Missy's Reviews > Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
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Jul 18, 07

bookshelves: pastreads
Recommended for: no one
Read in June, 2004

(warning, a nerve has been touched!)
I have experience working with and researching programs that aid the poor and working poor. I hated this book. The only role it could play is as a weak talking piece for starting up serious discussion about the struggles and needs of the poor.

Barbara Ehrenreich may have stepped outside her comfort zone and into the world of the working poor, but she did it with an educated background, with money "just in case", with a pompous attitude, and with the requirement of a car at all times.

She also did it without many barriers that are very real to the working poor:
-a child or children
-childcare costs
-low IQ or other learning disabilities
-an alcohol or drug addiction
-an abusive partner
-lack of transportation
-English as a second language
-bad credit
-felony convictions
-health disparities
-no high school diploma or GED
-experience as an orphan or in the foster care system
-homelessness
-no positive support system (like her husband and editor)
-depression, PTSD, schizophremia or other mental illness
-lack of drive or self-worth, hopelessness
-angst for "the system"
-lack of basic computer skills
-lack of interpersonal skills
-lack of personal hygiene or simple lack of clean clothing

I live in Minneapolis, where she lived when the experiment ended. In the book she says she was struggling to find housing, but she was postive that she would find it. Fantastic! I hope the housing she would of found had heat paid, because heating costs will break even a middle-class budget when the weather drops well below zero.
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Comments (showing 1-42 of 42) (42 new)

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message 1: by Amy (new)

Amy great review! i had actually considered reading it, now i am glad i did not. acting like you are poor is about as significant as acting like you have cancer...um, sorta.


Missy Exactamundo!!!!

Now if she took on a kid, ditched her car and erased her past, maybe that would be better!


message 3: by James (last edited Oct 26, 2007 10:16AM) (new)

James that and she was quite passively insulting the entire way through

on top of the fact that it came off as a poorly fetished attempt at realism


Missy She surely was! I didn't mention that part. Thanks for tossong that in.


Colelea great review I posted mine before I read yours. thanks for validating my also touched nerves!


message 6: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca ditto times three!


Amanda I agree! I hated this book. One part that was particularly hard to take was when she called her doctor friend for medical advice. Thanks for the great review.


message 8: by Bob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bob I think my reaction to the book was different exactly because the author entered this world with every advantage including education, decent IQ, a functioning car, "a doctor friend," no children, no addictions etc. and still could do little better than survive even for a month.



Wealhtheow Even *with* all of her advantages, Ehrenreich could barely get by. That, right there, is the point she tried to make--that even best case scenario, it's well nigh impossible to survive on minimum wage. Given that you share this view, I'm not sure why you found it so hard to read.


message 10: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca Because she was pretentious about it.


message 11: by Abby (new) - rated it 4 stars

Abby I see this argument against the book, but I also thought that the author dealt with her bias right up front. There were some eye-rolling lines that broadcasted her privilege louder than she intended, but I don't think her intention was to live in the worst conditions or pretend to be representative of the demographic she was writing about.


k.wing As I see you have already been told, this is a great review. As I was reading this book, my eyes were open to her experience, but I knew far well that she had too many luxuries most of the working poor rarely have, and did not take into some extra concerns and circumstances many are forced to face.

Bravo! I hope many people read your review, whether they hated the book or loved it.


message 13: by Bob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bob Hello,

If she had pretended to have one or more of the following conditions:

-a child or children
-childcare costs
-low IQ or other learning disabilities
-an alcohol or drug addiction
-an abusive partner
-lack of transportation
-English as a second language
-bad credit
-felony convictions
-health disparities
-no high school diploma or GED
-experience as an orphan or in the foster care system
-homelessness
-no positive support system (like her husband and editor)
-depression, PTSD, schizophremia or other mental illness
-lack of drive or self-worth, hopelessness
-angst for "the system"
-lack of basic computer skills
-lack of interpersonal skills
-lack of personal hygiene or simple lack of clean clothing

No one would have read the book. Clearly the premise was a bit contrived, however I thought the point was to engender some sympathy in the general public and to refute the premise that one can support themselves let alone a family on a minimum wage job.




message 14: by k.wing (last edited Nov 06, 2007 11:08AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

k.wing To Bob, I completely agree with you. I hope many people pick up this book to read it, and possibly begin the process of deveoping empathy for others in particularly difficult situations. My comment is a critical analysis of the book due to a lot of study on the subject.
And I suppose we should all face the fact that this book is pop-memoir, and we should look at it in that way. However, there are many facets to this discussion, and I was happy to see that others thought some of the same things I did while reading the book. It is a great book to introduce some of the most pertinent issues en masse, but it is not, even in the least, the end of the discussion on minimum wage in America.


message 15: by Bob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bob K.Wing
One thing I think that would really help me is if individuals such as yourself, Missy and others who know much more than I on this topic would recommend additional reading.
I bought this paperback at an airport, I'm a middle aged, overfed business man whose first hand experience with poverty is now 30 years old.


