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Questions to jumpstart a discussion of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel & Dimed.

  • Nickel and Dimed takes place during a so-called economic boom in American history, the period of "peace and prosperity" that was the late 1990s. However, the book is largely about poverty, about the poor -and not simply the helplessly destitute, but rather the poor who are employed full-time. Near the outset of her study, Ehrenreich tells us that "there are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs." Near the end, in sum, she tells us that poverty is an experience of "acute distress"-a nonstop "state of emergency." What did the book teach you about poverty?

  • The action of Nickel and Dimed unfolds in three American communities, as found in three different states: Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. What about Tacoma? How would Nickel and Dimed be different-or similar-if it included Tacoma and/or Pierce County?

  • This book is, of course, more than a report on, and exposé of, "(not) getting by in America", it is also a detailed critique. To this end, the bulk of its criticism might well be directed at the WalMart empire. Is this appropriate, in your view? Explain. Given that WalMart is far and away the world's largest company, is it right to expect the retail mega-chain to be all the more fair and respectful of its employees? Explain.

  • Why does Ehrenreich refer to low-wage workers, at the close of her book, as "the major philanthropists of our society"

  • How do booming national and international chains-restaurants, hotels, retail outlets, cleaning services, and elder-care facilities-affect the treatment and aspirations of low-wage workers? Consider how market competition and the push for profits drive the nickel-and-diming of America's lowest-paid.

  • Housing costs pose the greatest obstacle for low-wage workers. Why does our society seem to resist rectifying this situation? Do you believe that there are realistic solutions to the lack of affordable housing?

  • Nickel and Dimed  takes place in 1998-2000, a time of unprecedented prosperity in America. Do you think Ehrenreich's experience would be different in today's economy? How so?



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