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A conversation with Barbara Ehrenreich
Gloria Diaz talks to the renowned journalist, author, and activist about the economy, our nation, and the midterms
By Gloria Diaz
Fort Wayne Reader
Since I'm the queen of crap jobs, Barbara Ehrenreich is a hero to me. Her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, is something I return to time and again.
For those not familiar with Nickel and Dimed, it chronicles Ehrenreich's experiment — inspired by welfare reform in the 1990s — to see if she could survive month-to-month working jobs considered “unskilled labor.” She spent time working at Wal-mart, in a nursing home, as a server and housekeeper and house cleaner. Along the way she found struggle, solidarity, and absurdity, and demonstrated that the minimum wage is not a living wage. She also acknowledged that she could eventually quit her experiment, but her co-workers, who lived in their cars or shared rooms with annoying roommates, didn't have that luxury.
Since its publication, Nickel and Dimed has become hugely influential, read in schools and still discussed today. Ehrenreich has written 20 other books in addition to Nickel and Dimed, plus countless essays, columns, and articles. Her frequent subjects are wealth inequality and labor issues.
Trained as a chemist, Ehrenreich began getting involved and politics and social issues after graduating college in the 60s. “I was really not interested in being a research scientist,” Ehrenreich says of her journey from chemist to journalist. “I was very interested in science. But I don't want to be the one in the lab, getting the results. I'm just not suited for lab work. I'm not OCD enough. The obvious bridge for me was to get involved with the politics of healthcare, specifically in healthcare for the poor. I joined a little sort of radical group that was trying to agitate for better healthcare for the poor. I
often ended up writing for the bulletin that we put out publicly. I found I loved doing that. I was doing sort of investigative pieces and thought, 'well, this is my science.' This is the science I can do. I never said to myself, 'now, I think I'll be a journalist.’ I do what I'm moved to do, what seems to be needed to do.”
In 2011, Ehrenreich founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (economichardship.org), which (in the words of the mission statement) “aims to change the national conversation around both poverty and economic insecurity…” by commissioning stories on economic insecurity from around the country.
Ehrenreich visited Fort Wayne this past summer, speaking at Our Economy, Our Community, Our Democracy. A few months later, I got to continue our conversation about the lasting impact of Nickel and Dimed; the state of our union: the gig economy, the living wage, and the current political climate.
I asked her what kind of impact she thought Nickel and Dimed had had in “real world” terms. It’s been incredibly influential, required reading in academia, etc. But does she think it has actually changed anything?
“Initially, I thought it was having an impact,” Ehrenreich says. “The book came along just as the movement for living wage was taking off. Living wage is not the same as minimum wage, and the book kind of flowed seamlessly into that. I spent years going around the country talking about the book and also participating in events for raising wages. And I thought, 'wow, this is great.' And I can't separate the book from that movement. And I think that movement was, in some ways, successful. Many cities raised their wages, you know, for city workers, and for companies that contract to the
city or county. So that was all very exciting and gratifying. But looking back now from 2018, it's like, so frustrating. The minimum wage nationally remains at $7.25 an hour. And that's so far from being a living wage for even one person. Somehow we don't have the momentum anymore. There's the Fight for Fifteen, there are a lot of things that are happening. The wages for entry-level or blue collar workers are pathetic. Looking back, I don't know if that book had any influence.”
“I didn't have any expectations (for Nickel and Dimed),” she continues, laughing. “I'm grateful for it, but it doesn't go far enough. Quite a few people have read that book in college, or high school, even middle school, and many of them write and say it's had a huge effect on their lives.”
Ehrenreich chuckles, adding, “There are a lot of individuals who write to me and say, since they've read my book, they tip much more. That's something, yeah.”
I tell Ehrenreich that Nickel and Dimed is one of my favorite books, and elaborate on fast-food workers and other positions that are low paying, but needed in society. People may argue that if those types of workers want more money, they need to “make something of themselves.” But what happens if every french fryer and janitor and housekeeper decided to start their own businesses? Who does the work then?
Ehrenreich responds: “I feel so strongly that it's important to value everybody's work. And this is something I was actually taught as a kid. My parents were initially blue-collar people, although my father made it into the white-collar, upper middle class. He got out of the mines. He got a scholarship to go to Carnegie Institute. It was very strongly
impressed on me that whatever anybody was doing, was worthy of respect. We say to somebody, 'oh, you don't like being paid $10 an hour? Well then, go to college.' What kind of thing is that to say? Especially when going to college is no guarantee whatsoever?”
She goes on to say, “After writing Nickel and Dimed, I got a number of letters saying, 'would you please do the same thing for adjuncts?' As it happens, I was an adjunct, at one point in my life. I was a single mother, and I quit my regular teaching job. There were a lot of signs that I was going to be fired anyway. But then, what was I going to do for money? So I did adjuncting. And I sort of enjoyed it, but it didn't pay the bills.”
Nickle and Dimed even inspired a rebuttal book called Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25 and the Search for the American Dream by Adam Shepard. Taking exception to many of Ehrenreich's work — in fact, insisting that her very premise was flawed — Shepard chronicled his experiences using homeless shelters and contacts to secure a job with a moving company. He ended up with his own apartment, a pick-up truck, and a little over $5,000 in savings. I read the book, and though I understood what Shepard was trying to do, it was a little like comparing apples to oranges. For starters, Shepard was a white male in his early 20s. He wasn't a woman in her early 50s, with a bad back. It's no surprise that he was able to earn more as a mover than Ehrenreich did as a server. Secondly, Shepard had no reservations utilizing homeless shelters, perhaps not caring that he was taking up space and eating food that someone else in need could have used. Ehrenreich chose not to take advantage of shelters and free food.
