Ten years ago, writer Barbara Ehrenreich published “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” a blockbuster book on the state of the working poor in America. The project originated during a lunch with Lewis Lapham, now editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine, after the two asked themselves: “How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?”
“Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism—you know, go out there and try it for themselves,” Ehrenreich said, without knowing that someone would be her. What followed was a work of investigative journalism worthy of mention alongside George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier” and Jack London’s “The People of the Abyss.” Two and a half years into the Great Recession, when poverty has become “criminalized,” as Ehrenreich says, her description of life in the underclass is more urgent than ever.
Read her new afterword—which appears in the 10th anniversary re-release of “Nickel and Dimed” published this summer—below.—ARK
I completed the manuscript for Nickel and Dimed in a time of seemingly boundless prosperity. Technology innovators and venture capitalists were acquiring sudden fortunes, buying up McMansions like the ones I had cleaned in Maine and much larger. Even secretaries in some hi-tech firms were striking it rich with their stock options. There was loose talk about a permanent conquest of the business cycle, and a sassy new spirit infecting American capitalism. In San Francisco, a billboard for an e-trading firm proclaimed, “Make love not war,” and then—down at the bottom—“Screw it, just make money.”
When Nickel and Dimed was published in May 2001, cracks were appearing in the dot-com bubble and the stock market had begun to falter, but the book still evidently came as a surprise, even a revelation, to many. Again and again, in that first year or two after publication, people came up to me and opened with the words, “I never thought…” or “I hadn’t realized…”
To my own amazement, Nickel and Dimed quickly ascended to the bestseller list and began winning awards. Criticisms, too, have accumulated over the years. But for the most part, the book has been far better received than I could have imagined it would be, with an impact extending well into the more comfortable classes. A Florida woman wrote to tell me that, before reading it, she’d always been annoyed at the poor for what she saw as their self-inflicted obesity. Now she understood that a healthy diet wasn’t always an option. And if I had a quarter for every person who’s told me he or she now tipped more generously, I would be able to start my own foundation.