Barbara Ehrenreich was already a highly respected figure in the world of journalism before she penned Nickel and Dimed. As she relates in her introduction to the book, the idea of trying out low-wage work in the interest of investigative reportage came up during a lunch with the editor of Harper’s. Ehrenreich was comfortably ensconced in the upper-middle-class world of high-brow writing. Her familial roots may have been decidedly blue-collar, but she was now anything but.
Ehrenreich's journey, as chronicled in her book, immediately caught attention. It was the "old-fashioned kind of journalism" as she put it, true undercover reportage. Except, of course, Ehrenreich set limits and rules for herself, held onto a car and an ATM card for emergencies, and hopped from locale to locale when the going got tough. The point was not so much to become poor as to get a sense of the spectrum of low-wage work that existed--from waitressing to maid work, from feeding the elderly to prowling the aisles of Wal-Mart. Through the process, Ehrenreich found her self-set rules tested and her eyes widened--and critics were quick to champion her gamble. Responses were largely positive, with The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and The San Francisco Chronicle all praising Ehrenreich's work. Ehrenreich received the Sydney Hillman Award for Journalism and a Brill's Content "Honorable Mention" for a chapter of the book that appeared in Harper's in 1999.
It behooves us to remember that Ehrenreich undertook her quest at a time of supposedly dazzling prosperity. These were the high Clinton years, the years of the late-nineties boom, the years immediately following welfare reform, a move heralded by many quarters as a way to get more Americans off the streets and into the workplace. What Ehrenreich found—and it wasn’t much to her surprise, either—was that the boom was a myth. The truth was that the poor were only getting poorer. The prosperity of the upper crust was pressuring rents upwards, leaving those on society’s bottom rungs sandwiched between wages that remained far lower than 1973 levels and housing that was quickly becoming unaffordable. Meanwhile, welfare reform slashed social services, and the safety net most civilized countries offer their less privileged citizens was in America being demolished almost altogether (not that it ever quite existed to the extent that it does in, say, France). The result was what Ehrenreich deemed “a state of emergency”.
Read today, almost a decade after its publication in 2001, Nickel and Dimed is both ironic and eerily timely. Americans now have a tendency to think of the late nineties as golden years, given our current economic woes. But Ehrenreich reminds us that those “golden years” were really only “golden” for a small fraction of the country’s population. The poor remained unacknowledged and underserviced, “philanthropists” of society as Ehrenreich calls them. Their situation may be even worse today, but it was far from rosy in 1999. As the wealthy tend to write history—thus, the better off they are, the better off we are led to believe the country as a whole is—Ehrenreich’s work offers a much-needed corrective. The cycles of boom and bust seem slightly less stark for those continually struggling to put food on the table. Theirs is a struggle that has persisted for decades and will continue to persist, so long as the fundamental problem of poverty—a problem this country tends to sweep under the rug—is not adequately addressed.