Study Questions for Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed
Perspective: What appears to be the author’s ideological perspective
(i.e., what are her political and social views)? How do you know
this and how do you think it will affect her interpretation of what she
experiences and sees?
When cleaning houses, what is supposed to be the maid’s focus, cleanliness
or appearance? Why is this the case? Can you think of other
products or services where something similar might happen?
What are the significance of nutrition and health, a recurrent theme in
Ehrenreich’s narrative? Who would benefit if the workers were healthier?
What incentive do workers have to go to the doctor if they are ill?
What happens when people who are ill wait long periods before going to
the doctor for treatment?
On p. 91. Ehrenreich writes that hiring a cleaning person was “not the
kind of relationship that she wanted to have with another human being.”
What does she mean? How would such a relationship be similar to or
different from the one’s that she must have with the person that changes
the oil in her car, or the person who cuts the meat that she buys at her
grocery store, or the person who cleans the offices in the building that
she might work in at her real job? Is society better off because
Ehrenreich does not personally hire a maid?
What are the economic benefits to the firm from installing surveillance
systems to monitor employees and administering questionnaires and drug
tests to prospective employees? Do these activities constitute infringements
on civil rights? Do the economic benefits to the firm justify these
One strategy for coping with the challenges posed by low wages and high
rents is to share an apartment or hotel room. Think about the family
structure and living arrangements throughout the last century. Has
marriage and family formation been a social institution or an economic
institution? What trends have been observed in extended families
(three generations living under one roof, or two older generations living
under one roof), and how do these relate to economic well-being?
What evidence do you see that the low wage employees are angry about the
circumstances in which they find themselves (excluding Ehrenreich)?
Why are they angry? Is this anger justified? Are some people
more likely to become angry about manual labor than others? Why?
Even when Ehrenreich has a job with an adequate salary (relative to her
rent), she experiences periods in which she can barely survive, at least
temporarily. Why is this the case? What policy initiative to
help low wage workers might be suggested by this observation?
Ehrenreich notes an apparent need for "approval" from the worker’s supervisor.
She also notes that mass media images are decidedly negative (or absent)
regarding low wage workers, and reports a sense of feeling alone in one's
circumstance. Do you think that this is an accurate portrayal of
mass media imagery (verify by noting TV or magazine images)? What
economic incentives would lead the mass media to behave in this manner,
assuming that you agree with Ehrenreich?
Ehrenreich’s experience points out the economic importance of the spatial
layout of cities. Which distances (e.g., from what to what) were
important or posed special challenges for Ehrenreich? What do you
think were the economic circumstances or incentives that led to the location
of these businesses or services?
Ehrenreich’s life was made much easier by the availability of a car.
How would a low wage worker fare in the absence of this convenience?
How would if affect their labor supply and housing decisions?
Why did Ehrenreich staying in motels for 200 per week, which was more expensive
than the going apartment rentals?
Ehrenreich is sympathetic to union but acknowledges that they have some
shortcomings. From the businesses’, employees’, and consumers’ perspectives,
what are the benefits and costs of unionism?
Unless you count Budgie, Ehrenreich had no real family responsibility during
her experiment. How would her routine have changed if she were responsible
for children? How would her economic circumstances have changed?
Given the historical patterns of childcare and the current trends in child
custody in divorce cases, would these challenges fall more heavily upon
low wage women?
What is meant by the term “mother’s hours,” a “benefit” offered by the
maid service in Maine? Is this job trait likely to raise wages, lower
wages, or leave wages unaffected? Should we think of this as a benefit?
Can you think of other job characteristics that would be associated with
higher or lower wages?
Why didn’t the low wage workers just switch to higher paying jobs (Ehrenreich
notes that there were higher paying jobs available)? What circumstances
discourage low wage workers from seeking out and taking the best paying
job that they can find?