Skip to Content

Book Summary: Nickel and Dimed – On (Not) Getting by in America

Barbara Ehrenreich’s bold experiment to work in the lower depths of the American economy while trying to keep her head above water has become a classic of investigative writing. This book review of Nickel and Dimed distills her findings and what they mean for us today.

A savvy essayist goes “undercover” to expose the realities of low-wage labor in America.


  • Want to understand what being “lower class” looks like in everyday practice
  • Wonder what it takes to survive in an economy built on exploitation of cheap labor
  • Want an honest look into the financial, emotional, and physical challenges of a low-wage working life.

Looking to learn more about Nickel & Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich? Read this summary first: How much do you make at work? Normally, this question is not asked in polite conversation. Talking about wages is usually a taboo topic. However, in this book summary, we’ll cover what happened when one journalist shed her credentials and dove head-first into a life of poverty to understand first-hand what it’s like to barely earn enough to live. What she discovered was that these people aren’t just people without homes, gathering water bottles to make ends meet, or demonized “free-loaders” that some politicians look down upon. Those in poverty are still our fellow citizens, people that work hard every day to provide us with what we need to make our lives what they are. By reading this book summary, you’ll learn:

  • just how hard it is to actually get a cleaning job
  • the demeaning working conditions that many workers tolerate
  • how the poor are actually more giving than the wealthy


Little did Barbara Ehrenreich know when she went “undercover” working low-wage jobs that she would end up writing one of the most important economic books of the 20th century. Holding a doctorate and accustomed to a more affluent lifestyle, she challenged herself to find jobs outside her skillset, to hold down those jobs as best she could, and to find the cheapest accommodations available to sustain herself throughout. At the end of each month-long stint, she would reveal her identity and motivations to her coworkers, return to her “normal” life to regroup, and go back into the field, as it were.

Book Summary: Nickel and Dimed - On (Not) Getting by in America

What she learned about herself, those who live this way by necessity, and the economy they share is a wakeup call even more relevant now than when it was written

Serving in Florida

Ehrenreich began her experiment in 2001 as a waitress in Key West, Florida. Getting to that position, even with a starter fund and something of a plan, wasn’t easy

Banking on the assumption that she could make $7 an hour, her priority was to find a reasonable living space — no small feat in a touristy area like Key West. She opted for a small cabin 30 miles away, decently priced at $500, and turned her attention to the job search. After applying to a few openings, but finding they paid barely over $6 an hour, she was beginning to lose hope in her experiment. She was forced to settle for waitressing at a restaurant, working eight hours a day for $2.43 an hour plus tips

Despite her doctoral education and the assumptions she held because of it, the countless small requests and tasks required of her in a restaurant setting were unfamiliar and overwhelming. In addition to serving customers, there seemed to be no shortage of work — such as cleaning, restocking, and refilling — to be completed

To compensate for her lowly position, she put her all into the job, striving to be the best at everything she did. Although she never attained anything near the level she imagined, she found that getting into the rhythm of things allowed her to connect with coworkers on a human level. But two things kept her newfound elation in check: overbearing management and financial unsustainability. She quickly learned that there was no secret to living this way; it was a daily challenge for everyone. So much so that, if nothing changed for the better soon, she would need to find a second job just to make ends meet. Even with tips, she was currently averaging just $5.15 an hour

After devoting her precious mornings to more job searching, she secured another server position at a larger restaurant, the working conditions of which left much to be desired, despite a salary that averaged out to a more livable $7.50 an hour. Between both jobs, she now worked 14 hours a day. Because the 30-mile commute was proving to be more than she had bargained for, she scrounged what she could to pay first month’s rent and put down a deposit on a trailer closer to Key West. Nearing the end of her month-long journey anyway, she decided the second job and its abusive management was too much for her, so after an evening shift she walked out and moved on. She had had enough

