In the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By, in America, Barbara Ehrenreich explores the topic of incomes of unskilled labor that adversely affect individuals and families in today’s America (Ehrenreich, 2011). She gives her personal account on her experiences since 1998 when she has joined a family restaurant in Florida as a waitress for only$ 2.43 per hour. Her struggle for survival in these hard-to-stay working environments suggests a variety of thematic deductions that reflect on the current family setup. First, the book reflects the obvious challenges faced by families in contemporary society. Pointed out clearly are the ragged path that women, in particular, must follow and the obstacles they have to cross in order to succeed. Barbara Ehrenreich is a victim of divorced parents who serves as a waitress, hotel maid, housecleaner, and nursing home aide and finally ends up serving as a clerk in Walmart.
Besides the relative gender roles that are evident in her manuscript, much can be attributed to the influence the economic situation has on marriage and the ways of how it affects the family institution. Barbara agrees that if she was married at the time of her entry into the job market, it would have lessened the cost of the rent. Additionally, reading through her book makes readers pay attention to the contemporary issues affecting the marriage. Her story concerning abortion, divorce as well as single parenthood points to the realities that we currently witness among the American families. Many people may overlook the fact that the family institution is a major source of income; however, sustainable income is the fallback upon which the family hinges (Ehrenreich, 2011). Therefore, looking into Barbara’s story keenly gives a different perception of the factors that affect the marriage institutions today.
The term family does not have a common definition that would be generally acceptable. Barbara Ehrenreich (2011) describes how a family is understood when she talks of “…I got married…” and “we had our first child…” These aspects lead us to the basic components of a family. First, it can be seen that a family involves a marriage between two people, a husband, and wife, which leads to offspring (Peter & Kamp 2009). Based on these arguments, a family is a basic social institution that serves economic purposes in society. The relationship that leads to family occurs through blood, birth, marriage or choice (Peter & Kamp 2009). Therefore, when two people enter into a permanent contract that is legally recognized and involves sexual relationships, they are considered married. It is this process that leads to a family.
Ehrenreich views the family as a basic unit of production where most people unnoticeably sacrifice for the benefit of others. Being a feminist, she views the nuclear family as functioning to encourage patriarchal values in society (Ehrenreich, 2011). Even in the job market, she had chosen more subservient roles such as housekeeping or nursing home aide. Meanwhile, men served in a better position as her bosses. In most cases, they made women frustrated; for instance, they could sometimes change shifts without consulting the female employees. It is also noted that women received the meager pay yet they performed the most degrading and uninteresting duties in the workplaces. Additionally, the same views are expressed regarding the scrutiny women have to undergo to secure these unskilled jobs. The degrading health tests and constant suspicion are common cases in workplaces that make women frustrated.
The prevalent views expressed by Barbara Ehrenreich are mainly related to the traditional forms of family. This is because girls socialize from their childhood to accept subservient roles in the family. When they grow up, the structures in society offer them little or no opportunity for advancement. At the same time, economic strains and the need for survival exert pressure on them. They end up as maids, housewives or performing odd jobs in the industries (Ehrenreich, 2011). The existing structures in society also promote patriarchal values. It is the reason why the understanding of a woman in most cases is based on the roles they perform as well as the earnings they receive (Kern, 2009). In most cases, one can hear men talk of a” woman’s job” to refer to poorly paid employment with long working hours. It is on these grounds that Ehrenreich in the Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America craves for reforms in the working environments in order to analyze what the low earner goes through.
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Diversity as a topic in the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America is based on the numerous family structures that exist in society. The existing family structures serve as systems that mainly provide care and support to the offspring (Kern, 2009). Divorced parents and single parents in most cases rely on the support from relatives to assist with household duties as they seek the means for survival. In other cases involving childless families, whereby couples are not able to have children or choose not to have children, provision of care is only narrowed to the husband and wife (Peters & Kamp Dush, 2009). Moreover, there are extended families in which relatives live together and support each other in household duties. However, Ehrenreich’s views show a greater liking for the nuclear family. In this case, the family consists of two parents and children. Her desire to remain in a nuclear family would ensure financial stability can be attributed to the fact that she married, divorced and remarried again.
Several aspects also point to the ethnicity and its relation to the means of survival in the family set up. Ethnic background in some cases determines the overall perception and financial capability of a person. Description of her experience while she attended a public clinic as the only white and was poorly attended by a doctor who induced her labor reflects her economic status. Unlike her case, most families faced with economic challenges attribute it to the ethnic background (Curley, 2007). It means that they end up being victims of poor working conditions such as lack of medical insurance, inability to have meals and at times lack of job opportunities. The author, however, could afford a private doctor when she developed a rash on her face. Most poor individuals in low-wage employment can at best afford to buy the pain killers. They work and strain in their poor health conditions and the income received due to this hard work cannot feed the family members and cater to the need for proper medical services.
Based on the kind of socialization in different ethnic communities, several contemporary issues in marriage and family have emerged. Attempts to cope with the prevailing economic situations have led to the increased rates of a single household (Curley, 2007). Barbara opted to rent her own house where she stayed single as she served as a waitress in the restaurant. The reduced birthrates are also evident in her case. It is easy to imagine why in all those years in marriage she only gave birth to two children (Ehrenreich, 2011). Most probably, it can be explained by her attempts to provide comfortably for their education and other financial needs. On the other hand, the level of divorce and separation that are faced by the modern families and marriages has its roots in the economic perspectives and the ethnic acculturation.
