Composition ENG H101
11 November 2009
Nickel and Dimed Essay
In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich delves into the `third world' of America while attempting to make a living. She undertakes many noble trades, working in low wage and underappreciated jobs while trying to figure out how the people of this country do it every day. She works at Hearthside and Jerry's in Florida waitressing, with The Maids in Maine cleaning houses, and with Wal-Mart in Minnesota, serving their `guests', all while earning the minimum wage. She also looks to examine the functional and conflict theories of stratification as they relate to the low wage jobs she pursues. Two very different ideas are presented in the hierarchy of humanity, known as the theories of stratification. The first is the functionalist theory of stratification. This theory holds that, according to Emile Durkheim, "inequalities are good for society..." Certain people are designed and trained to perform certain jobs, and only those people can perform them to their full capacity. The workplace must reward the employee for good jobs and advances in specialization and training. This will induce the employee to work at his or her full potential. The second idea, which juxtaposes the first, is the conflict theory of stratification. This theory poses the idea that any form of social stratification creates a small, powerful group of individuals, and a large group of low wage, working class citizens. This theory also makes the points that, those who are in power, try to keep it, and proceed to create further disadvantages for the working class. The conflict theory in effect states that social inequalities are not good for society as they limit the ability for talented workers to realize their potential and utilize in the workforce. Ms. Ehrenreich sets basic ground rules for her experiments. She must find a low class, employment position (i.e. waitressing, cleaning, retail), reside in the least expensive places as possible, and she CANNOT use funds she has accrued over the years. This entire project must be accomplished only on what she makes in her low-paying jobs. Her goal is to determine what it will take to maintain her selected jobs, and if possible, survive on the wages she will receive. The journey begins in her home state, Florida. Ehrenreich decides that she will start in a place that is relatively familiar to her, Key West. In this locale, she decides on waitressing as the job that will sustain her. She lands a job at a hotel restaurant, Hearthside’s. Right off, Ehrenreich begins notice little things about the people and their habits. The most startling, and yet interesting, is the way they work. She makes note, that the employees only work just hard enough not to get fired. There is no incentive for them to get done with the dishes five minutes early, because in result, they will just be assigned a new job. This is part of the conflict theory, in which, the employees are not being rewarded. Instead, employees are exploited by upper management to fulfill more duties on a constant basis. This habit actually results in less work getting done, and ultimately hurts the restaurant. The next observation she makes, regards the rules, management, and her supervisor, Stu. On a continual basis, the employees at Hearthside are berated and belittled. They are given new rules constantly, what they can do, where they can eat, who they can talk about, and even what they are allowed to do on their free time. She clearly depicts, through Stu, that the concept of “fairness in the workplace” is more like an unachievable dream depending on an individual’s employment situation. Another problem Ehrenreich encounters throughout the duration of her experiment is the housing situation. The costs in America are skyrocketing, while minimum wage practically never changes. Ehrenreich states, "The other problem, in addition to the less-than-nurturing management style, is...
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