Nickle And Dimed Term Paper

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed is one woman’s in depth, yet only temporary look into the working poor class of Americans. She infiltrates their society and attempts to make it just as they do in their daily lives. Using rules that she sets for herself she does the best she can to truly get a feel for how things are for the low wage working class who are employed in different service jobs that are available to them. Her self-inflicted rules (and her reasoning for them) were 1) not using her prior education and/or work experience to get or hold a job (lower class would probably not have these), 2) taking the highest paid job available and doing best to keep it (those in the lower class wouldn’t have the luxury of getting tired of a job or of management practices and just letting it go), 3) take the cheapest accommodations found (Ehrenreich wanted to make an honest effort into making it work out not just taking a higher rent room and then saying “oh well, guess I couldn’t make it work”). A down fall to Barbara Ehrenreich’s experiment was that she did use her car and had a first month’s rent and security deposit available. These are things that many from the working poor class wouldn’t have access to.
Barbara Ehrenreich decided to start her experiment in a place familiar to her, Key West, Florida. She says that she chose this location “mostly out of laziness” on page 11 of her book. After three days of heavy job hunting she finds herself in a waitress job that pays only $2.43 an hour plus tips. Waitressing was actually one of the jobs that she had tried to rule out for herself due to how exhausted it had left her even in her younger years. Ehrenreich quickly begins to learn not only the art of her trade but also the little things it takes to get by in the business. This includes the lists of here is how you please the management to keep your job and here is how you please the customers when management is not looking to increase the tips. Here seems to begin a dislike for management in Ehrenreich that carries over to her future positions in other locales. It is also here that she realizes by speaking to another restaurant employee that having the money available for “start up costs” as she terms it, is really an unfair advantage to her. She is astounded that someone would even dream of paying $40 – $60 per day for a room and finds out quickly that she herself is the one who comes off sounding foolish. If you don’t have access to a first month’s rent and security deposit, you don’t have options.
The next destination is Portland, Maine where Barbara Ehrenreich is now the one paying by the day for a $59 room at the Motel 6 in the beginning and ends up in a $120/week plus $100 security deposit Blue Haven Motel and begins looking for work. She has quickly learned that the key to finding a job is to apply for as many as possible because a help wanted sign does not necessarily mean that help is wanted on that particular day. By this method she ends up with two jobs. One at The Maids cleaning service for $6.65/hour and a weekend job at Woodcrest Residential Facility as a dietary aid for $7.00/hour. Fortunately for her she is to start work immediately though she cannot move from her temporary and more expensive Motel 6 residency to her more permanent Blue Haven room for several days. Several days that are costing her $59/day remember. The Maids cleaning service job is where Ehrenreich quite possibly learned the most of how the working poor are treated and looked down upon by society. Especially when one of her fellow cleaners gets injured and nobody seems to even notice much less care.
Then it’s off to Minneapolis, Minnesota for Barbara Ehrenreich where she starts out bird sitting for a friend of a friend. Although, at first this doesn’t seem to work with her previously set up rules for herself, Ehrenreich justifies the set up by likening it to some of her previous coworkers being forced to share residence with family members to get by. Here, after minimal running around filling out applications, she finds a job at a Wal-Mart mostly due to her forwardness and the persistence of calling personnel from their own payphone and asking to be seen in person. She is offered another job at Home Depot but relatively quickly turns that one down in preference of Wal-Mart. While employed here, the author learns many astounding things about the Wal-Mart chain and the way they treat their employees. It starts with the same expectations as many other places such as no standing around talking, aka time stealing, and no telling each other what you’re pay is and, as typically happens, the employees finding way around those rules. Along with the others Barbara gets pretty good at always appearing busy without actually getting things done too quickly because they will just get more work piled on to do then. In Minnesota though, Barbara really begins to learn that there are bigger problems to be dealt with for the working poor. Affordable yet safe housing is very difficult to attain and any kind of aid for housing subsidies and emergency food is of low nutrition and supply. Also, the employees of Wal-Mart are treated unfairly by their employer through them refusing to pay overtime and give decent breaks. After learning about these problems she begins a crusade to start talk about a union among the employees but unfortunately the time for her experiment in Minnesota is over before she gets much accomplished.

