Introduction: Getting Ready
The idea for Nickel and Dimed is hatched when Barbara Ehrenreich lunches with Harper's editor Lewis Lapham. She suggests that somebody should investigate living on minimum wage from the inside: that is, actually living on a minimum wage and reporting the experience. Lapham agrees and says the person should be Ehrenreich herself. The assignment involves working at minimum-wage jobs for one month at a time to see if she can match her earnings to her expenses.
Ehrenreich has misgivings. She is from a working-class background and has no desire to return to her roots. People around her suggest that she can recreate the situation of minimum wage without going through the actual hardships. However, she finally agrees to the assignment by imagining it as a scientific experiment. In this spirit, she sets up ground rules: first, she cannot rely on skills derived from her education or her work as a writer; second, she must take the highest paying job possible and actually work; and third, she must find the cheapest living conditions for herself. In retrospect, she admits these rules were not always observed. Ehrenreich sets up other parameters as well: she will always have a car, will never go homeless, and will not go hungry.
Ehrenreich acknowledges that she is different from many of the people she will be working with. She is financially comfortable and can walk away from her experiment if she wants. She is white and a native English speaker. She has a car. As for whether the people she deals with can tell she is different than they are, Ehrenreich confesses that the opposite was closer to the truth. Her lack of experience means she is less skilled in many situations. She does not merely pose as a minimum-wage worker; for a period of time, she is, in fact, a minimum-wage worker. The nature of every job she takes, each of which involves some form of physical labor, means that... [continues]
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