"Nickel and Dimed "
Reading and discussion questions: (SUNY - Brockport, NY)
- In the wake of recent welfare reform measures, millions entering the workforce face struggles like the ones Ehrenreich confronted in Nickel and Dimed. Have you ever been homeless, unemployed, without health insurance or held down two jobs? What is the lowest paying job you ever held and what kind of help (parents, loans, etc.) - if any – did you need to improve your situation? If you have had that sort of job, what would life be like if that was your permanent job?
- What does it mean to be poor?
- Housing costs pose the greatest obstacle for low-wage workers. Do you believe that there are realistic solutions to the lack of affordable housing? Brainstorm potential solutions to the current shortage of affordable housing for low-income folks.
- Ehrenreich found she could not survive on $7.00 per hour – not if she wanted to live indoors and keep her car. Limiting yourself to $7.00 per hour earnings, create a hypothetical monthly budget for Brockport. Check local rentals, estimate the cost of utilities, phone, groceries, health care, and other expenses. Could you “make it” in Brockport on $7.00 an hour?
- Many campus and advocacy groups are currently involved in struggles to secure a “living wage” for low-income families. The poverty guideline for 2004 for a family of 4 is $18,850. How do you think a living wage should be calculated?
- How does manager’s scrutiny – “time theft” crackdowns and drug testing – affect workers’ morale? How can American companies make the workplace environment safe and efficient without treating employees like suspected criminals?
- Many of Ehrenreich’s colleagues relied heavily on family – for housing and help with child-care, by sharing appliances and dividing up the cooking shopping and cleaning. Beyond this kind of family support, to what extent should government support services be available for the poor? What should they be and who should be responsible for providing them?
- Nickel and Dimed takes place in 1998-2000, a time of unprecedented prosperity in America. Do you think Ehrenreich’s experience would be different in today’s economy? Whether you answer “yes” or “no,” explain the rationale for your response.
- After reading Nickel and Dimed, do you think that having a job – any job – is better than no job al all? How did this book make you feel? Motivated to do something? Ideas to share?
- Ehrenreich’s portrayal of management in her book was largely negative. Do you think that she was biased or fair in her assessments? Explain.
- What are your career goals? What kinds of jobs do you hope to obtain after graduating from college?
- Is it fair to generalize about the working poor based on the author’s experience working a few minimum wage jobs in three states? Describe a different way that we could learn about on minimum wage.
- Did this book change your impression of low-wage workers and their work? How? Examples.
- Many students need to work while attending college to pay for their education costs. In some cases, they match or exceed a fort-hour workweek, which can harm their performance in the classroom. Do you plan to work during college? IF so, how many hours can you reasonably allocate to a job? What would you list as your employment priorities and what compromises would you make in terms of time, grades or a personal life?
- What services exist on campus to help you find a part-time job? Similarly, after reading the want ads in the local newspapers, how many job descriptions could you realistically fulfill? If you do intend to work while in college, how would you rate your own time management skills? Additionally, are there employers in the area that acknowledge the additional pressures encountered by an academic calendar (midterms, finals, and breaks)?
- Have you ever constructed a resume that lists your previous employment history, extracurricular activities and special accomplishments? How could such an activity enhance your employment opportunities?
- Questions #3 and #4 both focus on a considerable list of expenses that can stretch the living wage to a breaking point. Determine what a working, full-time college student with a child would have to allocate to daycare costs, either in an authorized center or in a private home. Do you feel it is possible to successfully manage all of these responsibilities – school, work and raising a child – in pursuit of an undergraduate degree? Taking the notion of childcare a step farther, do you feel governmental agencies could or should cover such fees for working mothers that are also fulltime students?
- Were your perceptions of blue-collar Americans transformed or reinforced by
Nickel and Dimed? Have your notions of poverty and prosperity changed since reading the book? What about your own treatment of waiters, maids, and sales people?
- Why do you think low-wage workers are reluctant to form labor organizations as Ehrenreich discovered at Wal-Mart? How do you think employees should lobby to improve working conditions?
- After reading Nickel and Dimed, do you think that having a job – any job- is better than no job at all? Did this book make you feel angry? Better informed? Relieved that someone has finally described your experience? Galvanized to do something?