Nickel and Dimed is a work of investigative journalism. In the book, author Barbara Ehrenheich takes a series of jobs that pay minimum wage to discover how people who earn a low income make ends meet. She learns that surviving on minimum wage is so difficult that most workers can't afford to rent apartments or live on their own. She also learns that the work is degrading and that the people who are meant to provide assistance to the poor aren't always helpful.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s non-fiction bestseller, Nickel and Dimed , is the story of an essay writer who went undercover as a low wage worker to find out how non-skilled workers make ends meet. The experiment took place in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota, with the author finding a job and lodgings in each location. The experiment was to be held for one month in each location, working full time and living only off the amount of money earned in low-wage jobs. The goal was to determine whether or not the author could both live off the money earned and have enough money at the end of the month to pay the next month’s rent.
The first city chosen was Key West, Florida, due to the proximity to her home. Ehrenreich gets a job as a waitress in a diner-style restaurant, and finds a trailer to rent nearby. The income she receives from waiting tables is not enough to support her and to pay the next installment of rent, and Ehrenreich takes on a second job working as a hotel maid. The two jobs become too physically demanding for her to continue, and she vacates the maid position after one day. The waitress position becomes increasingly difficult as well, and Ehrenreich leaves the job before the month has been completed.
The second city chosen for the experiment was Portland, Maine. In this city, Ehrenreich found a job with The Maids, a residential housekeeping service. Knowing that it would likely take two jobs to meet her goals, she also took a job as a dietary aide in a nursing home. Her two jobs are staggered so that Ehrenreich works seven days a week. The housekeeping position proved to be physically demanding as well as low paying, and Ehrenreich also felt the job to be degrading. After one of the other maids in injured on the job, Ehrenreich demands that the younger maid stop working, and tries to halt the work of all the maids. Unsuccessful, Ehrenreich complains to the manager and wins a day off for the injured worker. As a dietary aide, Ehrenreich finds herself taking care of the entire Alzheimer’s ward by herself, afraid that by making a mistake she could harm her patients.
After leaving Maine, Ehrenreich travels to Minnesota, where she attempts to find both a job and an affordable place to live. Because of Minneapolis’ low apartment vacancy rate, she is unable to secure and apartment. She does quickly get hired by Wal-Mart as a “softlines” worker, putting errant clothing back on the racks. She finds a hotel to live in, but stays worried about the boltless door, and moves to a nicer hotel.
After leaving each job, Ehrenreich tells a few employees who have gained her trust that her reason for being in the job had only been to write a book about the experience. She is surprised that there is never a dramatic response to the confession, but the workers are caught up in their own low-wage situations and show little interest in her reasons for leaving.