Heidi Did you read the entire book? Because on page 6 of the hardcover book she addresses all of this- she points out that she is in no way trying to assert that she is LIKE these people- she points out that she would never assert that she is in the same place because of the advantages she lists- her car, being white, speaking English, her start up, etc. Here is the last paragraph of her introduction:
" I make no claims for the relevance of my experience to anyone else's, because there is nothing typical about my story. Bear in mind, when I stumble, that this is in fact the BEST-case scenario: a person with every advantage that ethnicity and education, health and motivation can confer attempting, in a time of exuberant prosperity, to survive in the economy's lower depths".

Soo... I'm just wondering how you came to your conclusion when she is very clear on what you wrote up there.

Also, I studied poverty throughout my entire graduate school experience, not that that makes me any more able to read a book or enjoy it, but if someone wants other books to read:
"The Working Poor" by David Shipler or "Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein are good.


message 17: by Bob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bob Thanks for the reading list.


message 18: by Todd (new) - rated it 4 stars

Todd Johnson At least in my edition, there's a whole introduction where she goes through all of the ways in which her time was nothing at all like the lives of the genuine working poor. And then she explains how that's the point: if she can't get by, with the laundry list of advantages you've given above, what hope is there for anyone less fortunate?

The review here seems somewhat misguided. The book is trying to bring a spotlight to certain social issues, which clearly the reviewer also believes need more attention. It's not at all clear what the problem is.


message 19: by Daniela (new) - added it

Daniela Unfavourable reviews are real eye-openers! I had put this book on a 't-read' list, but your comments dissuaded me. I'm in no mood to read the story of the 'poor lil' rich academic'. Not when I myself, as an academic, earn much less than6$ per hour and when in Romania, making 1,000 $/month is a job to kill for.


message 20: by Leo (new) - rated it 4 stars

Leo I brought up this perspective, which I shared when I began to read this book, when Dr. Ehrenreich came to my university. When probed about why she came off as so pretentious, she responded that in a way, she approached this scientifically. She, as you've no doubt already read, has a Ph.D. in Biology. So I think that she can be forgiven, somewhat, for being a little pretentious at the outset of her "experiment". I think that the author gave an honest depiction of her own flaws and also came to a greater realisation of the conditions of the working poor towards the end of the book. That should be a good thing.


Debbie I think the point she was trying to make was that even with all of her advantages, which she was very up-front about, she still couldn't get by. She also mentioned several times that this would be even more difficult with children, that she wondered how her body would hold up after several months/years of keeping up this schedule, etc. I also work with the poor, and see their reality day in and day out. I think the good that can come out of this is that middle-class, possibly well-meaning folks, will stop saying "Why don't they just get a job?" Obviously, the job isn't enough.


message 22: by Carolyn (last edited Apr 29, 2009 10:36AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Carolyn Personally, I think the entire point of this book was to 'prove' that minimum wage jobs by their very nature and pay scale CANNOT support people, even people with all the advantages and none of the disadvantages in your list.

I don't see this book as even trying to be any kind of an exhaustive look at all the difficulties facing those truly living in poverty and attempting to get by.

What I do see it as is an attempt to prove to middle-income Americans that even with all the benefits she has, even she cannot make it work under the current system, and thus neither would they.

I studied poverty and social/welfare systems in university also, although I found this book much later, and I want to tell you that I have heard people actually using the following arguments to support their views of the Bootstrap theory:

"Oh, well, she would be able to make it work if she didn't have out of wedlock children / wasn't a teen mom" (-a child or children, -childcare costs)

"Oh, well, he would be able to make it work if he controlled his addiction" (-an alcohol or drug addiction )

"Oh, well, she would be able to make it work if she took charge of her life and got out of that relationship" (-an abusive partner)

"Oh, well, he would be able to make it work if he just took public transportation." (-lack of transportation)

"Well, she would be able to make it work if she just learned English" (-English as a second language)

"Well, it wouldn't be a problem, if he hadn't screwed up in the first place..." (-bad credit, -felony convictions, -homelessness etc.)

"Oh, well, she would be able to make it work if she just got her GED / took classes." (-no high school diploma or GED, -lack of basic computer skills)

and so on, ad nauseum.

