In the book Nickel and Dimed Barbara Ehrenreich began a project in which she studied the life of the American minimum wage worker. Her goal for the project was to try to support herself based solely on the income of minimum wage jobs. The rules she set for the project was that she had to take the highest paying job offered to her and do her best to keep the job. Also she had to live in the cheapest accommodations she could find that was safe to live in.
The purpose of the project was to find out if a person could really make a living for themselves based on minimum wages. Ehrenreich would do her best to get by on low wages while also observing her many coworkers to see how they lived. She observed many different types of workers in different areas. At first she worked as a waitress in Florida. After that she went to Maine and worked as a maid and at a nursing home. Her last job was in Minnesota as Walmart saleswoman. In each of these three places she struggled badly to make a decent living. She often had two jobs at a time and was working well over 8 hours a day so that she could make rent for the month. So by the end of the project Ehrenreich gathered enough evidence to make the argument that the average minimum wage worker cannot support themselves.
The most important claim that Ehrenreich makes in her book is that one cannot make a decent living working for low wages. Through Ehrenreich’s experience she learned that she could not afford to live off of minimum wage. She was forced to get two minimum wage jobs just to afford an apartment. She was only trying to support herself. Many of the people she had met through her working experience were trying to support children as well as themselves. Also many of the people she met were not living in apartments; some of them lived in their cars or in a hotel room with a lot of other people. They are unable to afford many of the small things that middle class citizens take for granted. One example of this is when Ehrenreich is working as a maid in Maine, “When my-or, should I say, Liza’s- team discovers there is not a single Dobie in our buckets, I suggest that we stop at a convenience store and buy one rather than drive all the way back to the office. But it turns out that I haven’t brought any money with me and we cannot put together $2 between the four of us”(80). This is a sad example of how the low wage workers live their lives. At a given time four of them are unable to accumulate two dollars. Ehrenreich shows this example to give an idea of how poor her colleagues are and to make the audience feel sympathetic towards them.
In the evaluation section of the book Ehrenreich presents her central claims. In the very last pages of the evaluation Ehrenreich makes the claim, “To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else” (221). With this quote she is explaining that the working poor are the people who are sacrificing their own well being so that other can live lavishly. She talks about how it is they who work for small wages so that everyone else can enjoy cheap goods and services. Ehrenreich proves this claim throughout her project. She works long hours and does hard work so that customers in places like Walmart or restaurants can receive much cheaper goods and services. In Maine she says, “A nursing home wants me on weekends for 7 dollars an hour starting tomorrow” (60). She is paid only 7 dollars per hour for working at a nursing home. This being one of the most unpleasant working atmospheres in the low wage job market. She had to clean up after the tenants and tend to the people who are very near death. This shows how people are forced to work hard for low wages so others can benefit by paying low prices for their service.
Another large claim the Ehrenreich makes in the evaluation section is that the middle and high class people of America should feel ashamed for exploiting the minimum wage workers. She says, “But guilt doesn’t go neat far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame-shame on our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others” (221). In saying this she is again appealing to the emotions of the reader. She wants to show to the reader her opinion about how the poor are treated and that she feels everyone else should feel ashamed of taking advantage of low prices that are a result of their low wage labor. When working in Maine Ehrenreich describes one of the people she thinks should feel ashamed for their exploitation of workers, “He may be greedy and offhandedly cruel, but at The Maids he is the only living representative of the better world where people go to college and wear civilian clothes to work and shop for fun on the weekends”(117). She is describing her boss Ted. She identifies him as one of those middle class people who go to the mall and things like that who exploit the low wage workers for cheap prices. She talks of his greed and cruelty and disrespect of the workers.
In the evaluation Ehrenreich mentions one of the more popular motivational phrases in our society, “Work hard and you will get ahead” (220). She mentions this because through the course of her project she obviously proved that opinion to be wrong. At the jobs where she worked she had to do the hardest work she had ever done in her entire life and she got paid very little for doing it. She voices her opinion about this when she says, “No one ever said that you could work hard-harder than you ever thought possible-and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt” (220). This is her counter argument to the hard work phrase. She experienced it first hand and learned that it takes much more than just plain hard work to be successful.
The main accepted notion that I think Ehrenreich is trying to challenge with this book is the idea that minimum wage is high enough. Through her experience as a minimum wage worker Ehrenreich proved that getting by on minimum wage is impossible. The only way she made it by was by working two jobs at a total of much more than 40 hours a week. Many people do not have the time to put in that kind time. There are people who are working to support a family and have to make it home to take care of their kids.
Ehrenreich used her evidence to appeal to her audience in many different ways. For example, her doing the project in the first place established her credibility and proved to the audience that she knew what she was talking about because she went out into the low wage working world and experienced the hardships firsthand. Another way she appealed to the audience was with a logical tone. She provided facts and statistics from national surveys and magazines and things like that to show the audience about how big of a problem this is in our country. For example she shows how housing is becoming unaffordable for the lower class workers with this passage “By the second quarter of 1999 17 percent of new homes were over three thousand square feet, which is usually considered the size threshold for household help” (81). Finally the last way she appeals to the audience is through emotions. By describing to the audience many of the people she worked with and how they were forced to live their lives it makes the reader feel sympathy for those people. By making the reader feel sympathy they will be more inclined to be persuaded by Ehrenreich’s argument.
Ehrenreich’s primary argument that she states through all over her research and evidence is that the minimum wage in America is too low. Through all over her experiences as a minimum wage worker she was not able to support just herself on a single minimum wage job. She shows that the low wage workers of America are the ones doing all the dirty work that needs to be done so that the rest of us can live comfortably in our large houses eating with our good meals. She also shows that despite all the hard work that can be done in America it is very difficult to rise above the lower class jobs and ascend into higher paying jobs of the middle to upper class. Through all of her claims and examples Ehrenreich shows us that the current minimum wage is unacceptable and for the lower class to be able to make ends meat and live a comfortable life the minimum wage must be increased.