Nickel and Dimed

On (Not) Getting By in America
Length: 8 hrs and 12 mins
Categories: History, Americas
4.0 out of 5 stars (1,229 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

This engrossing piece of undercover reportage has been a fixture on the New York Times best seller list since its publication. With nearly a million copies in print, Nickel and Dimed is a modern classic that deftly portrays the plight of America's working-class poor.

A successful author, Barbara Ehrenreich decides to see if she can scratch out a comfortable living in a blue-collar America obsessed with welfare "reform". Her first job is waitressing, which pulls in a measly $2.43 an hour plus tips. She moves around the country, trying her hand as a maid, a nursing home assistant, and a Wal-Mart salesperson. What she discovers is a culture of desperation, where workers take multiple thankless jobs just to keep a roof overhead.

Often humorous and always illuminating, Nickel and Dimed is a remarkable expose of the ugly flip side of the American dream.

©2001 Barbara Ehrenreich (P)2004 Recorded Books, LLC

Critic Reviews

  • Book Sense Book of the Year Award Finalist, Adult Non-Fiction, 2002
  • Alex Award Winner, 2002

"One of today's most original writers." (The New York Times)
"A close observer and astute analyzer of American life, Ehrenreich turns her attention to what it is like trying to subsist while working in low-paying jobs....Her narrative is candid, often moving, and very revealing." (Library Journal)
"Delivering a fast read that's both sobering and sassy, she [Ehrenreich] gives readers pause about those caught in the economy's undertow, even in good times." (Publishers Weekly)

What listeners say about Nickel and Dimed

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

of COURSE she has an agenda...

The author clearly states in the introduction to the book that she has an agenda, is choosing the locations for that reason, is not actually going to find out what it is really like to be poor, and is privileged. At least she's honest.
That's why the book works. All of the negative reviews are pointing out exactly what the author is trying to get across. And, from what some reviewers wrote, the need for this book still exists.
I find this book to be an interesting look into cultural assumptions and understandings about poverty, privilege, and work that is definitely worth a listen or a read.

35 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

A Candid and Thoughtful Experiment

Barbara Ehrenreich is a master of her surroundings. In this book, she offers candid and daunting insight into the world of low-wage laborers. Her reflections are not limited to the financial woes of the poor but expand into their social culture and daily realities.

The detail in this book is helpful at times while frivolous at others, which is why I think the other reviewers missed the point of Ehrenreich's message. Yes, she does reveal the working class conditions of certain professions in Portland, Key West and Minneapolis to demonstrate that they are consistent (and demeaning) in the many different regions of America. Yes, she does demonstrate that the negative side of capitalism is a reality for poor Americans. But that does not appear to be her underlying message. Instead, I think Ehrenreich's point is that people deserve to be treated with respect and decency regardless of their occupation.

A word about the narration: This is definitely a book in which the voice of the narrator must fit the tone and context of the author's message. Ehrenreich would have done this audio book justice had she served as the narrator. For the most part Christine McMurdo-Wallis was able to grasp the feeling and tone of each moment of Ehrenreich's experiment, but at times I found it distracting and difficult to listen to her because her voice is quite refined and sophisticated. (It is rather difficult to tap into an author's point of view as an impostor in tough working conditions when the narrator's voice resembles that of Lauren Bacall.) This may explain why other reviewers perceived the author as whiny, condescending and elitist.

19 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

Good concept, but poor execution.

The concept of this book is very good. Is it possible to live on a minimum wage salary? This book raises some very interesting social and political issues.

The problem I have with the book is the editorializing, and even more so, the incessant whining of the author. Also, much of the writing has an "elitest" tone to it. If you are going to try your hand making a living as a maid, you should not be surprised about having to clean toilets or carrying a vaccuum. If you are going to work at WallMart, don't be shocked about having to return clothes to the a rack.

Sometimes it seems that the author never held a real job in her life. Employees complaining about managment, drug testing, ineffectual and demoralizing management is as much a "white collar" (and high pay) issue as it is a "blue collar" (minimum wage) issue. Of course, the white collar employees have a home to return to at the end of the day.

Hence, my main complaint about the book is that the author should have spent more time analyzing the housing issues, aide for the poor issues, job market issues, rather than whine about her minimum wage jobs.

In summary, I believe the book is raising some serious issues about "the working poor", it is unfortunate that it is too painful to listen to the authors complaints to get the the heart of the book.

