The Public Interest

Trading places

Christine Curran

Winter 2002

NOW in its ninth printing, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and  Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America † became a New York Times bestseller within weeks of its release, receiving wide media attention and a great deal of acclaim. The book’s popularity is at least partially a result of its unique angle on the low-income working world. “In the spirit of science,” Ehrenreich decided to become a low-wage worker herself, to see whether she “could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do everyday.” As with any scientific experiment, there were a few rules: She refused to fall back on skills derived from her education or professional experience (claiming only a partial college education) and promised to accept both the highest paid job and the cheapest accommodations available. Over the course of a year, Ehrenreich worked her way through a number of minimum-wage and low-paying jobs in three different locales: as a waitress in Florida, a housecleaner and nursing-home aide in Maine, and as a Wal-Mart employee in Minnesota. Her conclusion?

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