In her novel Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, author Barbara Ehrenreich issues an indictment against a corporate America that has become increasingly reliant upon low-wage employees by detailing her experiences working minimum wage jobs, while also injecting a hint of humor at times. She ultimately concludes that action must be taken in order to rectify the injustices that minimum wage employees are subjected to on a daily basis. There are many solutions to achieving Ehrenreich’s goal of improving working conditions for those who work unskilled positions, but the most effective options would be to raise the minimum wage, expand social programs, and also offer more accessible education programs.
She begins the novel by detailing her time working at a restaurant in Key West, Florida. Upon arrival, Ehrenreich is faced with the dilemma of finding affordable housing on a minimum wage budget. Although she at first plans to allocate $500 per month for rent, with another $600 left over for gas and groceries, she soon realizes this is implausible due to the high cost of housing. Her options are limited to, as she states, either “flophouses or trailer homes,” and she finally settles on a place 45 minutes from town (Ehrenreich 12). After she finds a place to reside, she begins combing the wanted ads to find a job. After dismissing positions such as a hotel front-desk clerk and telemarketer, she finally decides to seek employment at a restaurant named “Hearthside.” Not only is she expected to work for $2.43 per hour plus tips, but she is also exposed to humiliating and potentially dangerous working conditions as well (Ehrenreich 16).
During her first shift, she arrives through the backdoor to find a man violent throwing frozen steaks at a wall while shouting obscenities (Ehrenreich 16). The other employees think nothing of it, apparently conditioned to the fact that the place is operated in an unprofessional manner. Although many believe a server’s job is simple, Ehrenreich describes how there is constant “side work” in the form of sweeping, scrubbing, and restocking, among other tasks (Ehrenreich 16). In all, she ends up working at the restaurant for two weeks before resigning. Throughout the novel, she goes on to work at other establishments, all with similar expectations that an employee should complete an array of demanding tasks for little pay.
At the end of the novel, she details how she and her co-workers received almost no benefits, including overtime pay, retirement funds, and health insurance. She also discusses how many people she interacted with relied upon family for assistance with housing and food costs, with some sharing appliances and dividing up cooking and cleaning (Ehrenreich 244). The novel perfectly portrays the life of a minimum wage employee, which is usually one of constant struggle due to low wages.
In order to rectify the situations described in the novel, the most feasible solution would be to raise the federal minimum wage. Currently, at $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage in the United States is not high enough for most unskilled workers to make a fair living, as evidenced in the novel. Ehrenreich was working roughly 40 hours per week and still had trouble finding housing and paying her bills. Although some states have voluntarily chosen to raise their state minimum wage, most states in the country still abide by the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, with some employees earning even less, as was the case with Ehrenreich’s time as a server.
An increase in the minimum wage would accomplish a number of goals. Most importantly, it would provide employees with more take-home pay. This would help cover expenses such as housing, food, and healthcare, as it was stated that most low wage employees receive no benefits. If the trend of paying unskilled workers an unlivable wage is to be ended, the government will likely have to step in because business owners will not raise wages willingly. This is due to the central belief of capitalism that a business should sell its product at the lowest possible price, and in order to lower prices, wages must also be kept low. Also, by forcing businesses to raise wages and make a bit less profit, it would not only allow for workers to live a more sustainable lifestyle but would also decrease wage inequality (Dickens and Manning 614). Minimum wage is a corporation’s dream – in that it provides access to low wage labor while making employees believe their services are worth little.
Another solution would be to expand social programs. Again, as stated in the novel, most minimum-wage employees must cover the costs of food, housing, and healthcare while working for only a few dollars per hour. As expected, this can be difficult, leading many to rely upon less expensive (and usually less healthy) food options and forgo basic healthcare. If programs such as food stamps and Medicaid were expanded, it would mean workers would have to spend less money to cover their costs, which would in turn essentially provide a wage increase. Although there are many Americans who receive support via the food stamp program, with roughly 17.1 million receiving benefits in 2000 (Jolliffe et al. 569), further expansion could help ensure a better lifestyle for unskilled workers.
Lastly, more accessible education programs would benefit those hoping to make a better living. If more were able to attend college for a reasonable cost, or have access to trade school programs, it would provide the education and training necessary to acquire a higher paying job. However, it is the least effective of the three suggested solutions for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it does not address the fact that there will still be employees working low wage positions. Although it will allow some to acquire the skills to receive a higher paying job, there will still be employees working as servers for $2.43 per hour unless the minimum wage is increased. Additionally, there is no guarantee that a college degree or trade school certificate will result in a higher paying job. In tough economic times, there are many college graduates filling the ranks of the unemployed, despite the fact that they have the education necessary to obtain a job in a specialized sector. Therefore, while it is important to provide access to higher education, an expansion of social programs and an increase in the minimum wage would better serve those working in low paying jobs because it would change the way businesses operate and provide immediate relief.
In conclusion, Ehrenreich does a tremendous job of describing a problem that many are unwilling to confront directly: the fact that multi-billion dollar corporations exploit employees on a daily basis. Not only are they forced to work for wages that barely provide enough cash to put a meal on the table at dinner, but they are also subjected to grueling physical tasks and managers whose primary goal is to make their lives miserable. Those who have control of the purse strings (i.e. business owners and CEOs) will not change their ways without being forced to by employment law. In essence, they have no reason to. Although there is a high turnover rate at many businesses that pay low wages, there is still a constant supply of workers willing to work for next-to-nothing. Therefore, it would be unwise from a business perspective to increase wages because the only thing that would result from the increase would be a decrease in company profits. That means it is ultimately up to the federal government to hold businesses accountable for their unfair labor practices, and the most logical ways to do so would be to increase the minimum wage, provide more comprehensive benefits to the working poor, and also make education more accessible.
Dickens, Richard, and Manning, Alan. “Has the National Minimum Wage Reduced UK Wage Inequality?” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 167.4 (2004): 613-626. JSTOR. Web. 2 Nov. 2013.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2001. Print.
Jolliffe, Dean, Gundersen, Craig, Tiehen, Laura, and Winicki, Joshua. “Food Stamp Benefits and Child Poverty.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 87.3 (2005): 569-581. JSTOR. Web. 2 Nov. 2013..