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

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America Summary and Analysis of Chapter Three: "Selling in Minnesota"


Ehrenreich arrives in Minnesota, hoping to find there a slightly more comfortable environment than what she has so far experienced. It’s a liberal state, with clean air, friendly people, and affordable housing. She picks up her Rent-A-Wreck and is able to shack up for a few days in the apartment of friends of a friend—in exchange for looking after their cockatiel, whom she refers to as “Budgie.”

Next is job-hunting. “No waitressing, nursing homes, or housecleaning this time,” Ehrenreich writes. “I’m psyched for a change.” She applies to a few Wal-Marts, and winds up nabbing an interview at one of them with Roberta, “a bustling platinum-haired woman of sixty or so.” Roberta administers a “survey”, then runs the answers through a machine that “scores” them. As it turns out, a few of Ehrenreich’s answers require further discussion. Ehrenreich, who is used to allowing for “a little wriggle-room” on these sorts of tests, so as to not seem a fake, finds that when “presenting yourself as a potential employee, you can never be too much of a suck-up.”

After scheduling a drug test—which presents a major problem for Ehrenreich, since she has marijuana in her system, from a one-off downtime puff—the journalist heads off to look for more jobs. She winds up closing the deal—“drug screen results, of course, pending”—at a Menards housewares store, where she’s offered a position in plumbing, $8.50 to start. The issue of the drug test is a source of great anxiety. “It rankles—at some deep personal, physical level,” Ehrenreich writes, “to know that the many engaging qualities I believe I have to offer—friendliness, reliability, willingness to learn—can all be trumped by my pee.”

So she decides to detox—or at least to try to. She establishes a program, whereby she drinks water at all times, along with regular diuretic doses, and avoids salt. In the meantime, she goes off to meet the aunt of a friend of hers from New York—a woman named Caroline, who went through a real-life version of the scenario Ehrenreich has been creating for herself, packing up her bags and heading from New York to Florida with no connections and only $1,600 in cash. Caroline’s situation was even more precarious, we learn: she had two children to take care of. How did she do it? She found a church as soon as she arrived in Orlando, thereby found a school for her twelve year-old and day care for her baby, got a job cleaning hotel rooms, and made friends. Caroline tells Ehrenreich the whole story—the anxiety, the onset of diabetes, “bouts of homelessness” and more “interstate travel”, but also a new marriage, new friends, and new foundations.

Ehrenreich shuffles off to her drug tests—the one for Wal-Mart conducted at a nearby chiropractor’s office, the one for Menards conducted in an allopathic hospital in the suburbs. Ehrenreich notes just how long the process is for each workplace—about an hour and forty minutes, including drive and wait time. She muses that it may be one of the functions of workplace drug-testing to “limit worker mobility.” She continues: “Each potential new job requires (1) the application, (2) the interview, and (3) the drug test—which is something to ponder with gasoline running at nearly two dollars a gallon, not to mention what you have to pay for a babysitter.”

While waiting for her drug test results, Ehrenreich looks for some more jobs, attending a group interview for a sales company called Mountain Air—which bills itself as an “‘environmental consulting firm’ offering help to people with asthma and allergies as a ‘free service.’” That said, Ehrenreich finds the interviewer’s emphasis on the “bottom line” refreshing when compared to Wal-Mart’s “unctuous service ethic.” However, after a personal three-minute interview in which she explains that she wants to help asthmatics, she is told there is no job for her: “Maybe it was the residency issue that did me in,” she considers, “though I suspect it was the misplaced hypocrisy.”

Meanwhile, housing is becoming a real problem. Listings are hard to find, vacancy is down, and Ehrenreich is finally compelled to take a spot without fridge or microwave, with “a deranged-looking guy hanging out by the coin-op washer-dryer who follows me with bloodshot blue eyes.”

Ehrenreich passes her drug tests, and is told by Menards and Wal-Mart to show up for orientation. At no point is she actually told she has been hired; that seems to be assumed. At Menards she is told she will be making $10 an hour—an incredible amount. With little intention of actually taking a Wal-Mart position, Ehrenreich goes to their orientation all the same—“in the spirit of caution and inquiry.”

The Wal-Mart orientation is an exhausting eight hours—eight hours stuck in a chair listening to supervisors and managers drone on about what a fantastic place Wal-Mart is and about its “three principles”, which are “respect for the individual, exceeding customers’ expectations, [and] striv[ing] for excellence”. Coupled with the propaganda—Ehrenreich describes the orientation almost as though it were a fascist rally, albeit of a much smaller scale—the rules are laid out: no facial jewelry; earrings must be small; no blue jeans except on Fridays, when you must pay $1 to wear them; no time theft. The prospective employees are given “kindergarten-level tasks”—sticking things on ID cards, spelling their names with punch-out letters—and by the time Ehrenreich drives herself all the way home, she is spent.

She is so spent, in fact, that she considers blowing off Menards the next day; the prospect of an eleven-hour shift seems too daunting. She calls Menards to clear things up, and the implication is that she will not be making as much as $10 an hour after all, and that she will not be receiving overtime. Fed up, Ehrenreich reneges—and so Wal-Mart it is.