58 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

Very limited point of view here

This book about America's working poor is interesting but is only a small window into the lives of these people. The author, naturally, has many advantages over her co-workers and this shows through loud and clear during her experiment. She also has a somewhat elitist attitude towards those she works with and constantly reminds us of her Phd and how "over-qualified" she is for many of these jobs.

No doubt, it will surely be an eye opening book for those who've never had the experience of growing up in this sort of situation (or never getting the opportunity to get out of it). For me it was an all too painful a reminder of my teen years and the horrible job at a fast food joint where I worked double shifts, was often called a peon by management and went home smelling and feeling like I'd been dipped in the fry-o-later all for a measly pittance. Finishing school and taking a few college courses changed the course of my life but many don't have this option (or realize it too late). It's difficult to advance past an entry level job when one needs such luxuries as food and shelter and then if you throw children into the mix things are pretty glum. This book mainly made me sad but there were a few moments of light and genuine human kindness.

However, in the end this book turns out to be just one woman's very limited experiences. I completely agree with her that it is very difficult (near impossible) to get out of the entry level job once you're knee deep in debt or have children and are no longer collecting (or never have) welfare. But I do have issues with her Welfare Reform rants and it is painfully obvious that she is looking at this from an outsiders point of view. She rants at length about the evils of Welfare Reform (and I agree with some points ~ some people just can't make it on their own) but she doesn't once state that some positives can and DO come out of it.

Overall, I didn't think this was a very balanced look at the "working poor".

18 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Important to listen to the message

A very important book for those who have been very successful in life, and need to realize how fortunate they are. I found the book quite interesting, and despite editorializing that others heard as a negative, I sensed the natrual frustration that probably is right on the mark from someone in the world described. I recommend this book highly for someone open-minded, and humble.

16 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

An Experiment in Poverty--Sort of

This was a rather alarming book to read but I really felt the writer's pain. I thought the ending was a touch Marxist; however, very thought-provoking and defintely worth the read. How do people live in America? Well if you don't make a lot of money not very well. Do we have a Plutocracy? This book takes a slice-of-life view of a cross-section of America at the near-poverty line. An interesting book if you can take feeling pain for those less fortunate.

8 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

We already know this.

I was hoping this book would address the issues of being at the bottom of the pay scale that most people don't understand like; shall we eat or pay the manditory fees, likeauto insurance? Or how the lower you are on the pay scale, the higher the fees for everything are. No, instead we get to find out how hard it is to be a maid or waitress. I haven't finished the book yet so I may edit this but so far, I am not impressed.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

This could have been better

Other reviewers have summarized the premise and the topic, so I won't. This book starts with promise and ends disappointingly. I don't mean the slightly pontificating style, but rather in substance. Two comments to highlight what I mean:

1. To protect their identities, she hides the identities of her ex-co-workers and their employers (except Wal-Mart). You can tell that she feels for her ex-co-workers and the fact that they are being exploited by management. But the things she describes are often violations of labor law, sometimes even criminal offences. She could improve their lives by lending her name and credibility to a class action lawsuit. She wouldn't have to worry about repurcussions, because she's the ideal witness - she doesn't need the job! But instead, she refuses to go the extra mile and actually do something.

2. Compare the "being a maid" chapter, where she rips on rich people for leaving their stuff lying around, refusing to lift a finger to help themselves, etc. with the "working at Wal-Mart" chapter, where she doesn't rip on customers who leave their stuff lying around, don't lift a finger to help themselves, etc. There's a double-standard that detracts from the book: she wants to show that rich people who benefit from service-sector employees are evil, but refuses to acknowledge that *everyone* takes advantage of service-sector employees. There's an interesting issue there. She doesn't see it, or refuses to follow it. I can't tell which.

9 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Important book

The negative reactions to this book may be caused by the occasionally arch tone of the reader. The choice of which words to emphasize sometimes makes the author sound supercilious. However, this is a close and personal look behind the statistics we tend to ignore, or pay only cursory attention. It is a healthy thing for those of us who are not the working poor, to have a look at the fragile existence of those struggling to get by on low wages. The writing is excellent, of course, and engaging.

5 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

Opened my eyes to...

the way cleaning services work. Gross.
On a more serious note, I find the whining she does, while sometimes overdone, is evidence of the lack of respect and empathy given the working class poor. She is whining about the very things that many working class people have to deal with. We should hear someone doing it since we don't listen to the poor. She enumerates the indignities and pettiness that can happen in these low-paying and low-rent areas of life.

7 people found this helpful