Nickel And Dimed: Increased Struggles For Low-wage Workers Living In America

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

Low-wage workers during the prosperity period in the nineties lived in a time where the economy was booming and technological advancements were being made. What this meant for workers in America was that companies and businesses posted more job openings to keep up with the demand that came with the boom, which indicates the significant drop in unemployment. In comparison to the economy during the Great Recession, which took place between 2007 to 2009, the economy was experiencing a downturn that left many Americans unemployed and skyrocketed unemployment rates.

Now, under the presidency of Trump, the economy is stable and very similar to that of the nineties when it comes to low unemployment rates. However, ‘we are not seeing the increases in productivity and wages that we saw in that period’ (Long, para. 21). Therefore, if Ehrenreich, writer of the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, would perform her experiment on working low wage jobs after the prosperity period, her experiences would change drastically throughout each time period. Although each period of time has its own struggles, the challenges, such as health consequences, low wages, and increased living expenses, people face in the present day are worse than they were during the prosperity period and Great Recession.

An issue low-wage workers face are the health consequences from working low-wage jobs. As presented by Ehrenreich in her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, she shares the levels of exhaustion she had to endure while working as a low-wage employee during the economic prosperity period. Early in Ehrenreich’s experiment, she soon felt that strain on her body from all the exhaustion she endured when she described how her “flesh seem[ed] to bond to the seat” (Ehrenreich 32), after completing her duties as a housekeeper, and then continued working at her shift at Jerry’s. This is a common theme in everyday life in every period of time for low-wage workers working more than one job or just working long hours. Their body goes through physical strain from the harsh labor they face in their time working, and eventually gets worse as their time spent working in these low-paying jobs progress. In the same way low-wage employees of the prosperity period faced health problems, employees of the Great Recession experienced higher levels of stress and depression, due to the fact that “[employers] didn’t have to treat people particularly well” (“How the Great Recession,” 2018). This gave employers the freedom to increase hours or cut the benefits of their employees, such as health care, that was once a luxury during the prosperity period. 

As a result of this treatment, job satisfaction for those who had a job during the Great Recession plummeted, when in the past during other recessions, job satisfaction would be high, solely because it was a privilege to have a job in the first place. The change in job satisfaction correlates to employers taking advantage of their employees, hence the increase in stress and depression among low-wage workers during the great recession. Furthermore, with the continuous patterns among employers cutting employee benefits, now after the Great Recession, it is quite rare for low-wage workers to get their hands on a job where they are able to receive benefits through their job, especially because of the shorter hours and irregular schedules. On the monthly wage low-earning employees earn, along with the inability to receive health benefits, the current low-income workers are unable to pay for their own health insurance out of pocket. The results of going a long time without being covered are further health consequences “because they[low-wage workers] receive less preventive care” (“Key Facts about,” 2018). Overall, the physical exhaustion occurring in the prosperity period is still prevalent in today’s working experience, along with that of the great recession. The major difference is that as each time period proceeds, the health problems, such as stress and depression, seem to be rising for the contemporary low-wage workers due to the long hours, increase in irregular work schedules, and decrease in benefits.

Another issue low-wage workers face are the wages earned once their job is obtained, along with the jobs available. During the prosperity period, many walk-in jobs were available, as stated by Ehrenreich in the article Turning Poverty Into an American Crime, “I had been able to walk into a number of jobs pretty much off the street” (para. 8). This made it fairly easy for any person to find an available low-paying job. Also, between 1989 to 1999, earnings increased by 6.9%, including wages for low-income employees. With that said, Ehrenreich does point out the difficulties she has living on her earnings in her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, such as struggling to keep up with her monthly living expenses, including rent. With that in mind, she did earn $7,which is close to the minimum wage earned by low-wage workers during the great recession years later. The minimum wage during this recession was increased to $7.25 when it was previously $5.15, but “One in five employees lost their jobs at the beginning of the Great Recession” (“How the Great Recession,” 2018”). The increase made it easier on the low-wage workers to make their payments on time, and was an all over government attempt to help the economy grow through supply and demand. Since the recession, a common element among the prosperity period and today are that more jobs have been opening up. However, a noticeable difference between now and then are that as living expenses, such as rent, transportation, and insurance have increased, “there are still 21 states where the minimum wage remains frozen at $7.25” (Leonhardt, para. 10). Where the minimum wage increase helped those during the Great Recession with their living expenses, it does not meet the same standing for low-wage workers now.

The final issue low-wage workers face are their financial struggles due to low wages. When seeing Ehrenreich’s struggles manifest in her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, it’s clear that all her financial struggles, including rent, are linked to the wages she earns and it not being sustainable enough to live on. Not only did this pattern frequently occur for low-wage workers during the prosperity period, but this issue was prevalent during the recession as well because wages, even though they were raised to $7.25, were unable to lift low-wage workers out of poverty. In fact, one notable example of this occurrence was mentioned in the article On Turning Poverty into an American Crime, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich goes to explain how the poor have tried to deal with hard times caused by the Great Recession when she explains the cuts, such as health care, the poor have had to make. During the recession, “one-third of Americans could no longer afford to comply with their prescriptions and that there had been a sizable drop in the use of medical care” (Ehrenreich, para. 13). Another example Ehrenreich mentions for cutbacks the poor have made to cope with the great recession, includes the ways their food is attained and their living conditions. To be able to afford food, the poor have resorted to getting it through food auctions or urban hunting, and to be able to afford housing, the poor have resorted to “increase the number of paying people per square foot of dwelling space” (Ehrenreich, para. 15). Overall, these living expenses with the wage the poor earn, is not enough to help the poor. As a matter of fact, the issue of high living expenses hold the most relevance in today’s society than any other. This is because the minimum wage has stayed the same at $7.25 in 21 states in the U.S. since the Great Recession, but “life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was 20 years ago [during the prosperity period in the 90’s]” (Quart, 00:00:32-00:00:36). With no increase in minimum wage, the money people earn don’t get them the same amount it once did during the prosperity period and Great Recession. Generations now are dealing with “many significant economic expenses, such as the cost of buying a home and college tuition” (Hoffower, para.2), all of which have increased. This makes even more difficult for low-wage workers to climb out of debt after taking in so many loans and having their life be surrounded upon paying it off because the average amount for loans accumulated just for student loans can mount up to more than $30,000, according the the article U.S. Average Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2019, by Natalie Issa.

The exertion low-wage workers undertake is more established in the lives of today as opposed to that of the prosperity period and Great Recession. Low-wage workers nowadays face increased levels of health problems, such as stress and depression, and their not even compensated through the wages they earn. Having the minimum wage be so low in many states in the U.S. poses a major problem because if one was expected to pay for living expenses, such as rent and food, the amount earned now is unsustainable, compared to previous periods. What would help low-wage workers the most is if the were compensated for their hard work by acquiring the wages they’ve earned. If the minimum wage increased for all states in America, not only would the lives of low-wage workers be more tolerable, but the economy would boost through rising consumer spending.


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