Nickel and Dimed Author Brought Attention to Life on $7 an Hour

Barbara Ehrenreich worked undercover at Walmart, as a waitress, and cleaning houses
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 2, 2022 3:50 PM CDT
Barbara Ehrenreich, 81, Chronicled Life on Low Pay
Barbara Ehrenreich at her home in Charlottesville, Va., in 2005.   (AP Photo/Andrew Shurtleff, File)

Barbara Ehrenreich, a journalist who worked a series of poorly paying jobs undercover to learn what life is like for people trying to exist on minimum wage, died Thursday. The author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America was 81 and died of a stroke in Alexandria, Va., the New York Times reports. The 2001 book, one of more than 20 Ehrenreich wrote, was a best seller and had an impact on the movement for higher pay as the effects of the dot-com crash were being felt in the US. In 2018, she said, "Many people praised me for my bravery for having done this—to which I could only say: Millions of people do this kind of work every day for their entire lives—haven't you noticed them?"

The jobs she worked near Key West, Fla., included waitress, hotel housekeeper, house cleaner, nursing home aide, and Walmart associate. In all of them, Ehrenreich endured the indignities of people on the bottom of the economic rung, while finding it almost impossible to survive on her average pay of $7 an hour. She learned that all the jobs require intelligence and skill, she said, and workers should be paid like it. As it was, at that pay, a worker needed to work at least two jobs, Ehrenreich learned, and her book increased awareness of that reality, per the Guardian.

After Nickel and Dimed, she took on other areas of social injustice through immersive journalism, including Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. Early in her career, Ehrenreich, who had a doctorate in cell biology, worked as a New York City budget analyst and taught in a Health Sciences program at the State University of New York. She turned to writing during the social movements of the 1960s.

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More recently, she decided people could tell their own stories, creating the Economic Hardship Reporting Project to help underrepresented people publish their writings. The project financially helped factory workers, house cleaners, and others, including journalists, who were struggling. Ehrenreich lamented the lack of a safety net and even social infrastructure. "We turn out to be so vulnerable in the United States," she said. (Read more Barbara Ehrenreich stories.)

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