Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

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Great discoveries always begin with great questions. Barbara Ehrenreich asked two great questions, “how does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled” and “how were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform, going to make it on $6 to $7 an hour” (2001, p. 12). To answer the questions, Ehrenreich embarked upon a journey to discover for herself, whether she could match income to expense as a low-wage worker. In effect, Ehrenreich tested the fundamental premise of The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, also known as welfare reform, in order to determine whether those individuals formerly on welfare and largely unskilled, could earn a living wage on the…show more content…
Hodson and Sullivan describe Marxist thinking on the relationship between capitalists and labor as, “labor is to be hired, used up, and discarded” (2001, p. 8); a description strikingly similar to Ehrenreich’s experiences and observations. Ehrenreich also found the experience of the working poor abound with indignities, from monitored urination for drug testing to subjection to search. Ehrenreich notes the indignity, “I still flinch to think that I spent all those weeks under the surveillance of men (and later women) whose job it was to monitor my behavior for signs of sloth, theft, drug abuse or worse” (2001, p. 22). “According to Marx, the exploitation of workers by capitalists and the resulting alienation from work result in the denial of workers’ humanity” (Hodson & Sullivan, 2008, p. 8); once again, a description strikingly similar to Ehrenreich’s experiences and observations. What must the U.S. economy look like, when viewed through the everyday experiences of the working poor? Is America the land of opportunity or simply an economic trap from which there is little chance of escape? Taking a short view of the economy, where one low-wage job looks much like another and mobility is a challenge, the working poor are in an economic vise; squeezed by high prices for basic commodities like housing, food and gasoline on one end and unable to change their basic job situation on the other.
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