Nickel and Dimed 20 Years Later — Why Americans Still Aren’t Getting By

Amanda Claypool
8 min readFeb 5, 2024
Photo by Brian Lundquist on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to experience life as a working class American, barely getting by on minimum wage? This was an assignment the late journalist Barbara Ehrenreich took up in the late 1990s. Her work culminated in the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

To learn about the plight of the working poor, Ehrenreich gave up the luxuries of her middle class existence to experience life as an American trying to get by on a low-wage job. She took work in Key West, Florida, Portland, Maine, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. In each city, she had to subsist on whatever her income could afford. That often meant living in pay-by-the-week motels and eating highly processed food.

Finding work was a job in and of itself. She eventually found work as a waitress, a maid, a nursing home assistant, and an associate at Wal-Mart. Her research only came to an end when she was unable to secure housing in Minneapolis. As she astutely noted in the book:

“For each day that I fail to find cheaper quarters…I am spending $49.95 for the privilege of putting clothes away at Wal-Mart.” (185)

Even though Nickel and Dimed was written more than two decades ago, it reads as if it’s a present-day reflection on the state of work. A footnote on page 16 highlights that the wage for tipped employees back then was $2.13. In 2024, that wage has remained unchanged.

Ehrenreich’s lived experience shows that while wages were certainly an issue back then, it wasn’t just the paltry wages — it was the relationship between wages and housing. As Ehrenreich writes:

“When the rich and the poor compete for housing on the open market, the poor don’t stand a chance.” (202)

In the two decades since Ehrenreich published Nickel and Dimed, nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse. Instead of merely working for poverty wages at Wal-Mart, American workers have been lured into financing a costly education through unsecured student loans. This has rendered millions of American workers financially insolvent, dependent on corporate employers for their livelihoods.

This essay is going to analyze the state of work today as it relates to the state of…

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Amanda Claypool

I’m a writer & strategy consultant musing about the future of the world as it’s unfolding. Stay ahead of the curve: https://amandaclaypool.ck.page/reading-list