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

What did this book teach us about poverty?

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Ehrenreich had written extensively about poverty in America prior to embarking on Nickel and Dimed, so the revelations of her endeavor do not come so much as a surprise to her as a confirmation of her suspicions—namely, that poverty has not been helped by the late-nineties boom, and that if anything it may have been worsened by it. Ehrenreich writes of poverty, especially toward the close of her book, with the verve and vibrancy of a Dickens or Sinclair, excoriating society’s indifference to this endemic problem. America, with its paucity of social programs, seems particularly unconcerned with its least privileged citizens—the low-wage workers whose ranks Ehrenreich temporarily joins. Poverty is not just a side-effect of unemployment; rather, those fully employed can slip into the deepest poverty, with wages too low to cover rising rents. What is more, low-wage work itself is often grueling, withering, leading the way to ailments and pains, and permeated with a callow sense of dehumanization: Wal-Mart treats its employees like babies, while The Maids instructs ill workers to “work through it”. Ehrenreich calls the state of the poor in America “a state of emergency” and concludes her book with a plea for help.