Scrubbing in Maine

Ehrenreich started all over again in Portland, Maine. Shacking up in a Motel 6 until she could get her feet back on the ground, she never felt more alone — disconnected as she was from home, work, and friends — and used the opportunity to take a long, hard look at herself. Once she secured an apartment rental at another motel for $120 a week, she began applying to anything and everything in the lowwage sector. A few interviews later, she came to a sobering realization: Once again, one job wasn’t going to be enough. After two days, she accepted a nursing home position (clearing tables and washing dishes after breakfast) for $7 an hour and a maid service job for $6.65

The maid work was faster-paced than she had anticipated. More than that, it was utterly demeaning and under-resourced unlike anything she had experienced before. Being a maid placed her at an even lower social level than before. Whereas her waitress outfit inspired pleasant small talk among Key West locals, who sympathetically shared stories of their own stints in food service, her maid’s uniform drew only looks of contempt or, more commonly, no looks at all. Yet nothing pained her do much as seeing the suffering of her coworkers. She knew she could leave this life at any time, that it was just an experiment for her. They had no such privilege

When her first paycheck was withheld (a common practice to keep new hires from running off), she was forced to make phone calls for over an hour just to get a supermarket food voucher

It was then that she began questioning everything she knew as “normal.” Working like this gave her very little downtime to speak of, and she could hardly imagine keeping it up for more than a month, let alone decades. As a professional writer, she already worked seven days a week, but writing, she knew, amounted to little more than an ego boost and offered its own forms of recognition and reward. The maids she was getting to know suffered from a deep form of deprivation in this regard, brought on by the fact that no one ever praised them. This was proven when she announced her true identity and purpose in being there, they were just glad to see their boss as the unwitting victim of her deception

Selling in Minnesota

In hopes of finding something easier, and for the sake of geographical comparison, Ehrenreich moved on to the final phase of her experiment in Minnesota. While apartment sitting for the friend of a friend in Minneapolis, she dived back into the job pool, securing a hardware store sales position and piquing the interest of a Wal-Mart manager. Both applications required drug tests, however, and she hadn’t exactly been sober in recent days. After flushing out her body with a homemade detox, she went in for the tests. While waiting for the results, and not counting on them to come through, she found potential hope in an entry-level customer service job, for which she was put on a waiting list

Meanwhile, her housing search wasn’t going well. Although Minneapolis was enormous compared to Key West and Portland, the vacancy rate, she now learned, was under 1%. After going around in circles, making one call after another, she settled begrudgingly on a $295-per-week motel rental

Her drug tests, it turned out, went smoothly. She was invited to an orientation at the hardware store, where she was assigned to work in the plumbing department — and quickly learned she couldn’t name a single part shelved before her. She was scheduled for 11-hour shifts and had been promised $10 an hour. At that rate, she didn’t even need the Wal-Mart job, but attended the orientation anyway when it was offered to her as well. Good thing, too, for when she called the hardware store to negotiate her hours, she learned that she had been quoted the wrong salary (it was actually $8.50). Lucky for her, Wal-Mart was ready to take her on at $7 an hour

More problems arose when she learned that a cheaper motel room she’d been promised had been given to someone else. She relocated to another motel, at $245 a week, where disgusting living conditions and total lack of security made her feel genuinely unsafe

At Wal-Mart, she was sent unceremoniously to ladies’ wear, where her duties turned out to be unexpectedly detailed. In addition to picking up after customers, who were in the habit of trying things on and throwing them indiscriminately on the floor, she had to organize the displays in such a way as to encourage sales. Just learning where everything went was a challenge in and of itself: Once she had the layout down pat, it changed completely. Other things changed, too, such as when she arrived one day to discover that her hours had been moved to closing shift, meaning more time on her feet. Changes of her own design were also in order, as when she transferred to a Comfort Inn at $49.95 a night in return for security and a change of scenery

After three weeks of this, she had only gotten a $42 return — from the Wal-Mart orientation, no less — on her $500 investment. But even this mattered little when compared to her epiphanies on the job at Wal-Mart. As she adjusted, she began to feel a sense of ownership over her section of the store and became emotionally invested in keeping it in order. It was like an out-of-body experience watching herself working in a symphony of movements to return things without conscious thought. She also made closer friendships at work and even kept in touch with one of her coworkers for years after the fact. It was a spark of humanity in an otherwise impersonal slog through one of the most difficult experiences she had ever put herself into.

