The Low-Wage Worker wanting the American Dream
By Jennifer Hodge
October 8, 2013
In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich takes some time out of her normal life and tries to experience life working as a low-wage worker. Ehrenreich begins with the goal, “to see whether she could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day.” (Ehrenreich 6) Ehrenreich salary is always low, and a few times along the way she has to ask for help. At the end of her journey, she has discovered that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly “unskilled.” (Ehrenreich 193) Ehrenreich realizes that “whatever her accomplishments in the rest of her life, in the low-wage work world she was a person of average ability – capable of learning the job and also capable of screwing it up”. (Ehrenreich 194) It did not matter that she did not grow up in the lower class, she still messed it up, and she still felt unskilled to do some of her jobs. Though she had gone to college she was not use to what situations came at her. I believe Ehrenreich limited herself, by having a back up and a set of rules that she allowed herself. What she truly experienced was someone stepping out of her comfort zone into a life that she was not born into. Again, though, her main idea was to find a job and be able to survive income for expenses. In reality, those working in a low-wage job are just trying to survive, and hoping by the end of the day they have broke even, even though most don’t. In Winter Coat, Terri Griffith, tells the story of what its like growing up poor and wanting to be different. Griffith states that “the thing about being poor is that you know what it means to be poor – and there’s always someone poorer than you.” (Tea 61) Griffith talks about what it was like wearing hand me downs, being in the free lunch program, and other ‘classifications,’ like standing in the free lunch line, that sometime embarrassed her. Her mother wanted her to have a future different than the one she was raising Griffith in. Because of the pressure from her mom, she realizes that “without the protection economic stability provides, this is no room for failure. She had no room to fail.” (Tea 64) She was raised to take the ‘safe road.’ Griffith talks about the class of people, especially by what they are wearing, and explains that by comparing the different coats people wear on the train that she rides. She realizes that many people continually deal with wanting the American Dream everyday. “What about the American Dream, the theory that with hard work and perseverance people can transcend in the class in to which they are born? I want to believe in it, but I don’t. Class is about more than money; its about safety and security, knowing that what you have today, you will have tomorrow. It’s about having faith and feeling safe in the knowledge that when my coat gets worn out, there will be other coats.” (Tea 65)
No matter what class people are in, I believe everyone is trying to live out their definition of the American Dream. The cost for this hope can be life changing. In The Just-Add-Water Kennedys and Barbecue Bread Violence, Polyestra, starts off her story focusing on the American Dream. Polyestra states, “Fewer than one percent of Americans break out of the class they are born into.” (Tea 67) She goes on to tell about her parents and their dream of class jumping, and how they devote their lives to it. To her parents, the working class neighborhood, where they lived, was only temporary. Her parents wanted better. Even her grandparents wanted better. It was embedded into each generation that you could move higher up in class, with just the right job, the right education, and the right privileges. Her family struggled with this for years. The only purpose of the “children” was to become rich. When her father landed a job that provided more money, her parents felt that they had fulfilled their dream, the American Dream....
Cited: Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. New York: Picador, 2001.
Tea, Michelle. "Without A Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class." Griffith, Terri. Winter Coat. Ed. Michelle Tea. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2003. 59-66.
Tea, Michelle. "Without A Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class." Polyestra. The Just-Add-Water Kennedys and Barbecue Bread Violence. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2003. 67-74.
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