Nickels, dimes and the devaluing of the American worker

During the Great Depression, a $1.00 had the same buying power as $14.04 does today. This means that a nickel, in those times, was actually worth a nickel.

In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed, the value of the American dollar to real people, working really hard to earn it, doesn’t mean much. Mrs. Ehrenreich writes the book from the perspective of an undercover journalist.

She leaves her late-1990s, affluent lifestyle, and with some pocket money and a car, sets out to find out what it is truly like for the average housekeeper or waitress to work one and sometimes two jobs while trying to make ends meet.

The book is a fascinating look at the life of entry-level, blue-collar workers who are today working the same jobs that their grandfathers did, yet having a much harder time trying to achieve the American dream.

In the first chapters of Mrs. Ehrenreich’s adventures, she finds herself trying to work two jobs. Her middle-aged body can’t handle it, and neither can her rent payment. As a waitress by day and housekeeper during the weekends, she struggles to earn enough money just to exist.

It’s a funny thing how we justify our beliefs. When we hear these stories we say to ourselves: Why don’t they just go to school? We tell our friends: Don’t they know these jobs aren’t meant to be careers.

Think about how we refer to your average fast food worker with terms like “unskilled labor”. I certainly didn’t feel unskilled after a year of working at a small-town KFC restaurant when I turned 16 years of age. It is there that I first learned how to multi-task, quickly change my focus and memorize large amounts of information.

As Mrs. Ehrenreich travels to different states to occupy those jobs we keep hearing Americans don’t want to do, she begins to realize that being poor in America is a true Catch-22. If you don’t have enough money to put down on a deposit for an apartment, you might end up homeless. If you end up homeless, you might end up sick. If you are sick, the chances are you can’t afford any kind of health insurance.

The job that your grandfather worked at for his entire life; the barber, the dishwasher, the toilet-cleaner, these are the jobs that we still need in our great country. We just don’t feel like letting these people know that we still need them.

Originally published at on January 25, 2017.



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Abraham Villarreal

People are interesting things. I write about them and what makes them interesting.