Poverty is a huge problem in America, and the author wanted to examine this further.

While walking through any US city, you’re likely to come across homeless people or people in poverty. This is often a strong reminder that poverty is still a grave problem nationwide. In 2001, at the time of this book’s release, the United States Census Bureau reported that 12.1 percent of Americans lived in poverty. This meant that this group of people were unable to afford the basic requirements for living comfortably, like rent, healthy food, and health insurance. This number is quite significant and highlights just how many people’s wages are dangerously low. Back then, minimum wage was around six and seven dollars an hour –despite research from the National Coalition for the Homeless that decided a worker needed to make at least $8.89 per hour to afford the rent for just a studio apartment. It seems that many have the odds against them when working hard to earn even a living wage. According to research from the Preamble Center for Public Policy, only one person out of 97 using welfare would even meet the requirements for a job above minimum wage. The rest simply are without the educational background or entrance to continuing education that is required. All of these numbers only give a general idea of the problem at hand, which led the author to wanting to get a better idea of what it was really like for these millions of people living this way. With her experience in investigative journalism, the author chose to enter the life of a minimum-wage worker for a couple of years (1998 to 2000). To do this, she left off her education and background experience from job applications and aimed to get the highest paying job she could. She wanted to see for herself if it was even possible to pay rent and survive by making no more than seven dollars an hour.

Workers making minimum wage face housing challenges and demeaning job pursuits.

Looking for a new job and a place to live is difficult for most everyone, no matter your circumstances. However, as she embarked on this experiment, the author learned just how challenging these tasks could truly become. She began her journey in Key West, Florida. Thinking that she’d earn seven dollars an hour, she could afford a monthly rent at $500. Right away, this ruled out everything but mobile homes, and even then, she found slim offerings. One place she saw didn’t even have air-conditioning or ventilation, which would be unbearable in the hot and humid climate of Florida. However, this didn’t even matter; that place cost $675 per month – well over her limit. Though it took some searching, the author found a tiny apartment for $500 after expanding her search to nearby towns around the city. Her new home was 45 minutes away, which provided a substantial daily commute. It also meant that she would need to keep her car and fill up with the tank with gas about once a week, something a person in real poverty was unlikely to have access to. When it came to searching for work, she hardly did any better. As she searched for a job, the author found that there was a lot of indignity that came with a minimum-wage job. For example, when she applied to the supermarket store Winn-Dixie, she had to take a 20-minute multiple-choice questionnaire that was frankly insulting to anyone’s intelligence. She was asked questions about whether childcare would prevent her from getting to work on time, and if she would tell her supervisors if she saw a coworker stealing. The answers were obvious, which made the test more about knowing how to lie than anything else. But even more disconcerting that this was that she had to take a drug test that meant she had to not only give a urine sample, but she had to do it in front of a health worker to prove it came from her. This was too much – and she decided to keep looking, hoping that there was something else out there more honorable.

Minimum wage work also has a high turnover due to physical demands of the job.

