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Nickel & Dimed

Undercover in Low-Wage USA

By Barbara Ehrenreich
13-minute read
Audio available
Nickel & Dimed: Undercover in Low-Wage USA by Barbara Ehrenreich

Nickel and Dimed (2001) offers a first-hand account of low-income life in America. The author went underground to learn why a huge number of hard-working people must struggle to earn enough money to live a comfortable life, eat decent food and afford the most basic shelter. We may take them for granted, but the people earning the minimum wage are the nation’s backbone, serving our food, cleaning up after us and stocking the supermarket shelves.

  • Sociologists interested in wage discrepancy
  • Journalists looking for inspiration
  • Employees and employers

Barbara Ehrenreich is an author of over 30 books. She’s contributed to publications such as the New York Times, the Nation, Mother Jones and Time magazine. Her books include Bait and Switch and This Land is Their Land.

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Nickel & Dimed

Undercover in Low-Wage USA

By Barbara Ehrenreich
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Nickel & Dimed: Undercover in Low-Wage USA by Barbara Ehrenreich
Synopsis

Nickel and Dimed (2001) offers a first-hand account of low-income life in America. The author went underground to learn why a huge number of hard-working people must struggle to earn enough money to live a comfortable life, eat decent food and afford the most basic shelter. We may take them for granted, but the people earning the minimum wage are the nation’s backbone, serving our food, cleaning up after us and stocking the supermarket shelves.

Key idea 1 of 8

Poverty is a big problem in the United States, which led the author to investigate further.

If you were to walk through any US city, you’d inevitably see some homeless people or people in poverty. They’re a stark reminder that poverty is still a serious and nationwide problem.

When this book was released, around 2001, the United States Census Bureau reported that 12.1 percent of the country was living in poverty. To be included in this category means that you are unable to afford the basic requirements for a simple life, such as an apartment, decent food and health insurance.

This is a significant portion of the country and it goes to show that many people’s wages are dangerously low. At the time, the minimum wage was somewhere between six and seven dollars per hour – this despite the fact that research done by the National Coalition for the Homeless determined that a person would need to earn at least $8.89 per hour in order to afford the rent for a studio apartment.

Yet many people have the odds stacked against them when it comes to earning a livable wage.

According to independent research from the Preamble Center for Public Policy, only one out of every 97 people relying on welfare benefits would meet the qualification requirements for anything above a minimum-wage job. These people simply lack the educational background or access to continuing education that is required.

But this paints a vague picture of the problem at hand, which is why the author wanted to get a better idea of what it’s really like for these millions of people. With her background in investigative journalism, the author decided to enter the world of minimum-wage living for a couple of years, from 1998 to 2000.

This meant omitting her education and background from job applications and trying to get the best-paying employment she could. She wanted to see how possible – or impossible – it really was to find housing, pay rent and survive on only six to seven dollars an hour.

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