Nickel and Dimed Analysis
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Over the last few years, the global economy has dealt with quite a number of difficult circumstances and people around the globe have faced financial loss. Although it may be difficult to think objectively now, historically economic change has often been based on expansions and recessions. Nonetheless, one thing that remains constant throughout these periods is the individuals who are faced with the continuous strains and worries that are uncommon to typical white-collar workers. These would be the low-income workers: people who sacrifice their time and efforts working long, relentless hours just to make ends meet, who struggle to pay their monthly rent or buy enough food to feed their family for the rest of the week. In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, the author Barbara Ehrenreich takes on an experiment in order to better understand the working class. She leaves her desk job as a highly acclaimed writer and decides to take on the lower paid jobs herself. In this book, Ehrenreich cleverly utilizes statistics and her own personal experiences as well as the experiences of others, in order to bring to light the harsh reality facing those Americans who are shockingly close to poverty and debt despite their daily hard work.
Throughout the book, Ehrenreich uses several rhetorical strategies, but there are a few which are more evident than others. One of these is the use of statistics as a way to communicate additional information. Many of these statistics are not directly used to prove her main thesis, but they do bring certain unknown information to the reader that will influence their perspective to match that of the author. One key thing to note, however, is that she uses footnotes in order to convey the statistical information, because she may have felt that placing the data directly in the middle of her text would interfere with the fluidity of her writing. This proves to be an implicit way of using the rhetorical technique of statistics. Our very first encounter with the use of this rhetorical technique is when the author explains that, ‘eighty-one percent of larger employers now require preemployment drug testing, up from 21 percent in 1987…’ (Ehrenreich 14), when she describes the standard application process for a job at a supermarket called Winn-Dixie. Similarly, she continues to provide interesting facts and tidbits of statistical data, relating to aspects of the typical working class’ lifestyle, in order to further clarify how close to poverty the low-income workers really are.
Additionally, some of the information she provides in these footnotes are references to external sources of information (but not actual statistics), such as the New York Times, which proves that she has done extra research to back up her claims. Ehrenreich does not merely come up with ideas arbitrarily, and the use of statistics proves to the reader that what she expresses has genuine evidence. Her own personal experience, which serves as an appeal to her ethos, is another major rhetorical technique the author uses in her book. When she first chose to take on this project, Ehrenreich decided to set down some ground rules. She begins the book by stating the basics for her experiment. These are the restrictions that she decides are to be kept constant throughout the whole process of her research. As she explains, “Rule one…was that I could not, in search for jobs, fall back on any skills derived from my education or usual work…Two, I had to take the highest-paying job that was offered me and do my best to hold it…Three, I had to take the cheapest accommodations I could find” (Ehrenreich 4). These parameters that she set up in the beginning allow her to better understand the working class lifestyle. We find that it is with this mindset that she enters the workforce.
This technique is effective because it mainly forces her to keep circumstances similar to the real workers who do this on a daily basis. An additional way in which she uses her personal experience as a rhetorical technique is due to the fact that the book, in its entirety, is basically her daily experiences and observations at work. Over the course of her experiences, she takes on various jobs in three different cities across the United States. Each of these is uniquely different from the others, and provides her with a greater understanding as she goes through jobs as a waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman, nursing home aide and sales clerk at Wal-mart. Additionally, as she continues the project, Ehrenreich occasionally goes into a description of her feelings towards the end of each endeavor: the strain on her motivation and her perspective. In the first chapter which describes her first job as a waitress and hotel maid, she ends her ordeal by writing, “I had gone into this venture in the spirit of science, to test a mathematical proposition, but somewhere along the line…it became a test of myself, and clearly I failed…I don’t cry, but I am in a position to realize…that the tear ducts are still there and still capable of doing their job” (Ehrenreich 48).
Already we see that some of her spirit has been broken, just after the waitressing part of her research. By the end of another venture – maid service – she is provoked out of frustration and has an outburst of rage at one of her coworkers. This leads to her feeling hated by those who she was to report to and that, “the only thing I know for sure is that this is as low as I can get in my life as a maid, and probably in most other lives as well” (Ehrenreich 114). The readers will recognize through Ehrenreich’s feelings, that low-wage work causes the feeling of desperation and low self-esteem and self-worth.
Finally by the time she begins work at Wal-Mart, she begins doubting her abilities and contemplating how it would have been if she had never received the higher education and career that she has as a writer. Her opinion of herself as Barbara the writer and PhD is now tainted by that of ‘Barb’s’ which is meaner and slyer, cherishes grudges, and is not quite as smart (Ehrenreich 169). The reader will notice that throughout the book, the character of Barb is changing dramatically. Although she went into the research with resolve, each job she takes on taxes at her determination. Cleverly, the use of herself as the predominant character solidifies her credibility by allowing her to collect first-hand experience and emotion about the poverty that she is analyzing.
Another clearly evident rhetorical device is that of the pathos caused by the descriptions of the experiences of other characters whom Barb meets. As the reader learns about these individuals, they can be grouped in two different categories: those who have stayed in the working class for some time now and are accustomed to it, and those who have experienced the middle-class lifestyle in the past and are now forced to join the working-class. Readers will sympathize with those who have been brought up with fewer means, but more than that, they will be able to relate to those who are required to join the working class after losing what they previously had. Since most of the readers of this book will be in the middle-class themselves, reading of others’ experiences can cause fear in them, thus emphasizing the hardship that people go through in the United States. This proves the effectiveness of the pathos created in Ehrenreich’s technique, because it stirs emotion in the reader as they place themselves in the scenarios faced by the characters of the book.
Take, for example, one individual whom she meets named Caroline. Although at first she seems like a commanding presence, Caroline soon becomes a character we can sympathize with. It began with her living in New Jersey and working at a bank, until she decided to leave her husband and move in with her mother, all the while taking the kids with her. When transportation to her job became difficult, she decided to move to Florida. There, she contacted a Women, Infants, and Children office which greatly helped her and her kids when they were first adjusting to the move. Finally, she got a job cleaning hotel rooms, which paid very little and left her in pain at the end of every day. After the stressful move and adjusting to a new place, she discovered that she had diabetes. Caroline eventually met a man who she married, although that didn’t end her troubles, as she still has her children to take care of (Ehrenreich 131-133). It is these types of people that Barb comes in contact with.
People who make a decision in their life, and in order to follow through with it, must go through extreme ups and downs. These are the families who, although employed, still find themselves at the brink of scarcity and debt considering their extremely low wages. Readers of the book can easily put themselves in the shoes of the characters (especially with the current economic recession in America), making this technique of using the characters’ stories for pathos very successful and apparent in this type of writing. As we take a step back and analyze the book as a whole, we are able to notice that the rhetorical strategies that Ehrenreich uses are an application of three aesthetic appeals.
Logos is found when she provides statistics to back up the main thesis of her piece – that minimum-wage workers are close to poverty; ethos can be found through her personal experiences at the low-paying jobs; pathos is found when the reader encounters the stories of Barb’s coworkers. Overall, she cleverly weaves all these components together in the form of a book which, at a first glance, seems just like a somewhat detailed diary of a low-income worker. By the end of the book, the reader has been fully immersed in the working class lifestyle through Barb’s eyes. Ehrenreich does an outstanding job of allowing the reader to recognize the ordeals that minimum-wage workers face across the United States