Review of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed

Written by Natasha Elizabeth Roccaforte

Low-wage workers make up this country’s lower class. They are stuck doing “unskilled” work that no one wants to do. Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of the book Nickel and Dimed, works these undesirable jobs as a real life experiment to give us a first hand look at the hardships low-wage workers endure. The biggest difficulty that the lower class faces is the lack of affordable housing. The cost of housing keeps rising but the minimum wage does not. An adequate and safe place to call home and rest your head at night should be a basic right extended to everyone regardless of your income. Having a place to cook or shower is a simple human necessity that in some cases is not met. The sad part is, most low-wage workers are forced to live in bad parts of town or dilapidated buildings that are still barely affordable at their pay rate. Many only survive by taking on a second job just to pay the rent and cover other costs of living. As Ehrenreich finds, fulfilling these basic human needs is not so easy on a minimum wage job.

Ehrenreich states, “…that according to the Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998 it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one bedroom apartment…” (p.3) So why is the minimum wage so many people are paid several dollars short of that? Why does this country not require employers to pay their lowest paid employees a wage that would secure them an adequate one-bedroom apartment? Minimum wage workers who live below poverty level fall back on welfare, housing programs and homeless shelters just to have a roof over their heads. If employers were required to pay their employees a livable wage it would decrease the reliance on welfare and housing assistance programs and put those monies to other uses.

Now you must also take into consideration the numerous single parent mothers who must support themselves on low wages, but also their children. Ehrenreich finds that the St. Paul based Jobs Now Coalition estimated that “in 1997, a living wage for a single parent supporting a single child in the Twin Cities metro area was $11.77 per hour. This estimate was based on monthly expenses that included $266 for food (all meals cooked and eaten at home), $261 for childcare, and $550 for rent. “ (p.127) She also found that this study has not been updated since the Twin Cities rent inflation of 2000. With single moms earning a low wage income its no wonder they must depend on welfare to feed their children!

It’s an unfortunate trap these workers fall into when it comes to housing. Ehrenreich states, “If you can’t put up two months’ rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week.” (p.27) Its then impossible to save by cooking because the rooms aren’t equipped with a kitchen so you end up eating unhealthy fast food. To Ehrenreich’s benefit she allots herself $1,300 to start out with to find housing when she begins her low wage work. Her ability to put down money for a deposit on an apartment is what makes her living situation manageable. The cost of a motel by the week can be several hundred dollars more a month compared to an apartment or trailer. Most are unable to afford a deposit required to rent an apartment and are not able to save any money because of the high cost of motels. This forces the low-wage worker to hold two jobs or find a mate to split the cost of living.

In desirable cities, rent costs keep rising. If a building owner knows they can rent their apartments out for a higher price they will. Low-wage workers are outbid in a sense for adequate housing in cities that have the jobs they qualify for. As rent prices rise, their wages do not. Corporations fight tooth and nail to deny their workers a pay hike to match the rising costs of housing. Ehrenreich cites the Cape Cod Times stating, “…rising rents for apartments are driving the working class into motels, where a room might go for $880 a month in winter but climbs to $1,440 a month in the tourist season.” (p.55)

Ehrenreich faces a shortage of motels and apartments in Minnesota. She is only ably to find a motel that smells of mold and mouse droppings. There is no AC or fan, but since there is no screen on the window she does not feel safe leaving it open at night. There is no bolt on the door so she sleeps very lightly at this motel awakening to cars or people passing by. She realizes that being a woman and alone in this kind of living situation brings a new fear for her safety.

One of Ehrenreich’s coworkers lived in her van parked behind the shopping mall and showers in another coworkers hotel room. Apparently living in your car in Florida is only possible during the winter because in the summertime in gets to hot to leave the windows up, leaving the car open to bugs or anyone else who wants to get in. Ehrenreich couldn’t find any statistics of employed people living in their cars, but she does cite a 1997 report of the National Coalition for the Homeless titled Myths and Facts about the Homeless, that “nearly one fifth of all homeless people are employed in full or part time jobs”

Low-wage workers are also limited in terms of housing location. Most workers cannot afford a car and therefore need to live within reach of public transportation or walking distance of their jobs. The cost of housing close to a city’s center can be much higher than the outskirts of town. On the other hand sometimes inner city housing can be affordable but in terrible condition or in a bad area. Ehrenreich finds out “there is a trade off between affordability and convenience,” and rents a cheaper apartment thirty miles outside of town.

Low-wage workers face a life with many hardships. I think the rise of housing costs and the stagnant minimum wage makes it more difficult to find an adequate place to live. The poor are forced to live in worsening conditions or in motels with their children, unable to cook a healthy meal. These dilapidated motels seem to be a dead end for many workers who can’t seem to get ahead and need to work two jobs to have food and shelter.

Articles by Barbara Ehrenreich


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