It’s no surprise that the easiest jobs to get are the jobs that no one else wants to do; however, the author was still stunned by the high turnover rate for the minimum-wage jobs she was applying for. She was mostly responding to ads featured in her local newspaper in the “employment” section, where she came across twenty or so hotels needing cleaning staff. When she didn’t hear back from these ads, she realized that the jobs weren’t even vacant yet – the hotels were lining up replacement staff for when their employees inevitably couldn’t take it anymore and quit. After searching a while, the author landed a waitressing job at a diner, and finally, she got to see first-hand just how hard people work for meager pay. Her hours were 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. and paid $2.43 an hour, and with tips it raised to about six dollars an hour. Even with the low pay, the job was demanding, and the author was not well equipped for the struggle that lay ahead. With a background as a writer, she was trained as a structured, logical worker, which made her ill-equipped for the fast-paced, multitasking environment of a diner. The multiple customer demands for refills, condiments, to-go orders and extra sides made her overwhelmed and disordered. She also had to learn to use a touch screen computer for ringing in orders, which provided another challenge. Every personal request – such as more gravy or ketchup on the side – was nerve-racking to get just perfect for the cooks and customer’s satisfaction. It was also irritating to receive constant unwelcome nicknames from customers, like “baby,” “sweetie” and “blondie,” which all seemed like they were just a part of the job. It made her exhausted all the time with no break, since downtime meant cleaning up, getting refills, or filling up condiment containers.

Being poor meant dealing with rough home circumstances and hidden costs.

Having any full-time job can be very tiring, but it is always made a bit easier with a comfortable home to return to at the end of the day. However, as the author got to know her coworkers better, she began to learn how little wellbeing they had outside of work. For instance, her coworker Gail shared a room in a bargain motel that served as a kind of flophouse, with little rooms and a shared bathroom. Her male roommate was always trying to get with her, but Gail didn’t keep him out because she needed him to help pay for the room’s $500 rent. Claude, the restaurant’s Haitian cook, also didn’t have much of his own space at home. He shared a small apartment that only had two rooms for him, his girlfriend, and two other roommates. These livings circumstances made the author aware of the hidden costs that those with less income have to deal with. One of these issues is that a nicer apartment can mean paying a two-month deposit up front, which can be a lot of money for an employee making minimum wage. This means people are stuck renting by-the-week or month-to-month, which in the end might be more costly, as these sort of places usually don’t have kitchens. That means expensive meals on the go and little chance to prepare healthy meals at home. This also adds to the idea that poor health goes along with being poor and being able to acquire healthy food becomes one of the biggest issues that minimum-wage workers face. Additionally, one of the author’s coworkers had a boyfriend who was a roofer, which is a high-risk but low-paying job, and doesn’t come with insurance. This boyfriend had injured his hand and couldn’t afford the required antibiotics, and he missed so much work while he was recovering that he was fired. These situations are just a few of the many ways that life on minimum wage is a risky way to live.

Minimum wage work is both physically and emotionally exhausting and demands hard skills.

Laws do exist that protect workers, like weekly limits that employers can make you work. However, this limitation also means many workers need to find two jobs to make ends meet. For example, the author needed to add another job to her waitressing one after only one month when she realized one job wouldn’t cut it. So, she added in one of the hotel cleaning jobs. It paid $6.10 per hour and her job was to come in at 9:00 a.m. and work until she finished cleaning all of her assigned rooms. Since she had to be at the diner by at 2:00 p.m., she was always struggling to finish in time. On her first day with both jobs, she saw just how hard this juggle would be. After only getting through 19 of the rooms, she had to leave and rush to the diner, now to spend the next eight hours juggling multiple customers all night. When she arrived, she had four tables already all at the same time, and one of them was a group of ten British tourists, ordering two drinks each and customizing all of their orders. It was no surprise her already exhausted mind mixed up their orders and got things wrong. By the end of that long day, she decided she couldn’t do it anymore, so she took off her apron and quit the waitressing business. After some time, the author returned to her experiment, this time working in Maine. Here, she found she was returning to the exact same experiences that only reinforced what she learned about trying to live on minimum wage. First, it was obvious that these workers were not uneducated, and the jobs were not simple – in fact, she found them very demanding. And the emotional struggle of continually living on the brink of bankruptcy only increases to the high levels of stress and exhaustion. Even when food and a place to say are somewhat secure, it only takes one unexpected cost like a hospital bill to send someone’s life into stress and uncertainty.

