requires unskilled laborers to remain in the positions they are in right now so that the upper echelons of society can benefit. The fact remains that should unskilled laborers receive higher wages this would translate into higher costs of labor for the middle and upper class. By keeping unskilled laborers in their current positions society ensures that the price of services continues to remain low.
The inherent problem is that the system of employment for unskilled labor is virtually designed in such a way so as to limit their rights and give more power to the employer. The derogatory behavior and repetitive tasks employed as well as the regular drug tests and questionnaires are all meant to degrade employee perception. This is done to ensure their compliance towards work practices and ensure that they will have no option but to go to work again the next day.
Ehrenreich states that the entire system is inherently constructed so as to imprison people within a certain role and within a certain economic class to benefit those above (Ehrenreich 98). Even though the jobs they do are harder and involve more work the pay is invariably lower. What must be understood is that the current system fosters class and economic inequality for the benefit of the select few leaving little if next to no choice for those at the very bottom rung of the ladder of society.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On Getting By in America. 2001. Metropolitan Books, New York City