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This work is about the struggle by minimum-wage workers to make ends meet. The author Barbara Ehrenreich had to go undercover as a minimum-wage worker in order to get a first-hand experience. She sacrificed the comfort of her middle-class life to work different jobs in three different towns over a period of three months and chronicled her experiences. She worked some long, exhausting hours that paid the least wages. She constantly struggled to make ends meet, especially rent, and she had to keep off her friends and relatives in order not to expose her real identity. The title of the book 'Nickel and Dimed' is taken from a common phrase that means to be charged bit by bit until the expenses become unmanageable. This is the situation faced by middle-aged workers as theirs is an undignified life of drudgery and survival.
Barbara starts her first job as a waitress and soon realizes that even with money from tips she receives every night; she is unable to meet all her expenses. The biggest challenge is housing which is proving to be too expensive to sustain on her individual earnings. Most of her colleagues live with family or roommates. There are even others like her co-worker Gail, who is forced to rent cheap motels on a nightly basis. She writes; "It is hard to get my co-workers talking about their living conditions, because housing is the principle source of disruption in their lives" (Ehrenreich 46). She has to take an extra job to make ends meet. From her writing, Barbara Ehrenreich not only exposes the abject poverty faced by America's low class, she admonishes the society for its increasing indifference to the situation faced by low-wage workers.
It is clear that poverty is not only caused by unemployment; even those who are employed can wallow in abject living conditions. Low-wage work is physically taxing, unhealthy and characterized by indignity and dehumanization. Colleen, also a maid and a single mother of two, shrugs off the abuses of the workplace: "I don't mind, really, because I guess I'm a simple person, and I don't want what they have. I mean, it's nothing to me. But what I would like is to be able to take a day off now and then...if I had to...and still be able to buy groceries the next day" (Ehrenreich 158).
The workers have resigned to their fate. There is no anger or rebellion. There is no coming together to face a common adversity. The workers situation is so demeaning yet defeatism keeps them from trying to remedy the situation. The idea that hard work breeds success seems very absurd in the low-wage workplace. These people work extremely hard yet get little or no reward. Moving up the social ladder seems impossible since their meager earnings are soon swallowed up by daily expenses.
'Nickel and Dimed was written just after the nation had enacted welfare reform and many citizens who previously received welfare were forced to take up jobs. The idea of increased employment was noble and was enthusiastically supported across the political divide but it turned out to be a big failure. Jobs were there but they were not paying enough to cater for the necessary things like rent, food and healthcare. From the book, it is fair to conclude that low-wage jobs do not pay sufficient money for an individual to be able to sustain one's self, leave alone family. Low-income workers have been forced to endure inhuman living conditions and the society at large seems not to notice or care.