Book Review: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Title: Nickel and Dimed
Narrator: Christine McMurdo-Wallis
Publication Info: Recorded Books (January 1, 2004)[Originally published in  2001]

Revisiting a book from my 100 Favorite Books of All Time list to see if it still holds up.

In the wake of Clinton Administrations slashing of social safety nets in the 1990s, writer Barbara Ehrenreich decided to do an experiment using undercover participatory journalism.  She worked in a series of low wage jobs over several months each in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota to see if it was possible to pay for housing, food, and other necessities.  She went to the latter two states because as a white person who speaks English as a first language she found that in a lot of places in the United States these were advantages that automatically got her better paying work. The results are not surprising in that she struggled to make ends even with the strictest budgeting.

This book shouldn’t have to exist. There are millions of low-wage workers who could tell us their experiences if we only listened so a more privileged person like Ehrenreich shouldn’t have to go undercover.  But since the book exists, it does serve as a proxy for how low-wage jobs are destructive to the bodies of workers who suffer great indignities while remaining largely invisible to society at large.  Ehrenreich is particularly observant of hiring practices rituals such as personality tests and drug tests that serve to emphasize the worker’s mean status.  She also makes interesting observations about how the maid service she worked for trained employees to clean in a manner that was more for the prestige of the client than actually getting things cleaned sanitarily.

Sadly, this book remains highly relevant over 20 years later.  In fact, when Ehrenreich discusses her wages she’s often getting the same hourly rate paid to low-wage workers today despite the costs of housing and other necessities skyrocketing in that time.  As we are living through the Great Resignation and the largest labor organizing drive in decades, hopefully we will begin to see the conditions described in this book fading into history.

Favorite Passages:

I make no claims for the relevance of my experiences to anyone else’s, because there is nothing typical about my story.  Just 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 conder attempting, in a time of exuberant prosperity, to survive in the economy’s lower depths.” – pp. 9-10


It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage.  But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and an again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.”  pp. 68-69


What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re really selling is your life.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

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