The bottom line – you can’t get by on $6 or $7 an hour. Millions of Americans fall under that bottom line, and they aren’t getting by.

In 1998, author Barbara Ehrenreich asked, “How were the four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour?” Taking low-wage jobs herself, Ehrenreich reported her experiences in Nickel and Dimed – On (Not) Getting By in America.

In Key West, she worked as a waitress in a motel restaurant and moonlighted as a housekeeper in another motel.

In Portland, Maine, she worked weekdays for a national housecleaning chain and weekends as a food service worker in a nursing home. In Minneapolis, stocking clothes racks at Wal-Marts. One month on each job.

She found the hours long, the work hard, the stress high. She found helpful coworkers, tyrannical employers
and damned little respect.

In each city, Ehrenreich started with a car, $1,300 in cash, no children, no family crises, and good health.

Despite these advantages, she ended each month with less cash in hand than when she started. Only in Maine, working an unsustainable seven days a week, was she able to break even.

Ehrenreich rented the cheapest accommodation she could find that offered “an acceptable level of safety and
privacy.” But without two month’ deposit for an apartment, many coworkers lived in their cars, or doubled-up with other families in motel rooms. With no kitchen, they survived on junk food. With no health insurance any minor illnesses became worse, causing missed work and lost jobs.

In a footnote, we learn new homes are larger, and the number of households using cleaning services increased
53 percent from 1995 to 1999. Could there be a connection between the growth in luxury homes at one end, and the complete absence of affordable housing that afflicts the workers we meet in Nickel and Dimed?

“Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health … can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high,” Ehrenrich writes.

Government support for rental housing has dried up, while tax cuts for the most affluent homeowners remain high.

Wages are kept down by well-organized corporate strategies, and a host of obstacles to workers fighting back, individually or in unions.

A family with one adult and two children needs $14 an hour for a “living wage,” but 60 percent of American workers earn less. And this was during 1998-2000, the period of lowest unemployment and greatest “prosperity” in recent memory.

Class consciousness – awareness of the wide gap between workers and employers – is present throughout the book. In the restaurant, managers are former cooks, “but everyone knows they have crossed over to the other side … Cooks want to prepare tasty meals, servers want to serve them graciously, but managers are there for only one reason – to make sure that money is made for the corporation.”

But class consciousness is not matched by class struggle. A few Wal-Mart workers in Minneapolis respond positively when Ehrenreich mentions unions, but for the most part, workers are portrayed as accepting their lousy conditions, or seeking individual solutions.

In the last paragraph, we read that some day, low-wage workers “are bound to tire of getting so little … and to demand to be paid what they’re worth.”

It is too bad that, in three months on the job, Ehrenreich didn’t meet up with any organized resistance to corporate power. But over the past decade, such resistance has been growing.

We have seen struggles and victories won by hospitality workers in Las Vegas, home health aides in California, school bus drivers in Ohio and Connecticut and hundreds of thousands of other workers around the country.

In this context, the crisis condition faced by millions of workers in the U.S. becomes a call to action.

The author can be reached at


Art Perlo
Art Perlo

Art Perlo lived in New Haven, Conn., where he was active in labor and community struggles. He did research and writing on economic issues in Connecticut, including work with the Coalition to End Child Poverty in Connecticut which helped pave the way for the movement for progressive tax reform in the state. He wrote on national economic issues for the People's World and was a member of the CPUSA Economic Commission.