More people are affected by poverty than we think, and the government should step in.

Thinking of those living in poverty, some of us think of homeless shelters of people living in their cars; however, it’s a much broader demographic than that. Many have heard that the United States has a “stable” poverty level, but this isn’t entirely the full story. That sort of thinking is based on an outdated model that looks at how much money a family needs only by multiplying their monthly food cost by three. This is not an accurate representation. Even if food prices remain stable, rent prices can change. Remember how the author could barely afford a small mobile home to rent in Key West? To really look at poverty accurately, we need to for food, rent, healthcare, childcare, and telephone service. Considering all of this, the US Economic Policy Institute actually saw that the minimum living wage for a family needs to be $30,000 per year, or $14 an hour. Looking at it this way, this would mean that 60 percent of Americans are living this way. This is the actual truth about poverty in the United States. It’s not just an issue for a small sect of the unemployed population – it affects a majority of the working population as well. This issue won’t go away until employers and the government take some action. Public programs like public housing and rental subsidies are always receiving budget cuts, despite the rise in the cost of living, making this matter even worse as time goes on. Additionally, employers aren’t increasing their wages or hourly rates enough to match the cost of living and a rise in rent. Actually, wages have barely increased since the 1970s. In 2001, the poorest 10 percent of workers earned less than workers did in 1973. It’s obvious with this that wages need to increase with the cost of living, or else more and more people will fall below the poverty line. This means that employers and government programs need to take notice and change this trend so the working class in America can afford to live a healthy life.


So what did Ehrenreich learn from all of this?

First, that unskilled labor is far from easy even for someone with a doctorate, and that all jobs require skill. There must also be a balance. In the corporate world, for instance, outdoing your coworkers is encouraged as a sign of initiative and prerequisite for promotion. But in the low-wage sector, competitiveness either makes the team look bad or raises the bar so high that your coworkers will despise you for making their conditions worse. It’s vital to spend your energy wisely, so that you have enough left over to do it all over again the next day. Every job that Ehrenreich tried took its toll on her body and health. Whether it was the regular stomachaches she developed while working at Wal-Mart or the unbearable rash she developed in reaction to the cleaning chemicals to which she was exposed as a maid, the stress of these jobs had quantifiable outcomes. Interestingly enough, chronic ailments were like a rite of passage

Second, cleaning houses of social elites gave her unparalleled insight into the minds of those living in them, and made her rethink her own social position. Furthermore, it became clear to her just how easy it was for the impoverished to see the lifestyle of the wealthy, but not so the other way around. But when we see poverty in terms of unemployment alone, we ignore the constellation of factors involved

Third, she became acutely aware of how skilled employers were at roping desperate souls into their systems, never once giving them the chance to negotiate their salaries, instead shunting them off into orientations and training sessions with the ulterior purpose of inflating their self-importance to compensate for poor salaries

Fourth, when working life is all you have, everything around you becomes exaggerated in purpose, function, and effect

Fifth, once you’re of low-wage status, the promises of American freedom and democracy are simply no longer available to you. For instance, while waitressing in Key West, located right next to where she lived, she was initially fearful of running into someone she knew. Such fears, however, were quickly allayed by the fact that, as a grunt worker, no one cared to recognize her anyway. The more she was reminded of that status, the she felt the temptation of treating it as immutable

Last but not least, strength is all about how we handle weakness. While it’s easy to think that having a job is the only thing standing in the way of a livable life, it’s equally a question of food and housing. And while Maine offered her a relatively logical balance of expenses and income, the Florida and Minnesota housing situations were especially taxing

In light of all this, she continues to recognize how fortunate she was to have been able to leave this life at will, returning to the creature comforts of family, friends, and a steady income. Her experiences on the other side of the fence are a testament to the power of labor in a world bent on devaluing it at every turn.

