Nickel and Dimed

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Research Essay: Nickel and Dimed
Looking at the state of low wage workers in America today, many are struggling to make ends meet and provide basic needs to themselves and their families. Is this a new situation or just a necessary part of the overall American economic structure? In her book, “Nickel and Dimed” (2001), Barbara Ehrenreich steps out of her comfortable, middle class existence to find out how the people working in the lowest rung of America’s economy are getting by. Using her sarcasm, dry wit, and no-nonsense storytelling style, makes her main claim that in the economy of today, low wage workers are not anywhere near making it, let alone moving up the socio-economic ladder. This claim is hotly debated in every possible theater, from the political campaign trail, in the press, and at the local community college campus. Ehrenreich also states that there are several accompanying causes that are also at play, that high housing costs, access to basic health care, and the lack of a basic “living wage” contribute to a “hidden-cost” economy, and that they are working against people in low wage jobs. There are numerous arguments that have been presented that both support and refute Ehrenreich’s claims, mainly examining the validity of her examples, support information, and her execution of the experiment. Discussion of these different points of view and analysis will provoke further healthy debate on the state of the working poor and the possible solutions that we need to explore as an educated society. In the introduction of the book Ehrenreich details the formation of this experiment in great detail, from the lunch discussion with a colleague that led to the original formation of the idea, all the way to the specific conditions for the experiment. While she wanted to experience life as a member of the working poor, she did not want to put herself in any real danger or hardship. In fact, in the beginning, she had serious discussions with her family that the whole thing could be done from her study, by just “simulating” all of the conditions, without actually heading out to do it for real. (Ehrenreich 3) She also emphasizes that she is not trying to portray herself as the average example, but as the best case scenario, complete with her own monetary safety net. At the outset of experiment she seemed to show a good amount of optimism that, if she applied herself and worked hard, that she would have no problem succeeding at her goal of making it on low wage jobs, because of her education and her excellent work ethics. (Ehrenreich 7) Unfortunately, as she purposefully hid her qualifications to every probable employer and throughout every interview process, her optimism was quickly eroded as she faced the realities of finding low wage work and the high costs of housing and health care. There are many opinions on the subject of the working poor in America. This is due to the multitude of factors that affect any socio-economic group or situation. Also, there are a multitude of different solutions that are proposed from various experts, some that support Ehrenreich’s view and some that do not. Larry Schweikhart refutes Ehrenreich directly in his analysis of her book by pointing out several large flaws in the execution of the experiment and the basic assumptions of low wage workers. First, she approached the low wage job as if it was the last stop on the economic chain for everyone that had them, and that there seemed to never be any example of advancement up the economic ladder. (Schweikart) He supports his argument by pointing out that all of her examples seemed to be of the same mold, with similar living situations and marital status, not looking or striving to advance up the chain or move on to a job where this was possible. (Schweikart) He also claims that most low paying jobs are meant to be merely a means to an end, in that people use them to learn basic job skills, not as a long term career. (Schweikart)...
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