Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About this Guide
No matter which tax bracket you're in, you have a stake in the issues raised by
Barbara Ehrenreich. A book that has changed assumptions about American
prosperity and hardship, Nickel and Dimed makes an especially compelling
selection for reading groups. The questions that follow are designed to enhance
your personal understanding or group discussion of this provocative, heartfelt
-- and funny -- account of life in the low-wage trenches.
About the Book
The New York Times bestseller, and one of the most talked about books of the
year, Nickel and Dimed has already become a classic of undercover reportage.
Millions of Americans work for poverty-level wages, and one day Barbara
Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric
surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life.
But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 to $7 an hour? To find out,
Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest
lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner,
nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart salesperson. She soon discovered that even the
"lowliest" occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts. And one
job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.
Nickel and Dimed reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety,
and surprising generosity -- a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand
desperate strategies for survival. Instantly acclaimed for its insight, humor,
and passion, this book is changing the way America perceives its working poor.
In the wake of recent welfare reform measures, millions of women entering the
workforce can expect to face struggles like the ones Ehrenreich confronted in
Nickel and Dimed.
Have you ever been homeless, unemployed, without health insurance, or held
down two jobs? What is the lowest-paying job you ever held and what kind of help
-- if any -- did you need to improve your situation?
Were your perceptions of blue-collar Americans transformed or reinforced
by Nickel and Dimed? Have your notions of poverty and prosperity changed since
reading the book? What about your own treatment of waiters, maids, and
How do booming national and international chains -- restaurants, hotels,
retail outlets, cleaning services, and elder-care facilities -- affect the
treatment and aspirations of low-wage workers? Consider how market competition
and the push for profits drive the nickel-and-diming of America's lowest-paid.
Housing costs pose the greatest obstacle for low-wage workers. Why does
our society seem to resist rectifying this situation? Do you believe that there
are realistic solutions to the lack of affordable housing?
While working for The Maids, Ehrenreich hears Ted claim that he's "not a
bad guy . . . and cares a lot about his girls." How do the assumptions of
supervisors such as Ted affect their employees? How does Ted compare to
Ehrenreich's other bosses? To yours?
Ehrenreich is white and middle class. She asserts that her experience
would have been radically different had she been a person of color or a single
parent. Do you think discrimination shaped Ehrenreich's story? In what ways?
Ehrenreich found that she could not survive on $7.00 per hour -- not if
she wanted to live indoors. Consider how her experiment would have played out in
your community: limiting yourself to $7.00 per hour earnings, create a
hypothetical monthly budget for your part of the country.
Ehrenreich experienced remarkable goodwill, generosity, and solidarity
among her colleagues. Does this surprise you? How do you think your own
colleagues measure up?
Why do you think low-wage workers are reluctant to form labor
organizations as Ehrenreich discovered at Wal-Mart? How do you think employees
should lobby to improve working conditions?
Many campus and advocacy groups are currently involved in struggles for a
"living wage." How do you think a living wage should be calculated?
Were you surprised by the casual reactions of Ehrenreich's coworkers when
she revealed herself as an undercover writer? Were you surprised that she wasn't
suspected of being "different" or out-of-place despite her graduate-level
education and usually comfortable lifestyle?
How does managers' scrutiny -- "time theft" crackdowns and drug testing
-- affect workers' morale? How can American companies make the workplace
environment safe and efficient without treating employees like suspected
Ehrenreich concluded that had her working life been spent in a Wal-Mart-like environment, she would have emerged a different person -- meaner,
pettier, "Barb" instead of "Barbara." How would your personality change if you
were placed in working conditions very different from the ones you are in now?
The workers in Nickel and Dimed receive almost no benefits -- no overtime
pay, no retirement funds, and no health insurance. Is this fair? Do you think an
increase in salary would redress the lack of benefits, or is this a completely
Many of Ehrenreich's colleagues relied heavily on family -- for housing
and help with child-care, by sharing appliances and dividing up the cooking,
shopping, and cleaning. Do you think Americans make excessive demands on the
family unit rather than calling for the government to help those in need?
Nickel and Dimed takes place in 1998-2000, a time of unprecedented
prosperity in America. Do you think Ehrenreich's experience would be different
in today's economy? How so?
After reading Nickel and Dimed, do you think that having a job -- any job
-- is better than no job at all? Did this book make you feel angry? Better
informed? Relieved that someone has finally described your experience?
Galvanized to do something?
Reproduced with the permission of Owl/Metropolitan Books.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Henry Holt and Company.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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