A key takeaway from this book:

Low wages make it incredibly difficult for the working class to live a civilized life. In order to afford the essentials of everyday life, the poorest employees working on minimum wage need a $2 increase in their hourly rate to match the cost of living. Only then will we see any change in this problem.

About the author

Barbara Ehrenreich is a prolific author of 21 books, of which Nickel and Dimed is her most influential. Winner of multiple awards, she has published in major magazines, served on national boards of liberal organizations, and has taught at universities across the country. She is a committed democrat and has channeled knowledge from this project into her United Professionals organization, which helps the
unemployed with resources otherwise unavailable to them.

Barbara Ehrenreich (1941-2022) was a bestselling author and political activist, whose more than a dozen books included Nickel and Dimed, which the New York Times described as “a classic in social justice literature”, Bait and Switch, Bright-sided, This Land Is Their Land, Dancing In the Streets, and Blood Rites. An award-winning journalist, she frequently contributed to Harper’s, The Nation, The New York Times, and TIME magazine. Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, when it was still a bustling mining town. She studied physics at Reed College, and earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University. Rather than going into laboratory work, she got involved in activism, and soon devoted herself to writing her innovative journalism.


Poverty and Homelessness, Politics, Social Science, Government, Sociology, Memoirs, Economics, Social, Justice, School, Social Issues, Adult

Table of Contents

Foreword to the 20th Anniversary Edition ix
Introduction: Getting Ready 1
1 Serving in Florida 11
2 Scrubbing in Maine 51
3 Selling in Minnesota 121
Evaluation 193
A Reader’s Guide 225


In this now classic work, Barbara Ehrenreich, our sharpest and most original social critic, goes “undercover” as an unskilled worker to reveal the dark side of American prosperity.

Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job―any job―can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour?

To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly “unskilled,” that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you int to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity―a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich’s perspective and for a rare view of how “prosperity” looks from the bottom. You will never see anything―from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal―in quite the same way again.


Twenty years ago, a national debate about welfare inspired Barbara Ehrenreich to see if she could support herself on minimum wage. She took the cheapest lodging available, any minimum wage job offered, and tried to make it work. This book helped set a path for writers to dig into complicated social issues with personal narrative (books like Maid, Heartland and Nomadland), framing how we talk about these issues even now. As relevant today as it was when first published, this anniversary edition includes a foreword by Matthew Desmond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted.

“Captivating . . . promise that you will read this explosive little book cover to cover and pass it on to all your friends and relatives.” ―The New York Times

“Impassioned, fascinating, profoundly significant, and wildly entertaining . . . Nickel and Dimed is not only important but transformative in its insistence that we take a long hard look at the society we live in.” ―Francine Prose, O, The Oprah Magazine

“Valuable and illuminating . . . Barbara Ehrenreich is our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism.” ―The New York Times Book Review

“Jarring . . . fully of riveting grit . . . this book is already unforgettable.” ―The New York Times

“Barbara Ehrenreich is smart, provocative, funny, and sane in a world that needs more of all four.” ―Diane Sawyer

“Reading Ehrenreich is good for the soul.” ―Molly Ivins

“Ehrenreich is passionate, public, hotly lucid, and politically engaged.” ―Chicago Tribune

“Ehrenreich’s scorn withers, her humor stings, and her radical light shines on.” ―The Boston Globe

“One of today’s most original writers.” ―The New York Times

Video and Podcast

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

It is hotter inside than out, but I do all right until I encounter the banks of glass doors. Each one has to be Windexed, wiped, and buffed-inside and out, top to bottom, left to right, until it’s as streakless and invisible as a material substance can be. Outside, I can see construction guys knocking back Gatorade, but the rule is that no fluid or food item can touch a maid’s lips when she’s inside a house. I sweat without replacement or pause, not in individual drops but in continuous sheets of fluid, soaking through my polo shirt, pouring down the backs of my legs. Working my way through the living room(s), I wonder if Mrs. W. will ever have occasion to realize that every single doodad and object through which she expresses her unique, individual self is, from the vantage point of a maid, only an obstacle on the road to a glass of water.