I think her book is very cogent if you read it for what it is - a lesson to all those smug folks out there who think that it is somehow the fault of the person living in poverty because they are not doing/whatever ENOUGH.

Those attitudes are out there, all around us, and this book is a tiny way of showing them that those in this situation can never manage to do enough to 'bootstrap' their way out of it under the current system.


message 23: by Rob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rob Carolyn in message 22:
"I think her book is very cogent if you read it for what it is - a lesson to all those smug folks out there who think that it is somehow the fault of the person living in poverty because they are not doing/whatever ENOUGH."

I wish I could take that from this book but I can't. To me this book actually highlights the difference between the two lifestyles, and says to me that there’s a reason people are in the positions they are in life – it’s all about decisions.

If you have a child without the ability to pay for it, that's kind of a "You made a HUGE mistake" thing. Ya know, it sucks that one mistake can relegate you to poverty forever buuuuut...yeah, it can. No, really, it can ruin your life, for your whole life, so maybe you shouldn't have sex until you're married. Or you should use protection when you do. Or you should get an abortion after you didn't do the first two things I suggested.

Same goes for not getting a GED, for committing a felony, for moving to a country you don't speak the language of, etc. Life's all about YOU and if YOU make mistakes, YOU will pay for them with a hard, painful life. So, walk the line buddy, or else!



Carolyn But Rob, you totally miss the point: that a person who makes none of those choices/mistakes still cannot survive or improve their situation under our current system.
So, you can do everything 'right' and STILL live in poverty - that is the point for all those smug people out there.


message 25: by Rob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rob So, when she smoked weed and incurred extra costs (the "cleanser") that wasn't a bad choice/mistake?

I also seem to recall she was ok with smoking (normal cigs.) Hmm, how much money is that per year? At $8 a pack, a pack a day is almost $3k per year. If you saved all that for one year, could you afford first/last on an actual home?

Aren't you the one who has missed the point - that being poor requires more work, dilligence, and good living than being rich?

Sorry, I'm one of those people (not sure I'm smug but I may be) who thinks that poverty is a personal problem, not a public one.


message 26: by Jack (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jack As many have already pointed out she addresses the differences between herself and others in this position. She clearly states that her objective is to get a job and see if she can match income to bills.

I will agree that she does have a very condescending tone throughout the novel, but let's face it that is just the way she is. Above Leo brought up a good point. For her this is an experiment. She states many times over that she is trying to remain emotionally detached.

Her goal was to inform the upper middle class of the plight of the poor. There are a lot of things that she could have done to be more like the poor, but that wasn't her goal. She demonstrated that even with everything going for her she couldn't match income to bills. We are then left to ponder, "hmmm if she can't do this how can someone with kids or even a drug addiction survive?"


message 27: by Rob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rob If you'd just stop and think about it for a second, you would see that which is plain - simply pointing out the differences doesn't make them invalidate her experiment any less. It's still a flawed experiment and thus drawing the conclusion that her failure validates the failures of others is faulty.

We are then left to ponder, "hmmm if she can't do this how can someone with kids or even a drug addiction survive?

No, YOU are left to ponder that. I'm left remembering how my parents did this and how lots and lots of other people not only survived but thrived.

I guess what irritates me about your post, Jack, is that you seem to feel sorry for the poor. Pity, to me, is such an UGLY emotion when it's used on groups as large and multi-faceted as "the poor." Some deserve it, some don't, but most are happy and that's the hallmark of a good life.

It's ok to be poor.


message 28: by Jack (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jack Rob, I am sorry if you interpreted my post as 'pity.' I know very well what it is like to be poor. The only reason I am were I am today is because I worked hard, made some friends, and got a little lucky. What disturbs me about your post is that you are so quick to judge me based on my one post, granted after I re-read it I did notice how snobbish I sounded in it.

That aside you bring an interesting point. However while many people are content where they are in life, there are those who would not rather be in such a position.

A few years ago my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She didn't have any insurance and as you can imagine the costs of all the tests, surgeries, and chemo added up. She is a single-mother and my father could care less about us, so we ended up in debt. I was only in 8th grade at the time and I had to get a job to help pay the bills. We lost everything, and every time it seemed like we were getting ahead something came up to set us back further. We were stuck. Is this saying that I was not happy? Not at all. I have very fond memories sneaking onto the farmers' land and camping out with the family, or staying up all night playing poker using whatever change was in my pocket. I was just as, if not more, happy as all the 'rich' kids in school who got to go to Mexico on their breaks. The only thing that really ever got to me was that these kids could have it all for doing nothing, while I worked until my hands bled and got nothing. And every month my mom sat in the living room, we lived with my grandparents, and cried as the bills rolled in. You do not know the grief I felt in feeling so incapable to help her.