Ehrenreich’s book sheds light on the controversial topic of gender roles. Traditionally, the roles played by the husband, wife and children were clearly defined (Kern, 2009). Different socialization methods ensured that girls grew up with the mindset of household duties and boys were meant to adopt patriarchal values (Walsh, 2012). In this case, the father is the breadwinner while the mother takes care of the children and performs unpaid household chores. Children were also supposed to be the source of cheap labor to the family and the community as a whole. While describing the women’s roles Ehrenreich presents what seems like a reverse side of the traditional gender roles. Instead of looking for a husband to provide for the family needs, she becomes the breadwinner for her family (Ehrenreich, 2011). Despite the economic strains, low wage rates, poor working conditions as well as degrading chores, she gets promoted through all these odds and finally starts working as a clerk in Wal-Mart. In all of these cases, she does not depend on anyone as a husband to take the roles that are presumably theirs.
The emerging issues in society today have made it very difficult to define which roles belong to men or women in a family set up. Single parents for examples will perform overlapping duties that include taking care of the children while at the same time serving as the sole breadwinner in such family (Amato, Booth, Johnson, & Rogers, 2007). On the other hand, the increased advocacy regarding the inequalities between men and women has led to a shift in the levels of earning. This implies that currently, most women involved in white color jobs earn more than their male counterparts. The variance in the income levels has resulted in women performing tasks that were traditionally performed by men while men are undertaking tasks that were considered women’s. Children have also seized to be the source of cheap labor that they were (Amato et al., 2007). Regulations and laws safeguarding child labor have criminalized assigning children the responsibilities that otherwise they would have performed.
Barbara faced a hard situation with several obstacles that she had to overcome. First, she lacked a proper housing (Ehrenreich, 2011). Like most of the low wage workers, Barbara Ehnrenreich finds it difficult to secure a good house given her low income. The growing population puts pressure on the housing facilities that do not consistently respond to their needs. Instead, the housing supply would rather be kept down in order to attract high rental charges. The system does not consider the burden posed by such trends to the single parents and parents engaged in low wage labor (Walsh, 2012). Though Ehrenreich did not personally experience criminal acts, residents associated with low incomes suffer from the high crime rates. They are soft sports to hooligans and felons who are very much aware of their inability to provide enough security to themselves.
Other forms of hardships and obstacles included unsafe working environment. In as much as working in the restaurant involved long hours, there was no overtime pay for the unskilled workers (Ehrenreich, 2011). Serving in such workplaces meant misery to poor families. Besides, they were not entitled to any retirement benefits or even health insurance. The assumption that the individuals working in these places are too smart to be sick or can secure to think of their families is ill-informed. At one point when she got sick, she had to call a private doctor to prescribe medicine just because the restaurant management did not care about the employees’ welfare. Finally, the author described the treatment of employees as if they were suspected criminals kept under strict rules. In some cases, such jobs place one in the shoes of a criminal just waiting to be caught. It was the reason why they had to undergo certain degrading scrutiny.
The sources of hardships faced by poor families can be traced in the government policies as well as social misconceptions. It must be noted that the services of unskilled labor contribute greatly to the success of the American economy (Curley, 2007). If these services stop even for a week, the economy is likely to collapse. Policies of the government have always been focused on the increased wages which is a welcome message. However, the social concerns that result in great insecurity of the families such as social benefits have been overlooked. On the other hand, misconceptions surrounding the lives of low wage income earners such as drug abuse or natural thieves are another source of hardships.
In the view of the obstacles and their sources thereof, Barbara believes that they can be solved. Problems related to wages and the associated benefits can be overcome if they are properly addressed through the existing governmental policies (Curley, 2007). Misconceptions that make employees be treated like potential criminals require a collective responsibility on behalf of the employees and the employer to develop trust. Additionally, employees in low wage jobs can participate in developing conditions that would lead to better wages and work environments (Curley, 2007). Notably, the impact that results from such treatment is received at the family level, being the basic social unit. For the purposes of survival, individuals in the families can emulate Barbara who boldly faced the problems and the strain in the job market. In her case, it does not matter what is dictated by her ethnic background, or the roles required of her as a woman but the drive for survival is what really matters. This is the way to overcome hardships in society.
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In view of personal learning, the “light bulb” I had while reading the book is that Ehrenreich has exposed realities that are faced by contemporary society. These aspects are directly related to our families and lives as Americans. First, I have noticed in as much as data indicates increased job opportunities for the youth and improved living standards, there are still reforms needed to be implemented in the unskilled labor market. Therefore, while we crave for increased minimum wage, we should also consider the social wellbeing of our families after retirement. Moreover, the new approach to success given by Ehrenreich appeals much to a single parent or a youth like me. Learning from her experience proves that in as much as the society puts a lot of economic strain on the individuals, I can still stand against the odds and hardships to realize my dream. What I would like to learn more about is her sure proof on the reversal of the roles in a family set up and how it best suits the modern marriages.
In conclusion, viewing marriage and family from an economic perspective gives an insight into several aspects. First, it exposes the misconception of the ideal family structure, namely traditional family. In this, case single families also exist without distinctive gender roles. On the other hand, it can be noted that the strains placed by society can be overcome if individuals develop a different mindset like Barbara and decide to boldly face life realities. Reading through Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America provokes the desire to learn more about the functions and dysfunctions of the structures in the family institution.
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