In his book Epic of America (1931), James Truslow Adams defined the “American Dream” as “a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich tests this theory of the “American Dream”, by pretending she is someone who was not that lucky when it comes to “fortuitous circumstances of birth and position,” and she tries to “attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.” In the second chapter of Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich goes ‘undercover’ in Maine, finds the least expensive place to live, and tries to find an ‘unskilled’ job. She succeeds in both, and ends up living in a tiny cottage and working both in a nursing home on the weekends, and at a maid service during the week.
Ehrenreich’s plan is to survive, observe, and try to engage in the phenomenon that is called upward social mobility. Throughout the chapter, her attempts to engage in upward social mobility are fruitless. To understand why this is fruitless, not just in Ehrenreich’s case but with millions of others in US lower class, there are a lot of factors that need to be taken into account, and the most important one is your psychological well-being.
In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich describes the life of most low-income workers in the United States, with examples of her own life and that of the people she meets. In the way Barbara Ehrenreich describes this life, she makes it looks like living in the lower class is like living in a black hole. You earn enough to live off, but only if you spend almost every waking hour working. If you add managing the household and taking care of your family, there is no time left for hobbies, job-hunting and figuring out what you want to do with your life. Also, Ehrenreich notes that, although she was under the impression she was doing her job well, she was not complimented for it in any way. True, she was offered a raise at some point at the Maids, but Ehrenreich soon discovered that was only because she told Ted about Holly’s condition and Ted wanted to bribe her, in a way, to snitching.
The issue of race is not really an issue in this chapter, mainly because Ehrenreich chose to move to Maine for it’s ‘whiteness.’ Gender, on the other hand, is an interesting issue in this chapter, most importantly featured in the situation of the maids service. Cleaning is widely considered a women’s job, not only professionally but as well in home life. This is a thing that has nothing to do with class, because women of the lower class as well as women of the upper middle class are, more often than not, in charge of the household cleaning. In the book this is illustrated by the fact that all of Ehrenreich’s colleagues at the maids service are women, and the only men she describes as being a part of the maids service are the man who invented the strap-on vacuum cleaner, and Ted, her supervisor.
Ted plays an important role in the psychological well-being of his employers. He is the manager of The Maids in Portland, and is playing a game with the maids, asking them to snitch on each other in order to get Ted’s approval. Because, in most cases, the women can not live without their job and find Ted’s approval to be essential, they comply. Ted is, at one point, described by Barabra Ehrenreich as being a pimp. The definition of a pimp is, according to Wikipedia, an “agent for prostitutes who collects part of their earning”.
Ofcourse the Maids are not prostitutes, but the idea is the same. They do the hard work while Ted stays in his airconditioned office, and when the clients pay, he collects a considerable part of their earnings. Barbara Ehrenreich overhears Ted at one point, she learns that while the clients pay $25,- an hour for her, she gets paid $6,65 per hour. At first, Ehrenreich does not believe this and thinks she misunderstood, but after a while she hears it again. Ehrenreich does not think too much about this, but it is very understandable for her to think of Ted as being a ‘pimp’. This also affects the way she views her job, and not in a positive way.
The view Ehrenreich has on her job at the Maids service is, especially towards the end, a negative one. Her colleagues do not share this view, or at least do not express this. Ehrenreichs point of view is a special one, because she is able to look at things from a third person persective. She does not need this job to survive.
Ehrenreich compares being a Maid to being an outcast or being invisible. They do not get any recognition for the work they do, not from colleague’s, clients, employers, let alone the outside world. This is because class is makes people uncomfortable. It is often seen as United States’ dirty little secret. Class is constructed by an imbalance, and the imbalance in the books Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch is mostly caused by the uneven distribution of income. The maids at the Maids Service get paid less than an office worker, because the work they do is low skilled, low risk and low responsibility. The workers are, in a sense, disposable, and this has a major impacht on their psychological wellbeing.