What Ehrenreich was trying to show is that even those who work hard, often still get no where. Something needs to be done to help those who work and work and work only to come up with nothing when they are finished. Does this mean their lives all suck? Again, not at all. But don't you think that the people who work hard deserve some kind of break?


message 29: by Erin (new) - rated it 5 stars

Erin W Rob, I'm glad you brought up the part where she got high. You know, it bothered me too the first time I read this, because I'm pretty anti-pot. Then I found out that during that period Ehrenreich was actually battling breast cancer. How do you feel about it now?


message 30: by Anne (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anne Pop memoir? She, in no uncertain terms, explains that this is an experiment, as well as acknowledging MULTIPLE TIMES that she does not have to endure MANY of the obstacles the real working poor have to. She also didn't aspire to replicate the total experience of the working poor, a) because this is presumptuous and of course, the lives of the working poor are variant, not monolith and b) because she intended this as a simple experiment in mathematics: can she make ends meet with the jobs she is given. Again, she says ALL of this is in her introduction, so I don't understand how exactly how this can be such a problem for you.


message 31: by Rob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rob Erin wrote: "Rob, I'm glad you brought up the part where she got high. You know, it bothered me too the first time I read this, because I'm pretty anti-pot. Then I found out that during that period Ehrenreich w..."


I stand by what I said - it was a mistake and a bad choice. Not the worst thing in the world, but mistakes have a range of impacts and hers was relatively small.


message 32: by Rob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rob Anne wrote: "Pop memoir? She, in no uncertain terms, explains that this is an experiment, as well as acknowledging MULTIPLE TIMES that she does not have to endure MANY of the obstacles the real working poor hav..."

My problem is that it invalidates the premise upon which the book is loosely based. It's akin to saying "I'm not going to do this all the way, because everybody knows how hard it is to be poor..." Well, umm, no. Actually, we don't, thus the reading of a book about the experience which she failed to provide. It's typical echo-chamber mentality where the conclusion are derived before serious inquiry begins.

Of course she could have made ends meet with the jobs she earned (you aren't given a job. I think your language betrays your outlook on society.) She could have slept just about anywhere, for free. She could have stayed with friends. She could have done the shelters or churches. She could have leached onto some sketchy guy because he had a car and he'd reduce the cost of living.

Not all jobs are supposed to pay a wage which gets you a room and a toilet. If you want that, and I mean this in all seriousness, GO TO JAIL. That's where doing a job is guaranteed to get you enough income to live on, because living there is free*.

Life isn't about moving out of mommy and daddy's house quick as you can because you fight a lot - it's about survival. All this book does is give comfort to those who think that life in society means always being cared for, and comfort to people who think that jobs are "given".

Jesus ... I'm gonna be pissed about that for a while now ... "given" a job ... the fuck you say?!

*Not all jails are free, some charge room and board.


Aaron A. Rob said: "If you have a child without the ability to pay for it, that's kind of a "You made a HUGE mistake" thing... so maybe you shouldn't have sex until you're married."

That's easy to say, but there are plenty of situations that won't cover. Consider the young mother whose husband dies in service to his country, or contracts an expensive illness and burns through the family's money. She made the "right" choice, but she's still left raising a child by herself with no resources. It's bad enough that one mistake can lead to a lifetime of poverty with little hope of recovery, but it's even worse that one can wind up there through no fault of her own.


message 34: by Sean (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sean All of these things were acknowledged in the book. She attempted to do these things with all the marks in her favor to see if it was possible even then; all the things you listed are additional challenges. If she feels she failed with everything in her favor, it only serves to prove the point more.


rainyfeathers As someone who is working poor and only to slowly climb out of that by getting an education and tons of help from good people, I find your comment insulting. I don't have children, a low IQ or a mental disability, no drug or alcohol addiction, no abusive partner, lack of transportation, English is my first language (I was born in the US to second gen Americans-on my mother's side and too many generations to count on my father's side), I had no credit not bad credit, I never been arrested, health problems only because my work pretty much wouldn't let me go to the Doctor's office when I was sick (before that I was healthy) I have my high school diploma (and now a B.A. in two different majors), I'm an orphan when I was 20 but that is because my mother died of Cancer, never homeless, very little support but only because I didn't want help from anyone, I have tons of computer skills, and for the rest of your list, there are no boxes I can tick off. I know holy run on sentence but basically, people like you piss me off. Sometimes it is just bad luck and it can happen to anyone. So do the world a favor and shut up about things you don't know and understand. You missed the point of this book. Perhaps if you even tried understanding the working poor and treating them just like "normal" people, because humans are humans.


message 36: by Rob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rob health problems only because my work pretty much wouldn't let me go to the Doctor's office when I was sick
There's problem number 1. You're blaming "work" for your own problems. Doctors offices have hours outside of work hours. Further, if you had been terminated for being sick that would be grounds for a wrongful termination suit.

and now a B.A. in two different majors I'm sorry ... you're poor and you're getting Bachelors of ARTS?!?! And you volunteer this information in an effort to help convince people that you're not stupid? WOW! You wouldn't be poor if you had gotten two B.S's. Just saying ...

