Nickel and Dimed Study Guide

Synopsis
The author Barbara Ehrenreich wonders if single mothers, who due to recent Welfare reform, whom depend solely on what they can make at low-wage jobs, will be able to survive financially. To answer this question, she decides to survive on low wages in three cities in America.

In the first city, Key West, Ehrenreich works at two different restaurants and as a house keeper in a hotel. She lives in an efficiency and then a trailer park. In Key West, Ehrenreich first learns that there are hidden costs to being poor. She notes that if you cannot afford the security deposit for an apartment, you are forced to live in a hotel--which is ultimately more costly. If you have only a room, you cannot save money by cooking nutritious, cheap food. If you have no health insurance, you end up with significant and costly health problems. On a particularly rough day, Ehrenreich walks off the job and never returns.


Next, Ehrenreich moves to Maine because of the virtually all-white low-wage workforce. Here, she lives in a cottage and works for a cleaning service during the week and at a nursing home on the weekends. An important lesson that Ehrenreich learns in Maine is that there is little assistance for the working poor. She tries to get some sort of assistance and encounters rude people who are willing to do little for her.

The final place Ehrenreich lives is Minnesota. Here she works at Wal-Mart. In Minnesota, Ehrenreich has the most difficulty finding housing. She eventually moves into a hotel, which is much too expensive for her budget--although she has no other safe choices. Ehrenreich comes close to organizing a union at Wal-Mart, but leaves before anything materializes.

Author Biography

Barbara Ehrenreich was born on August 26, 1941 and is best described as a social critic. She did her undergraduate work at Reed College and then went on to receive the Ph.D. in Biology from The Rockefeller University in New York City. However, instead of pursuing a career in biology, Ehrenreich began a writing career focused on social change. She has written for such publications as Time, The Progressive, New York Times, Mother Jones, The Atlantic Monthly, Ms., The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, Z Magazine, In These Times, and Salon.com. Ehrenreich has also taught a graduate writing seminar at The University of California Berkeley. In addition to essays, Ehrenreich has written fiction and non-fiction books.

Historical Information

The impetus for this book is the welfare reform that took place in the 1990s. Before welfare reform, welfare money was distributed by a program called “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” (AFDC). However, during the 1980s and the 1990s, this program received much criticism for too freely distributing money to those who did not really need it. Some people believed that many welfare recipients were cheating the system by having more children to receive more money, or not working as hard as they could.

In 1996 President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996. This welfare reform bill changed many aspects of welfare. One important change was the time limit imposed on welfare recipients--someone could only collect welfare for five years. The AFDC was replaced by “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” (TANF) and supplemented with the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which attempts to reduce or even eliminate taxes paid by low-income workers.

Genre

Nickel and Dimed is a non-fiction work that can be described as an ethnography or investigative journalism. “Ethnography” is a scholarly term for the anthropological study of human cultures. Ethnographies are based on fieldwork, in which the ethnographer collects data through first-hand experience.

A less-scholarly way of describing this research is as investigative journalism. When a journalist undertakes this type of a project, he or she typically works undercover gathering first-hand information. While ethnography seeks to evaluate human cultures, investigative journalism may describe broader phenomena that do not necessarily center on human beings.

It is important to note the differences between non-fiction writing such as Nickel and Dimed and novels. A novel is a fictional narrative in which literary elements such as exposition, rising action, climax, denouement, and characterization are essential elements. Conversely, Nickel and Dimed is an account of true events and does not contain the same literary elements. However, the reader should be aware that there are fictive elements to many non-fiction works, because the author must re-create scenes and decide how he or she wants to frame the data.

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