Nickel and Dimed: Ehrenreich's Story on Getting By in America

Categories: EmploymentWorkers

Have you ever thought about turning your life around in one day? I’m pretty sure that everyone is getting those kinds of thoughts. There is always something we are not happy about and we always dreaming about being someone else or living someone else’s life. But have you ever thought about people who live in worse conditions then us and dreaming about living our life?

Barbara Ethrenreich, a writer and journalist from Key West, Florida was not only thinking about it but decided to take a risk and try to survive in an unfamiliar environment.

In her narrative essay “Serving in Florida”, Nickel and Dimed she described her experience working “under-cover” in low paying jobs in Florida. She vividly drew the living and working conditions of lower income people who became robots carrying out their duties. Barbara explains her opinion, emotions, and thoughts of how to live in an expensive city such as Key West where even trailer parks are too extravagant for minimum-wage workers.

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The essay withdraws how the employees are scared of losing their jobs even though they are forced to work in inhumane conditions, such as long hours, no breaks between shifts and lack of food sometimes. Because of people’s needs, managers use strategies to expand control over them and take advantage of their situation. As an example, they do not provide appropriate healthcare plans, offer poor work conditions and minimum salary rates; moreover, they demoralize employees in front of other co-workers with inappropriate attitude and verbally abuse them by yelling at and blaming employees for stealing products without proof of their action.

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One of the most impressive ways to hook reader’s attention is to write from personal experience, just as Barbara wrote her essay. She gave the chapter the title 'Serving in Florida', which immediately lets the reader know that she will be serving others rather than being served. I think that was the reason why I considered this essay as the most interesting one since I feel a deep connection with the character that went through a lot of difficulties on her way. It seemed that I felt Barbara being tired, exhausted, offended and helpless. That’s exactly how I felt when I moved to the United States five years ago. I wish I was as a good write as she is, so I could publish all the terrible and funny situations about 19 year old girl who couldn’t say a word in English. I had many flashbacks from my past while reading the essay. I reminded myself of some places where I used to work before, especially when she said: “When Gail and I are wrapping silverware in napkins – the only task for which we are allowed to sit…” (Ehrenreich 25). So we can see how the working conditions were and the workers probably couldn’t wait to wrap those napkins just to sit for a little bit. People who worked at that café were not allowed to talk to co-workers, eat or take a few minutes break. Furthermore, they even couldn’t talk to the customers since the manager considered it as a waste of time. I think Barbara did an amazing job turning her wealthy life upside down just to send a message to the reader. Describing her experience, she reminds the reader that many people who live in rough, subhuman conditions and there are low paying workers who are not able to afford the simple necessities in life, like new cloth for work or a decent meal. People living in this situation do not have the opportunity to succeed, and are usually stuck in a spiral of losing poverty and despair. And that’s true. How can you succeed if there is always someone who yells at you, puts you down and controls you every step? It is impossible for people to develop in such surroundings because they lose faith in themselves.

Barbara’s essay brought back memories of Amy Tan’s essay Mother Tongue which I have read this summer. In this essay, Amy describes how limited is her mother with poor English skills. I couldn’t agree with Tan that the non-native speakers of English are limited by their imperfect English also I can’t agree with Barbara that it is impossible to survive on a minimum wage. Both of those essays are over exaggerating. As I mentioned above, I went through all the difficulties that Barbara had; the only difference was that I didn’t have a car and couldn’t speak English. Of course, there were some things that I had to say “no” to, but I was doing well and no one ever made me feel that I was a lower class. While reading Barbara’s essay I was getting really mad at her describing of lower class people’s life, how horrible it is. Sometimes it seemed that she was making fun of them. She was trying to demonstrate that she was not one of them and that they had nothing in common, even topics for conversation.

Throughout the piece, the author talks in a fastidious tone. In my opinion, it is more difficult to please her than the average person in the lower class. Ehrenreich comes off as a very picky person that causes a problem for her argument. She is working with people who live and will always live on the minimum wage. On the other hand, Ehrenreich knows that she will be going back to her life which allows her to be very judgmental and comparative. Even if she did try to place herself in the position of the working poor, she is never going to feel the same way. Her experiment was well thought out, but since she was moving down a class, I don't think she thought about the other side. I believe there are many homeless people who wish they could work as a waitress or housekeeper, even if it means living in a trailer. Also Ehrenreich never thought about possibly finding a roommate to help her pay for the rent; I think she just did not know how to survive for having less money than she was used to. Another thing that made me upset is the situation with the Czech student Gorge. And I’m not talking about him being blamed for nothing, but for Barbara not taking his side. She was sure that he did not steal anything and was punished unfairly but she didn’t do anything to protect him. She talked a lot about people being scared to lose their job that’s why they let management manipulate them. What about her? Was she scared to lose her job too?

Overall, Ehrenreich’s purpose of the story is to show that wages in America are too low and prices for rent, food and other bills are too high. Families and single people can barely survive on the wages that unskilled workers are paid. Many families spend their whole life behind their bills and often have to forego such necessities as food and clothing to keep roof over their heads. She introduces the piece with what she comes to realize: “…that it’s not easy to go from being a consumer, thoughtlessly throwing money around in exchange for groceries and movies and gas, to being a worker in the very same place” (Ehrenreich 17). Her proposition and thesis very effectively communicates her purpose to her audience. Barbara is trying to speak out to middle and upper class, hoping that people will realize that the minimum wage is not a living wage. She describes how “the poor help the poor” by putting extra croutons in a salad and in this way she tries to encourage middle and upper class people with more opportunities to offer their help to the poor. Barbara tries to emphasize to people who are consumers to think about those workaholics that provide service for them. She asks her readers not to be careless, so let’s follow her guidance and not be careless.

Updated: Feb 18, 2024
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Nickel and Dimed: Ehrenreich's Story on Getting By in America. (2024, Feb 18). Retrieved from

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