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

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

  1. 1

    Is Ehrenreich's performance successful?

    This question assumes that what Ehrenreich does is a "performance"--already a notion up for debate. As Ehrenreich points out, one does not "pretend" to be a waitress; one either serves tables or does not. If one accepts the performative aspects of Ehrenreich's work, the extent to which she must "act" and conceal her true self, then the issue is whether the overall message--namely, that the nation's poor need help--is muddled as a result.

  2. 2

    Analyze Ted as one would a fictional character.

    Ted is in many ways a villain in the classic vein; he is defined largely by his actions, most of them reprehensible, and makes a point of continually demeaning his (all female) employees. Of course, one might choose to take issue with Ehrenreich's portrayal. Is Ted really a "pimp"? Or, though his callowness is undeniable, is he ultimately just another American trying to get by?

  3. 3

    Consider the use of comedy in Ehrenreich's writing.

    Nickel and Dimed reads at times like a satire, and there are many instances of material played for laughs: the absurd personality tests, the mind-numbing Maids training videos, the Wal-Mart orientation session, the misleadingly rosy advertisements for barely inhabitable motel rooms. Of course, Ehrenreich's comedy is always tinged with sadness; the jokes take aim at the folly of a society that can so neglect its least well-off citizens.

  4. 4

    The subtitle of Ehrenreich's book is: "On (Not) Getting By in America". Can one get by or not?

    This essay is more political than literary, and there may be no definitive answer to give. Clearly, some get by, some do not. One might choose to focus on the ways in which Ehrenreich examines only a sliver of the low-wage workplace; or one might argue that the reality is even darker than what Ehrenreich depicts.

  5. 5

    Nickel and Dimed: Gilded Age muckraking or New Journalism?

    The question here is really one of style: Ehrenreich espouses "old-fashioned" journalism, but exactly which older fashion is she referring to? The highlighting of the writer/journalist's persona and the mise-en-abime thereby engendered suggest the 70's--think Tom Wolfe, Lillian Ross, or Hunter S. Thompson--but the clear-cut moral objective, the lack of ambiguity, the outrage and indignation are all reminiscent of good old-fashioned muckraking.

  6. 6

    What does Ehrenreich mean when she writes of "a shortcoming of the middle-class imagination"?

    Ehrenreich refers in this case to commentary on the poor in America, but what she is hinting at is the way in which the middle and upper classes fashion the poor in their own image. The conception of poverty is far removed from the reality. What Ehrenreich is attempting to do is address the shortcoming and open her "classmates'" eyes.

  7. 7

    Discuss the following passage: "And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans--as a state of emergency."

    This is Ehrenreich's call to arms. "Wake up!" she is crying. An essay on the passage would first identify it as a summation of Ehrenreich's position and a culmination of her investigation, then perhaps analyze the use of the word "emergency". It is a significant word-choice, in that Ehrenreich is describing a long-standing problem, not a momentary crisis; the implication is that we've been living with (and people have been dying because of) this emergency for generations.

  8. 8

    What does Nickel and Dimed mean today?

    Nickel and Dimed was published in 2001, just after the nineties boom. Today we are in the midst of a severe economic downturn. What Ehrenreich's book offers is a reminder that, in some ways, things were not all that different ten years ago: the poor were struggling, despite the wealth of the few, and there was precious little support they could come by. Any look at the book in hindsight is sobering: even when the country is supposedly at its wealthiest, poverty remains a dire problem.

  9. 9

    Why does Ehrenreich describe her Maids uniform in such detail? What does the uniform do to her?

    Just as Ehrenreich must act as a low-wage worker, so must all Maids employees fulfill pre-scripted roles. Everything is theater, with costumes and lots of direction. The Maids uniform sets Ehrenreich apart, makes her feel like an outcast. It's a latter-day scarlet letter, and Ehrenreich marvels at how a mere arrangement of clothes can create such a wall between one world and another.

  10. 10

    Was welfare reform a mistake?

    Nickel and Dimed argues--though at times only tacitly--that it was. Increased employment does not solve poverty. Low wages and high rents mean that even the fully employed can have great trouble making ends meet. That said, one might disagree with Ehrenreich's assessment and offer an apologia for welfare-to-work. Either way, one would need to support an argument with statistic evidence.