* * * * *

Introduction: Getting Ready

The idea that led to this book arose in comparatively sumptuous circumstances. Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, had taken me out for a $30 lunch at some understated French country-style place to discuss future articles I might write for his magazine. I had the salmon and field greens, I think, and was pitching him some ideas having to do with pop culture when the conversation drifted to one of my more familiar themes—poverty. How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How, in particular, we wondered, were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour? Then I said something that I have since had many opportunities to regret: “Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism—you know, go out there and try it for themselves.” I meant someone much younger than myself, some hungry neophyte journalist with time on her hands. But Lapham got this crazy-looking half smile on his face and ended life as I knew it, for long stretches at least, with the single word “You.”

The last time anyone had urged me to forsake my normal life for a run-of-the-mill low-paid job had been in the seventies, when dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sixties radicals started going into the factories to “proletarianize” themselves and organize the working class in the process. Not this girl. I felt sorry for the parents who had paid college tuition for these blue-collar wannabes and sorry, too, for the people they intended to uplift. In my own family, the low-wage way of life had never been many degrees of separation away; it was close enough, in any case, to make me treasure the gloriously autonomous, if not always well-paid, writing life. My sister has been through one low-paid job after another—phone company business rep, factory worker, receptionist—constantly struggling against what she calls “the hopelessness of being a wage slave.” My husband and companion of seventeen years was a $4.50-an-hour warehouse worker when I fell in with him, escaping eventually and with huge relief to become an organizer for the Teamsters. My father had been a copper miner; uncles and grandfathers worked in the mines or for the Union Pacific. So to me, sitting at a desk all day was not only a privilege but a duty: something I owed to all those people in my life, living and dead, who’d had so much more to say than anyone ever got to hear.

Adding to my misgivings, certain family members kept reminding me unhelpfully that I could do this project, after a fashion, without ever leaving my study. I could just pay myself a typical entry-level wage for eight hours a day, charge myself for room and board plus some plausible expenses like gas, and total up the numbers after a month. With the prevailing wages running at $6–$7 an hour in my town and rents at $400 a month or more, the numbers might, it seemed to me, just barely work out all right. But if the question was whether a single mother leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing and child care subsidies, the answer was well known before I ever left the comforts of home. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998—the year I started this project—it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy was estimating that the odds against a typical welfare recipient’s landing a job at such a “living wage” were about 97 to 1. Why should I bother to confirm these unpleasant facts? As the time when I could no longer avoid the assignment approached, I began to feel a little like the elderly man I once knew who used a calculator to balance his checkbook and then went back and checked the results by redoing each sum by hand.

In the end, the only way to overcome my hesitation was by thinking of myself as a scientist, which is, in fact, what I was educated to be. I have a Ph.D. in biology, and I didn’t get it by sitting at a desk and fiddling with numbers. In that line of business, you can think all you want, but sooner or later you have to get to the bench and plunge into the everyday chaos of nature, where surprises lurk in the most mundane measurements. Maybe when I got into the project, I would discover some hidden economies in the world of the low-wage worker. After all, if almost 30 percent of the workforce toils for $8 an hour or less, as the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute reported in 1998, they may have found some tricks as yet unknown to me. Maybe I would even be able to detect in myself the bracing psychological effects of getting out of the house, as promised by the wonks who brought us welfare reform. Or, on the other hand, maybe there would be unexpected costs—physical, financial, emotional—to throw off all my calculations. The only way to find out was to get out there and get my hands dirty.

