Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Poverty cuts across all nations of the world. In most cases, what differs is the degree of poverty among citizens of a nation. For example, the United States, one of the most economically stable nations of the world grapples with poverty. America measures poverty with “poverty threshold”, which denotes cash income that can support a given size of a family as determined by the government annually. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the country’s poverty index has remained inelastic since 1964, having dropped by only 4% by 2012. Today, about 15 percent of Americans are living in poverty (Census.gov). Barbara Ehrenreich examines the life of poor Americans including how the live a poor life and how they confront enormous challenges. In this paper, we look at the life of poor Americans based on how Barbara documents in Nickel and Dimed.
Ehrenreich resigned from his well-paying job in 1998 and joined millions of Americans, working fulltime and earning peanut wages within the range of $6 to $7 per hour. She accepted every job that came her way as she worked as an undercover journalist, hoping that a job would guarantee someone a better life. She hopped from city to city including Florida, Maine and Minnesota, doing menial like clerical work, cleaner, waitress, nursing assistant and hotel attendant. She sources the cheapest available options in town in lodgings and sometimes in trailer parks. In her book, she narrates her experiences in lowest ranked jobs and admits that every occupation on earth requires some level of mental and physical effort (13).
Nickel and Dimed shows how people spend all their lives working in order to have basic human needs: food, shelter and clothing. For Ehrenreich, poor Americans cannot afford a healthy diet even though they spend a huge portion of their salaries on food. Theirs is junk and cheap foodstuffs, without a second thought on nutritional value. They feed on auction supplies, which are always stale, or almost reaching their expiry dates and posing health threats to people. In the book, poor resolve to urban hunting in order to meet the diet needs. For example, Racine and Detroit locals turn to hunting rabbits and squirrels as the only source of proteins in their diet (Ehrenreich 16).
Poor Americans also experience housing challenges, making them remain poorer. During her undercover time, she established how poor Americans adjust to harsh economic situation by cutting down household expenses (3). As survival tact, they enter into a gentleman’s agreement with two or three families and agree to cost-share the accommodation fee. Despite the fact that there are no figures showing overcrowding, poor and underpaid Americans live in crowded places to avoid overspending their income on rent. Several people are also homeless and seek shelter under bridges and on the streets.
The poor and underpaid also experience a range of challenges to access medical care. According to Ehrenreich, they deal with this by limiting their heath care expenses (27). Majority of these people lack health insurance policies because they cannot afford with others foregoing their medical prescriptions to cut down on expenses. They further face the hurdle of living in unhygienic environs, poor eating habits, making them more vulnerable to diseases. Because of these lifestyles, these people also have a higher risk of becoming obese.
From the experiment, Ehrenreich establishes high levels of discrimination against the poor in the American society. The well-to-do in the society feel that the poor are in the hapless state of poverty because of laziness. Kristen, a Delaware resident observes that paupers undergo humiliation when seeking relief food from the government (Ehrenreich 67). The law requires them to apply for40 jobs in a week and enroll for job readiness training. The government does not care on how these people get to class or who takes care of their children while undergoing the training. They also undergo a rigorous and humiliating process of interrogation to determine if they are legitimately poor. While this keeps conmen at bay, the whole process always ends up as psychological torture of the poor (68).
The poor also find it hard to cope because of criminalization of poverty countrywide. Ehrenreich observes how police always arrest the poor on suspicion of being criminals. To frustrate the poor, some streets have banned wandering, sitting and sleeping in the streets. The government ignores the fact that some of those wandering are homeless and those loitering are jobless and in need of something to do to earn them a living. For example, police arrested a sixty-two years old Al Szekeley and charged him with trespassing for simply sleeping in the streets. For Ehrenreich, being poor in America is like living in a foreign and hostile country (129).
Because of the complex challenges the poor face in America, they can hardly break the cycle of poverty. Firstly, their children cannot access quality education because of their financial constraints. Children further drop out of learning institutions because of starvation and end up helping their parents to look for food. They cannot invest because whatever they earn cannot meet their basic needs.
In essence, Nickel and Dimed gives insights on how hard it is to survive when you are poor in America. It paints a picture of how 15% of America’s poor population lives on low-wage, and this could be deeply rooted more than what Ehrenreich observed. This is because the writer began experimenting the poor life when she was already wealthy. Thus, there is every reason to address the plight of the poor, as they are members of the society. Some the measures, which would change their lives include increasing the minimum wage, providing affordable housing and having universal healthcare.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001. Print.
United States Census Bureau. Poverty. N.dat. Web. http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/threshld/index.html