I have tons of computer skills And still can't parlay that into tons of income? Probably because you're either overestimating your computer skills, or you have two B.A.'s so no one believes you when you say how smart you are with computers.

People like you piss ME off so, right back at ya hun. You get all sanctimonious and think so highly of yourself but the proof's in the pudding - you are exactly where you have put yourself and it's your own damn fault.


message 37: by rainyfeathers (last edited Nov 28, 2012 09:11AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

rainyfeathers Rob, when I hurt my back at work they wouldn't let me go to the ER. I could have sued but I was young and if I lost that job I would have been homeless. I had to wait and finished my shift. Of course I'm sure you are going to say it is my fault.

I was poor (well still poor but better now) I just got my degree. I had to take out tons of loans. I didn't want a B.S. because that is not where my interest are. I got the degrees I wanted and that are required for the career I have a calling for.

In case you missed the memo but people can have skills but no degree and still not have a good paying job, because employees want a degree. Also underemployment is still high. There are no jobs.

I was only pointing out that the working poor is just like every other class. It has more to do with dumb luck and support when you are a child. Ever hear of the saying, "Before the grace of god go I?"


message 38: by Rob (last edited Nov 28, 2012 07:46PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rob Of course I'm sure you are going to say it is my fault.
You know I'm going to say it's your fault because you know it is - you hurt yourself at work. That means you're probably owed workman's comp. You let your fear of the unknown control you and instead of running the risk of getting fired and facing the possibility of homelessness, you basically let a company get away with abusing you when you could have sued them for the damage they did to you.

Shame on you!

As for the loans - see, this is what's wrong with America right now. You think it's ok to go into debt. You think that just because you "have a calling" for something it's ok to go into debt for it. Again, shame on you!

I never accepted that "before the grace of god go I" nonsense. In part because I don't believe in God, but also because I DO believe in me. I'm better than most and I'll put that to the test. I'll work harder than most. I'll sacrifice more than most. I'll get degrees in things that pay well even if I don't like them because that's what you do to make money. Then you save that money and you have luxury time later on.

But not you - your decadent self thinks all of society owes you. You go into debt without thinking about how "your calling" doesn't pay enough to pay off the loans you're taking out. Hey, I wanted to be an English major myself but at 18 I realized that I would rather be rich and not like what I did for a living than be happy and broke as hell. Now I make a lot of money and I have spare time to do what I love.

When you put yourself into a situation where nothing good can happen to you, and call it "bad luck" that's bull. Being poor isn't like every other class - it's mostly populated by people who just don't get it. Yall don't understand the basic principles of life: 1. Do what others will pay you for. 2. Work hard and sacrifice your spare time for more work. 3. Build a nest egg and insure yourself. 4. Don't go into debt! 5. Surround yourself with winners. etc.

It's like you want to be considered valid no matter what you do. As if life has no rules or best practices and going thousands of dollars into debt for useless B.A.'s is excusable, acceptable, and a good idea.

You lower the bar for us all. I don't mean to flame or harass, I just don't have much respect for people who can't see how they've made bad choices their whole life. And it's worse when they try to blame "luck" as if it was just impossible to see that what they were doing was stupid and would end poorly.


Gloria Diaz Jesus, Bob. I certainly hope you are not a doctor, or anything to do with helping people. You have all the compassion of a rock. I pity you, and your loved ones (if indeed you have any) and your co-workers.


message 40: by Joe (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe Lopez "She also did it without many barriers that are very real to the working poor:"

I think you missed the point of the entire book. We all know that people with those problems have a hard time getting by. If she had given herself all those disadvantages I could easily have brushed off the entire story by saying "well she wouldn't be poor if she wasn't an alcoholic with 3 kids". The point was that even a highly educated person with a car can't pull herself up if she starts out at the very bottom. You mistakenly interpreted that part as her being pretentious.


Janet I don't have the time this very minute, but believe me, I'm going to read all of the comments on this book and the responses. I believe they are more fascinating and reveal more than the book!


message 42: by Rob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rob Well, the book sucked so that wouldn't be hard, Janet.


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