In the spirit of science, I first decided on certain rules and parameters. Rule one, obviously enough, was that I could not, in my search for jobs, fall back on any skills derived from my education or usual work—not that there were a lot of want ads for essayists anyway. Two, I had to take the highest-paying job that was offered me and do my best to hold it; no Marxist rants or sneaking off to read novels in the ladies’ room. Three, I had to take the cheapest accommodations I could find, at least the cheapest that offered an acceptable level of safety and privacy, though my standards in this regard were hazy and, as it turned out, prone to deterioration over time.

I tried to stick to these rules, but in the course of the project, all of them were bent or broken at some time. In Key West, for example, where I began this project in the late spring of 1998, I once promoted myself to an interviewer for a waitressing job by telling her I could greet European tourists with the appropriate Bonjour or Guten Tag, but this was the only case in which I drew on any remnant of my actual education. In Minneapolis, my final destination, where I lived in the early summer of 2000, I broke another rule by failing to take the best-paying job that was offered, and you will have to judge my reasons for doing so yourself. And finally, toward the very end, I did break down and rant—stealthily, though, and never within hearing of management.

There was also the problem of how to present myself to potential employers and, in particular, how to explain my dismal lack of relevant job experience. The truth, or at least a drastically stripped-down version thereof, seemed easiest: I described myself to interviewers as a divorced homemaker reentering the workforce after many years, which is true as far as it goes. Sometimes, though not always, I would throw in a few housecleaning jobs, citing as references former housemates and a friend in Key West whom I have at least helped with after-dinner cleanups now and then. Job application forms also want to know about education, and here I figured the Ph.D. would be no help at all, might even lead employers to suspect that I was an alcoholic washout or worse. So I confined myself to three years of college, listing my real-life alma mater. No one ever questioned my background, as it turned out, and only one employer out of several dozen bothered to check my references. When, on one occasion, an exceptionally chatty interviewer asked about hobbies, I said “writing” and she seemed to find nothing strange about this, although the job she was offering could have been performed perfectly well by an illiterate.

Finally, I set some reassuring limits to whatever tribulations I might have to endure. First, I would always have a car. In Key West I drove my own; in other cities I used Rent-A-Wrecks, which I paid for with a credit card rather than my earnings. Yes, I could have walked more or limited myself to jobs accessible by public transportation. I just figured that a story about waiting for buses would not be very interesting to read. Second, I ruled out homelessness as an option. The idea was to spend a month in each setting and see whether I could find a job and earn, in that time, the money to pay a second month’s rent. If I was paying rent by the week and ran out of money I would simply declare the project at an end; no shelters or sleeping in cars for me. Furthermore, I had no intention of going hungry. If things ever got to the point where the next meal was in question, I promised myself as the time to begin the “experiment” approached, I would dig out my ATM card and cheat.

So this is not a story of some death-defying “undercover” adventure. Almost anyone could do what I did—look for jobs, work those jobs, try to make ends meet. In fact, millions of Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fanfare and dithering.

I am, of course, very different from the people who normally fill America’s least attractive jobs, and in ways that both helped and limited me. Most obviously, I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full-time, often for most of their lives. With all the real-life assets I’ve built up in middle age—bank account, IRA, health insurance, multiroom home—waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to “experience poverty” or find out how it “really feels” to be a long-term low-wage worker. My aim here was much more straightforward and objective—just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day. Besides, I’ve had enough unchosen encounters with poverty in my lifetime to know it’s not a place you would want to visit for touristic purposes; it just smells too much like fear.

one (Continues…)

    Ads Blocker Image Powered by Code Help Pro

    Your Support Matters...

    We run an independent site that\'s committed to delivering valuable content, but it comes with its challenges. Many of our readers use ad blockers, causing our advertising revenue to decline. Unlike some websites, we haven\'t implemented paywalls to restrict access. Your support can make a significant difference. If you find this website useful and choose to support us, it would greatly secure our future. We appreciate your help. If you\'re currently using an ad blocker, please consider disabling it for our site. Thank you for your understanding and support.