Functionalist Perspective
In the very first chapter, Understanding Sociology, of our textbook on page 13 Schaefer defines the functionalist perspective. Here he compares society to a living organism in which each part of the organism contributes to its survival. To look at Barbara Ehrenreich’s experiences in her experiment from a functionalist point of view we would see that the working poor are necessary to society. If everyone was able to attain higher positions in large corporations there would not be anyone to do the jobs that Ehrenreich took on for her research purposes. The low wages, high rents and child care problems of this class are what keep waitresses taking orders, aids working in nursing homes, maids cleaning the elite’s mansions and someone straightening up the things that have been cast aside. Even though this lower class is very much looked down on, society as a whole would collapse if its lower “base” wasn’t there to hold it up.
The functionalist point of view recognizes two categories of function. The manifest functions are the open, stated, and conscious functions and the latent functions which are unconscious or unintended functions that may reflect hidden purposes of an institution. The manifest functions of the working poor are the actual functions that they provide for society on a day to day basis. One could also look at the challenges that this class faces as the manifest functions. The housing serves as a function in providing one of the basic needs of humans, shelter. The housing, or the lack there of would be a latent function in that it kind of holds this class into that place. They have to go where the housing is available even if it is far away from their jobs. By requiring a first month’s rent and security deposit, landlords are in effect forcing these potential tenants to continue living in by the day or by the week situations which is much more expensive and the circle comes back around to not being able to save the money needed to get into a better position or location.
Conflict Perspective
The conflict perspective assumes that social behavior is best understood in terms of tension between groups over power or the allocation of resources. (Schaefer) In Nickel and Dimed these would include housing; the wealthier certainly have more access to safer housing in more convenient locations. As the affluent buy up land and housing to be torn down to build up something better for themselves, the poor who work in the necessary service positions are forced to live further and further away from employment opportunities. This conflict supports society in that it keeps the working poor in the lower jobs by not giving them ready access to better opportunities. Tensions over money come in to play when big businesses want to make greater profits and do so by paying their workers so very little. If the pay scale was raised then profits would go down. To counteract this, prices would go up and the conflict would just continue between the money that the lower class makes and what they really need to live on. When Barbara Ehrenreich was employed by Wal Mart she saw how bad the conflicts really are and how little the corporation really cared for their employees when a coworker wanted to purchase a clearance priced, stained polo shirt and wasn’t allowed her discount on it do to rules made by management. Ehrenreich became infuriated with the working conditions and pay of this class and made attempts to unionize the workers while she was there. She was compelled to do something about their plight and did so by writing this book.
Conflict between the wealthy and the working poor leads to the definitions of the two classes. If they were all equal then there would be no end of one class and beginning of another. We would all meld into one class. If there were no working poor class then the wealthy would have to do more for themselves. If the working poor didn’t have the conflict of wanting something better, then they wouldn’t strive to do well at their jobs and things would only be done half way just to get by. It’s the conflicts of insufficient funds for safe housing, food and clothing, the basic human needs, which keep the working class going. If they were just automatically afforded these things then they would not be out there working the two, sometimes more, low paid service jobs that need to be done for the functioning of society.

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Interactionist Perspective
The Interactionist Perspective is simply using the day to day social interactions to explain society. This means that everything and everyone works together to make society what it is.
In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, the Interactionist perspective is only looked at from the perspective of the working poor. How they are treated by the more affluent in society is the books only concern. Not to condone the behavior of the wealthy that don’t seem to care for the poor, but there is also a counter perspective at work. If the wealthy did not need or want these services then the poor would be out of a job entirely. Though they treat them badly, they do need them for their own lives to work the way they want them to. Also, if the pay rate increases too much then there will be more competition for the job opportunities that are there because some from the next class up would possibly start applying for some of these jobs too. What the wealthy do not understand though is that rewards for hard work would get things done a lot more efficiently then the punishments for “time stealing” or simply expecting more. As shown in Ehrenreich’s book, if there are no rewards for doing better or faster work, such as a few moments rest, then there is no reason to push yourself to attain that. The interactions between the two classes would be much better if the two classes understood each other better. Both classes need to realize that without the other, their lives would be very, very different. It takes the interaction of every class of society to make that society “work”.

My Thoughts and Conclusion
I personally really enjoyed this book. Nothing in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed surprised me, however, seeing it in writing did anger and disgust me at many different places in the book. I think that it is great that someone of importance like a writer took on this experiment and that she seemed to take it quite seriously. The fact that Ehrenreich actually took on the employment and housing conditions of the working poor and not, as some of her colleagues’ suggested, just worked it out on paper shows that she really wanted to understand the plight of the poor.
Nickel and Dimed has helped those who have never been in the position of the working poor to somewhat understand their plight. Too many wealthy seem to think that the poor are poor because of something that they do or have done. Many seem to believe that they blow all of their money on unnecessary things or bad habits or that they should just find better or more affordable housing and they’ll be just fine. They don’t realize how hard it is to get up and out of the lower class once you’re there. People who have never been there don’t realize how impossible society had made it for them to get ahead and this book puts it right out there. The fact that it was an experiment taken on by a well known author gives it more meaning then if it would have just been written by or was just interviews of “whiny poor people that are too lazy to help themselves”.
Barbara Ehrenreich evokes sympathy from the more affluent and possibly makes them more apt to aid the poor through safer housing and better food subsidies. It forces people to se what needs to be done now to help. I think that this book will continue to be relevant in the future for as long as there are poor in America and I don’t think that will end any time soon.
Work’s Cited
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. New York: Holt.
2001. Print.
Schaefer, Richard T. Sociology: A Brief Introduction, Ninth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
2011. Print.