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Nickel and Dimed Or (not) getting by in America. By: Barbara Ehrenreich. Have you ever had a minimum wage job or known someone who has? Have you ever thought about the servers at a diner or the housekeepers at your hotel?. Time and Location. June 1998 Key West, Florida

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Have you ever had a minimum wage job or known someone who has?Have you ever thought about the servers at a diner or the housekeepers at your hotel?

time and location
Time and Location
  • June 1998
  • Key West, Florida
    • Expensive housing market
    • Not even in a urban city where you would assume poverty. Exists in a tourist market.
  • Economy in good shape

Topic: day to day life on minimum wage

Focus: surviving on minimum wage versus welfare in Key West

Methods: ethnography; or field study and observation

Target: upper class who is oblivious to these issues

Goals: to find out if someone could actually live off of minimum wage and to observe how others (her coworkers) lived off this lifestyle.

Theme: Emotions evoked.


Surviving on Minimum Wage:


“In that business, you don’t just sit at a desk and theorize; you plunge into the everyday chaos of nature, where surprises lurk in the most mundane measurements” (Ehrenreich 2001, 38).

the experiment
The Experiment

“So this is not the perfect experiment, just a test of the best possible case: an unencumbered woman, smart, and even strong, attempting to live more or less off the land” (Ehrenreich 2001, 38)

Left life at home, to move to Key West and try and live like a woman trying to get out of poverty.

Can’t use skills she got from education or work.


“I had been vain enough to worry about coming across as too educated for the jobs I sought, but no one even seems interested in finding out how over qualified I am”(Ehrenreich 2001, 40).

Applies to many hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets but no one seems interested, and salaries are very low.

job at hearthside
Job at Hearthside

Hotel restaurant waitress

$2.43 an hour plus tips

2PM to 10PM shift

“From the first day on, I find that all of the things I have left behind, such as home and identity, what I miss the most is competence” (Ehrenreich2001, 40-41).

Attachment to the customers and her coworkers

jerry s

No one is homeless

Mutual support group at work

George from Czech Republic; goal is to teach him English

$2.15 an hour and shared tips with the busboys and dishwashers (average of $7.50 an hour)

Workers without marital help work 2 jobs


Is her dream minimum wage job

$6.10 an hour

No health insurance

9am till done

One week of vacation a year


First - $500 a month, 45 minute drive from work. Gas was $4-5 a day. Back cabin behind trailer.

Second- closer to work. Can work another job because of location. Trailer about 8 feet in width and shaped like a barbell. “Overseas park is a nest of crime and crack” (Ehrenreich 2001, 49).


“There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs” (Ehrenreich 2001, 44).

We talk about the usual girl things-men, children, and the sinister peanut-butter cream pie- though no one, I notice, ever brings up anything potentially expensive, like shopping or movies” (Ehrenreich 2001, 48).

your budget
Your budget

How much do you spend on average each month?

What do you spend money on?

average spending per month
Average Spending per Month

30%   ($634) Housing

10%   ($211) Utilities and other housing expenditures (including renters insurance)

15%   ($317) Food (at home and away)

10%   ($211) Transportation (including car loan)

10%   ($211) Debt repayment (student loans and credit cards)

10%   ($211) Saving

  5%   ($106) Clothing

  5%   ($106) Entertainment

  5%   ($106) Car insurance and miscellaneous personal expenses

minimum wage in florida 2012
Minimum Wage in Florida 2012

$7.67 an hour is minimum wage

Work for 40 hours a week

$1227 per month

$845 average on housing and utilities

$382 left for food, insurance, phone, child care, car, clothing etc. for the month

Is this possible?


“I had gone into this venture in the spirit of science, to test a mathematical proposition, but somewhere along the line, in the tunnel vision imposed by long shifts and relentless concentration, it had become a test of myself, and I clearly had failed” (Ehrenreich 2001, 52).


Earned $1,040

Spent $517 on food, gas, toiletries, phone, and utilities

If she had stayed within $500 budget then she would have been able to pay for rent and have $22 dollar left. That is $78 less then the cash she started with


Food could be more economical but doesn’t have more time or money

    • Fast food versus cheap food at the grocery store
    • Costs of getting cooking supplies and starting up cooking