Nickel and Dimed

Author

Ehrenreich, Barbara

Genre

Article/Essay

Overview

In her New York Times best-selling book, Nickel and Dimed (2001), journalist and activist Barbara Ehrenrich moves from Florida to Maine to Minnesota to explore “low-wage America,” working for poverty-level wages across the country and documenting the results. Cited as “changing the way America perceives its working poor,” Nickel and Dimed reveals the day-to-day challenges of working for minimum wage in America. Yet, as Ehrenreich acknowledges at the end of this excerpt, “this is just an experiment, you know, not my actual life.” Ehrenreich's experiment offers an opportunity to discuss the nature of poverty and need in America, as well as the implications of her story for those for whom poverty is an everyday reality.

Full Text*

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Type

Reading - Short Enough to Read Aloud.

Themes

Identity and CommunityJustice and EqualityKnowledge and UncertaintyLove and CompassionMoney and WealthOrganizing and ActivismPoverty and NeedPower and PrivilegeRoles and BoundariesSocial and Political ChangeSpeech and ExpressionTeaching and LearningWork and Vocation

Big Questions

How does a person learn compassion?How do communities have a voice?What are the causes of poverty?What is the appropriate response to privilege?Who has the right to speak for a community?Where does the best learning happen – in the classroom or elsewhere?

Notes

It may also be important to include biographical information about Ehrenreich so that participants can have a better understanding of her background and therefore the implications of her project

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What standards does Ehrenreich set for herself at the start for what she will or will not do?
  2. What challenges does Ehrenreich encounter in starting her low-wage life?
  3. Why does Ehrenreich rule out certain occupations when she is first finding a job?
  4. Why does Ehrenreich feel pressure to tell her boss, “this is… not my actual life”?
  5. Why is Ehrenreich “unwilling to squat down and pee”? How, if at all, does this impact her understanding?
  6. What does it take to pull oneself out of poverty? Do our expectations about how this can be done align with what Ehrenreich's project reveals?
  7. What do you think of Ehrenreich's project? Do you think it's effective? Do you think it's fair?
  8. In the end, does Ehrenreich “know” what it means to be poor?
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