Wal-Mart, however, only pays $7 an hour. Ehrenreich reflects on how she wound up in this crutch, unable to bargain her way up. After all, Minneapolis has a tight labor market; surely her labor is in high demand. Part of the answer, she realizes, “lies in the employers’ deft handling of the hiring process.” First you’re an applicant, then you’re an orientee, and gone is the intermediate time during which you know you have been offered the job and can negotiate with the employer as a “free agent.” The drug test “tilts the playing field even further,” Ehrenreich explains, “establishing that you, and not the employer, are the one who has something to prove.” It’s all a way of making sure the employee feels perennially “one down, way down, like a supplicant with her hand stretched out.”

Ehrenreich moves, gets her motel—the Clearview, which she likens to the worst motel in the world. She feels unsafe, exposed. She starts work at Wal-Mart, in what is called “soft-lines”. This, in short, means she deals with clothes—rearranging them, returning misplaced or returned items to their proper racks, zoning individual shirts or dresses. It seems absurdly easy work at first, but quickly proves a challenge, with the cartloads of clothes that must be reckoned with on a minute-by-minute basis. Ellie is her manager, and she actually takes quite a liking to her: “Ellie,” she notes, “must be the apotheosis of ‘servant leadership’ or, in more secular terms, the vaunted ‘feminine’ style of management. She says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’; she doesn’t order, she asks.” Howard, the assistant manager, is another story, and constantly rails about “time theft” (i.e. employees standing around talking to one another). Melissa is a coworker she mentions, who once buys her a sandwich because she has heard that Ehrenreich lives in a motel and only eats fast food, and feels sorry for her; Ehrenreich is overwhelmed by the generosity of this simple gesture.

That may be an example of the workplace inspiring the best in people. The opposite effect gets its due shortly thereafter, when Ehrenreich describes her mounting feelings of hostility. When a short coworker berates her for placing shirts in the wrong spots, Ehrenreich begins to imagine the woman falling from the stepladder she must use to access most items. When Ehrenreich spots a wheelchair-bound employee looking melancholy, she thinks: “At least you get to sit down.”

“This is not me,” she writes, “at least not any version of me I’d like to spend much time with, just as my tiny coworker is probably not usually a bitch.” She reflects on what the workplace has made her, how the “Barb” on her nametag represents a different entity, the person she might have become for good had her father not “managed to climb out of the mines.”

A major problem facing Ehrenreich around this time is the perennial issue of affordable housing. The Clearview Inn is not a sustainable option—especially given that the daily rate has risen to $55 for any additional time. Ehrenreich had hoped to move into the Hopkins Park Plaza, but that itself is not a long-term option either, at $179 a week. The Rainbow supermarket—a potential second job to buttress her income—will not let her work only weekends, so it proves not an option at all.

So what does Ehrenreich turn to? The Comfort Inn—at a whopping $49.95 a night. She knows this model won’t last her long; at her $7-an-hour wage at Wal-Mart, she simply does not have the income to allow it. She cannot even afford buying a clearanced Wal-Mart collared shirt for her uniform at the retailer, and manages to pass by with her bare-necked tee-shirt without notice. She seeks help at the Community Emergency Assistance Program, a charitable agency that proves unable to help her, suggesting Ehrenreich move into a shelter until she has enough income accumulated for first month’s rent on an apartment and loading her with a stack of sugary and decidedly unhealthy food items. (Ehrenreich reflects on the stereotype of the poor “eating habits” of the working class, and how this agency seems to be actively promoting “empty calories”.)

The Comfort Inn is a revelation, with its AC and bolted door, but Ehrenreich recognizes how unsustainable her situation has become. Better-rested because of her improved lodging, she is able to do a better job at work, and finds herself dwelling on the paltry figure she is paid as a wage, and commiserating with other employees on this matter. When she hears news of a hotel workers’ strike in the area, she tries to spread the word, albeit covertly, and the word “union” is constantly on the tip of her tongue. By this point, she knows she will be leaving Wal-Mart soon. With no affordable housing available in the Twin Cities and with no other job prospects on the horizon, Ehrenreich’s working-class narrative is essentially forced to an end.


Once again, Ehrenreich sets her hopes on a new, idealized slice of the country. Once again, those hopes meet with a rude dose of reality. A tone of defensiveness has by now crept into her writing, as though she senses her enterprise is hitting the rocks: “If some enterprising journalist wants to test the low-wage way of life in darkest Idaho or Louisiana, more power to her. Call me gutless, but what I was looking for this time around was a comfortable correspondence between income and rent, a few mild adventures, a soft landing.” At the same time, hitting the rocks is the point. Ehrenreich’s investigation, time and again, demonstrates a central, salient fact: wages are too low in America and rent is too high.