“I could not do construction work. I could not be a mover,” says Ehrenreich. “I also had a rule for myself that I was not going to be homeless. I was testing if I could live on my wages. And he (Shepard) saved a lot of money by living in a shelter. So, yeah. Not exactly an even match, when you're not paying rent for an extended period of time because you have no guilt about taking up space in a shelter and you're working full-time.”
Ehrenreich encountered Shepard at a speaking engagement. “He was already sort of a conservative, and he was embraced by Fox News when his book came out for a while. But no, he had no answer to me when we did speak to each other in a large auditorium. He raised his hand and introduced himself. And, I told you what I said to him about the
demographic difference. And also the rules one had for himself. I was not taking help from a homeless shelter. As far as I can remember he sort of nodded and sat down.”
On current workplace trends, Ehrenreich believes one of the most alarming is the rise of “just in time” work. “When you are always on call, you don't have a fixed schedule, you're supposed to wait until you're called, and then come in,” Ehremreich says. “That's very attractive to employers, because they don't have to pay people. It also drives people
insane. You can't plan anything. You don't know if you're going to need child care for the next day. You don't know whether you'll have money to feed the children. I think that is really pernicious. And there have been moves to stop that.”
She continues: “The general flatness of wages, the fact that wages don't go up when productivity goes up, when the nation is supposedly doing fine economically… That is the thing that most disturbs me. And it's partly because the unions have become so weak.”
Our move towards a “gig” economy — the “just in time” work — Ehrenreich sees as just another way to reduce any kind of commitment of the employer to the employee. “We use you when we need you, and then you're done. Now, there are lot of people, a lot of workers, who don't want a big commitment. But that's via choice. It shouldn't be the only choice.”
This lack of commitment is reflected in the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much on the job training anymore. “They (employers) don't want to make the investment that training involves. I felt that so much while working on Nickel and Dimed. You depend totally on the other workers. I knew I was completely dependent on the other workers to find out
what to do. It's a Darwinian approach. They throw you out there and see if you survive. But they are not going to help. It's survival of the fittest.”
Does she think the “gig economy” will make people consider trade jobs? “I don't know. I mean there's always talk about that. Why don't we value the trades more? Why don't we make it possible to learn a trade in high school, and so on? But nothing gets done. There's just not much respect for trades compared to the white-collar jobs even if those white-collar jobs don't pay the rent.”
Ehrenreich feels people might move to blue-collar jobs, “if they pay enough, but that's not happening fast enough.”
I ask about origins the Economic Hardship Reporting Project: “I pitched a series to the New York Times on the effect of the recession on people who were already economically struggling, because I was seeing things in the New York Times all these things about rich people who have to lay off their personal pilates instructor, and other tragedies like that. I
wanted to do the reporting and talk about the effects on the poor. I had to go to different parts of the country. It took months, and I realized that what they were paying me at the NYT, was like a half or a third of what they had paid me a few years ago. That's just the trend. I realized I wasn't even going to earn enough to cover my expenses on this project.
My next thought was, 'oh well, I'll do it anyway.' I have some savings; I will do this…”
“My next thought was 'hey, this is crazy.' My assumption was sort of 'well if you have enough money, you can write about poverty.' And I decided there had to be a way to get people to write about their own experiences, not me. And so that's how EHRP started.
“I proposed this at a non-profit think tank I'm involved with in Washington, D.C. And they initially supported the project in a number of ways. We're a very, very different project now. I just got off a phone meeting with my colleagues there. It's amazing how much we've got in the works. How many pieces we get published. And we have a film, a documentary that's been nominated for an Emmy. And we've had two of our writers get selected for the Best Essays of the Year, which is a book. A few of our writers have gone to write books, like Sarah Smarsh who wrote a book about growing up poor on a farm in the Midwest. And that's been nominated for a national book award. She got her considerable start from us. But these are the kinds of things that thrill me.”
When asked about the “state of the nation,” Ehremreich says: “The question I ask is, 'are we doomed as a species?' As a nation? I don't think we'll cease to be a United States, but considerable damage has been done in the last two years to the infrastructure of governance. The fact that we barely have a state department anymore. That's peculiar. All the resources going to military, and the state department is hollowed out. That says, 'we have one way of resolving differences, and that's not diplomacy, it's war.' There's the ongoing effort to destroy the last vestiges of a welfare state, which we've never had much of. They want to go after food stamps, Medicare, Social Security. Maybe they should and we should start all over.”
I asked Ehrenreich about a theory one of my friends had about stagnant wages in the States. My friend felt that with reduced spending, people wouldn't buy as much, and it was stretching out what resources we had a little further.
Ehrenreich's response: “The more you can cut wages, the more you can cut the pathetic social services we already have. The more money there is for the rich. That's what this is all about: an upward distribution of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich.”
On why she thinks Trump got elected: “I'll have to be brief—he has a way of sticking the middle finger to a certain kind of elite, represented by Hillary Clinton. Beautifully represented by her. She screwed up. She could not relate to so-called 'ordinary people.' I hate that expression—ordinary people. Nobody is 'ordinary.' When she talked about deplorables, I cringed. It was horrible. She represented the class prejudices of the educated elite, and also the billionaire elite, because she hung out with those people. She was the worst candidate the Democrats could have had.”
She expresses cautious optimism about some things she’s seen happening in the run-up to the midterms. “Well, I'm excited about the victories of people on the left. Beginning with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and more recently, Julia Salazar and others. These people call themselves socialists. Democratic socialists. Now that's a change! And the regular democrats don't know what to make of it. They're yelling and screaming, reading all kinds of anti-socialist rhetoric, but not engaging really, with why this is happening.”