Book Review: Nickeled and Dimed

Hoping to find some “hidden economies” in the lives of low-wage laborers, historian Barbara Ehrenreich spent two years trying to eke out an existence as a member of the working poor. In her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, she details her struggles, along with those of others who are trying to survive on $6 to $7 an hour, focusing on the particular drudgery of the work that women do in disproportionate numbers.

Many reviewers have taken issue with what they deem to be Ehrenreich’s elitist removal from her subject. Ehrenreich is an academic, and her interest in the power of discourse, and the discourse of power, comes across in Nickel and Dimed. One of the book’s most disturbing subjects is the way in which so many of these workers, robbed of energy and resources, start to feel dehumanized.

Ehrenreich presents her experiences by recognizing that the only way to honestly portray her subjects is to self-consciously acknowledge her own subjective limitations. In a revealing aside, Ehrenreich explains that, despite the combined pressures of maintaining both a busy career and a personal life, she cannot bring herself to employ a domestic laborer. “This is just not the kind of relationship I want to have with another human being,” she writes. Instead of coming across as condescending to those who must labor in other people’s houses anyway, this choice reflects a practical humanism. Ehrenreich also reminds her readers again and again that she has, indeed, led a privileged life, and she highlights the tension between her own comfortable experiences and those of her co-workers, making it clear that their plights are far worse, and far more real, than hers is. What she does assume is that all people, regardless of gender, race or income, want and need to be treated as feeling and reactive beings capable of making their own choices.

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