Barbara Ehrenreich Nickel and Dimed Term Paper

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Nickeled and Dimed

In an attempt to prevent families from living below the poverty line in the United States, the government ensures that people are paid a minimum-wage. Through this minimum-wage, the government believes that people can afford to pay their rents and bills, and cover the costs of their groceries, etc. However, this is not true, as the minimum-wage is indeed too little for the average family to survive on. This is because of the soaring rents that people have a hard time paying; with the meager wages they earn they can hardly make ends meet.

The current situation in places like California is considered difficult to get by for the minimum-wage earner. It is considered impossible to escape poverty, realizing that the minimum wage that is given to workers is insufficient. The current solutions proposed are not enough to deal with the problem, and the government needs to take steps that will help the low wageworkers escape the vicious cycle of poverty that they (minimum wage earners) are involuntary caught in.

Due to the fact that people are involuntarily caught in this poverty, there is immense exploitation carried out by land and building owners. Given that there is an acute shortage of living space for minimum wage earners in the state of California, owners take undue advantage and increase rents to exorbitant rates. Families don't have much choice in their accommodation, and because of this there are thousands of people in San Francisco living in cramped-up expensive apartments. Rents are so high that families of many individuals have to live together in order to make-do with their minimum income. This situation is described thoroughly in Barbara Ehrenreich's book 'Nickel and Dimed' in which one gets to realize the manner in which society (the structure) defines the individual (the agency).

Analysis: The defining factors in society are largely the owners of housing for residents in the state of California and the employers of minimum wage earners. Land owners and employers being providers for the minimum wage earners naturally define the lives of individuals who rely on them for their necessities. Ehrenreich describes that though minimum wage employees may have worked hard for a long time and expected something good in return, it appears that there are always big, dark surprises for them when they least expect it. Ehrenreich also describes the way that people are always told that hard work pays off some day, and for this reason one finds the working class willing and eagerly working long hours in the hopes of being rewarded. They are sadly mistaken, because if they can hardly make enough money to keep their heads above the water, how then can they save enough for their retirement? (Ehrenreich, 2001) Here, it is worth asserting the manner in which individuals live in a state of 'false consciousness' by believing what they are told. Individuals (the agency) act according to what they are told or whatever they are influenced by.

The society (the structure) is what defines individuals, and it can be observed that in this minimum-wage crisis, the structure defines the nature of the agency. According to a Marxist description this holds true because of the 'false consciousness' that the agency lives by (Althusser, 1964:. 231-236). Similar to this is Durkheim's concept of individuals acting to fit the needs or requirements of the society. It must be asserted that Durkheim's 'Functionalism', a macro-sociological theory that almost considers the structure as more important than the agency, each individual works in order to fulfill the needs of the structure. Hence, in Durkheim's case, the manner in which individuals work for the minimum wage may be seen as justified (Durkheim, 1984: 23-30).

In contrast to Durkheim's views about the individual (the agency) in a society (the structure), for Marx the individual is considered to be more important, and this is the reason why he goes as far as describing an individual on the minimum-wage as 'falsely conscious', believing that there is something to gain from being exploited the way that s/he is (Althusser, 1977: 231-236).

Marx's 'false consciousness' helps explain the way that the working class is kept from revolting against the dominating bourgeoisie. Since they (bourgeoisie) are the owners of the means of production they have the rights to hire and fire workers at will, and so, anyone who wants a raise is released from an organization (Althusser, 1977: 231-236). Hence, all individuals who come under the minimum wage are compelled to follow what the society has to offer them; there is perhaps no other way for them, and this is why it must be asserted that they are defined by society. This is also a typical description of the way that individuals are defined by society in post modern times. The influences around one are overwhelming, and they (individuals) cannot escape it all because they are only fragments of a much larger structure. This is why downsizing of workers is something that is considered to be so normal, almost as though individuals don't matter at all (Foucault, 1977: 15).

Most of the time, the downsized workers are longtime employees and expect some semblance of employer loyalty. This situation is implicitly stated in Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Nickel and Dimed," where one gets to learn about what really happens to minimum wage workers and how dark their lives really are To determine what their lives are really like, Ehrenreich carried out an experiment.".. To see if (her) Income could match her Expenses; as the truly poor attempt to do each day" (Ehrenreich, 2001: 6). Ehrenreich demonstrates that it cannot be done. Thus, the concept of the 'economic man' is nothing but a cruel joke. How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? (Ehrenreich, 2001: Introduction)

Clearly, it can be seen that the minimum wage earners cannot escape poverty, and Ehrenreich describes her position from personal experiences as she enters the minimum wage job market. She took up the highest paying unskilled jobs in three different states of the U.S. She barely managed to pay her rent, which is the cheapest available housing, with a wage of $7 an hour. Besides this, there were other obstacles that people in her position would have to face such as, unpaid overtime, the lack of any pity in remaining worker morale, etc. (Ehrenreich, 2001). It must also be realized that Ehrenreich as a female worker stood a more chances of being exploited. This is because of the fact that female unskilled labor is in fact considered to be second class or reserve labor. This is the reason why Ehrenreich also asserts the tedium of getting a job in the first place.

According to Ehrenreich, it is not that simple getting a job to pay for ones accommodation and living. People always think that it is easy to get a job when it is advertised in the newspaper. The common perception is that if one does not have a criminal record s/he can always get a job. But this is not true because what organizations do is they advertise even when they do not really need people on the spot. This ensures them a constant supply of applicants as potential workers (Ehrenreich, 2001: 25). Thus, organizations are exploiting the unemployment situation, and selecting their employees leisurely. Apparently, by the end of her work, Ehrenreich feels a high degree of apathy for the poor people living on the minimum wage. This is why, in her powerful summation, Ehrenreich says that the affluent among us should feel "shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay than she can live on -when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently...The 'working poor', as they…[continue]


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