Juxtaposed with the defensiveness is a streak of increased confidence in Ehrenreich’s tone and prose style. Her writing tends at times toward comedy—in the form, some might argue, of mockery of her subjects. Consider, for example, Roberta, the Wal-Mart employee and interviewer with “people skills”. Ehrenreich writes: “She personally read Sam Walton’s book (his autobiography, Made in America) before starting work here and found that the three pillars of Wal-Mart philosophy precisely fit her own, and these are service, excellence (or something like that), and she can’t remember the third.” The joke is clear, but there’s an undeniable trace of condescension in Ehrenreich’s voice—

pointing to a notion she echoes in her interview, i.e. that employees should use discretion when following rules, that otherwise “you might as well have machines doing all the work.” She is once again positing, but through sly comedy this time, a vision of the modern American work-environment as a 1984-style dystopia, a land of automatons and blind followers, of brainwashing and four-hand salutes, where Sam Walton is a prophet and Made in America a Bible. Roberta serves, therefore, as a useful caricature of the willingly (one might even say eagerly) submissive and content low-grade employee.

Add to this Ehrenreich’s swipes at the cockatiel, swing music, and her comic portrayal of the rough-and-tumble Menards’ personality test—“Am I more or less likely than other people to get into fistfights?”—and Ehrenreich’s persona seems to have evolved from the trepidacious, uncertain journalist of the first chapter, venturing into unknown territory, to a jaded, fast-mouthed worker-woman—her own variation of the stereotypical version of the hard-lipped female laborer. Perhaps one becomes what one writes about; author and subject merge here, for the author is the subject. When tonality follows form, what results is faux-autobiographical self-deprecation; the humor does not pierce the act, and thus it rings hollow. Perhaps, of course, that is the point.

By acting, Ehrenreich realizes how much real low-wage workers need to act. She describes the difficulty of the personality tests, how “draining” it is to “look both perky and compliant at the same time, for half an hour or more at a stretch.” She notes that while an applicant needs “to evince ‘initiative,’ [he/she doesn’t] want to come across as someone who might initiate something like a union organizing drive.” Real low-wage workers are not acting out of desire, but out of need; they are required to conform to a certain image, to play the part assigned to them. Isn’t that what a low-wage job is all about, after all? Isn’t that what the whole debilitating idea of “service” connotes? In a footnote, Ehrenreich adds, regarding the subject of drug testing in the workplace, that she suspects “the demeaning effect of drug testing may hold some attraction for employers.”

In other asides, Ehrenreich emphasizes the sense of separation between the low-wage and high-wage worlds; to work at Wal-Mart is to be “Wal-Martian”—as though one might as well be an alien. She also notes the physical dangers of the low-wage world. Her motel makes this clear to her: “Poor women […] really do have more to fear than women who have houses with double locks and alarm systems and husbands and dogs.” She adds: “I must have known this theoretically or at least heard it stated, but now for the first time the lesson takes hold.”

There remains the question of acting within acting, here raising its head in the form of “Wal-Martian” theater. Ehrenreich and the fellow employees may be women outside, but in Wal-Mart they are “ladies”—forbidden to curse or even raise a voice, forced to wear a perpetual mask of “gentility”. Ehrenreich writes: “Give me a few weeks of this and I’ll femme out entirely, my stride will be reduced to a mince, I’ll start tucking my head down to one side.” Such formalist concerns, however, might seem irrelevant in the face of the dire social issues Ehrenreich does address in her prose. In particular, when describing her fruitless quest for affordable housing, she notes that prosperity forces rents upwards, thereby severely restraining the ability of low-wage workers to find shelter they can afford. In other words, it should not be so much a surprise that people are as desperate as Ehrenreich finds herself in the midst of the Clinton-era boom as an obvious correlative: a boom for the upper classes can mean a bust for the lower. It is the opposite of the trickle-down model: instead, prosperity from above crushes the poor.

Stuck (temporarily of course) on the losing end of the equation, Ehrenreich finds herself watching Survivor in her motel one night. “Who are these nutcases who volunteer for an artificially daunting situation in order to entertain millions of strangers with their half-assed efforts to survive?” she asks. Of course, she is rhetorically aiming the question at herself. But consider her word choice: the situation is not “daunting” but “artificially daunting”, the efforts to survive it “half-assed”. Here, Ehrenreich seems—intentionally or not—to be critiquing her own performative stance. Is what she is doing—laptop still in tow, a bank account at her disposal in times of emergency, the tendency to switch cities once one becomes too much to handle—half-assed?

Certainly, her final efforts toward the end of “Selling in Minnesota” bear that mark of complacency. She doesn’t seem to actively look for new jobs, stopping her search after the Rainbow supermarket refuses to grant her a weekends-only gig. One would think that a real working-class woman in Ehrenreich’s situation would essay a few more options before throwing in the towel. And what, exactly, does throwing in the towel mean for a real working-class woman, a woman who is living what Ehrenreich merely acts? Ehrenreich has a safety net; the women into whose shoes she pretends to step do not. To be fair, Ehrenreich notes and concedes all these points, turning inward during these closing pages to question, once again, the legitimacy of her own endeavor. Intriguingly, she seems to posit a possible alternative for her role, a means by which she could be of real use to the low-wage world—namely, as a fomenter of rebellion, a catalyst for revolution, spreading strike news, instilling the word “union” in fellow employees’ minds, and stoking the embers of resentment that are an undeniable feature of Wal-Mart and its workforce.