Barbara Ehrenreich is a social activist who earns a living penning missives that debunk our assumptions about the world's working poor.
A graduate of Reed College in 1963, Ehrenreich is most famous for Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America , a book of immersion journalism in which Ehrenreich, 66, writes about the working poor by temporarily becoming one of them. The book, which chronicles Ehrenreich's time cleaning toilets in private homes and toiling at a at big-box store, has sold 1.5 million copies since its publication in 2001.
With a Ph.D. in biology, Ehrenreich is no roustabout. But she's no snob, either. WW caught up with her by phone at her new house in Northern Virginia last week to talk about her working-class background and the growing economic polarization in this country.
WW : What's the worst job you've ever had?
Barbara Ehrenreich: In real life? You know, I haven't had many jobs as a grown-up. I'm always a freelancer. I did the usual waitressing when I was in college, but none of those were so terrible.… I pride myself on remaining job-free.
You were trained as a scientist. But now you're a writer. When you were at Reed, did you think you'd one day have a real job?
Never. A lot of my family members have been blue-collar workers, and I felt very proud that I was doing something completely different, and that I had this great freedom compared to them. There was a period in the '70s when a lot of people on the left were saying, "If you really want to organize the workers, you've got to go work in a factory." And my response [laughing] was, "No, not me." My family put in its time already.
What's wrong with working a blue-collar job?
Nothing! But I was very proud to get a college education and other options.
My grandmother used to say, "There was nothing good about the good ol' days." Was she wrong?
We were a far more equal society after World War II. The growing inequalities only began to emerge in the '70s and have grown since. In that sense, there was once a better time—in that one dimension.
What's causing the polarization?
There was a turning point in the '70s when big employers became very concerned about foreign competition. In the auto industry they were, for the first time, getting a run for their money from the Japanese. The response of American employers was to say, "Well, what's wrong with American workers? They don't work as hard. They're lazy. They have to be disciplined." The '60s and early '70s had been a period of a lot of strike activity, too. It was kind of an employer initiative: "Let's crack down. We have to discipline these people. Or we'll seek workers in foreign countries where people will put up with more." It was in the '80s, then, that, as a result of that kind of thinking, you got a proliferation of middle management, supervision, the introduction of drug testing, personality testing, and lots of measures meant to make it harder for people to have any control or organize into unions. Union-busting in the '80s began to be a big business. With the weakness of unions, there was really very little in the way of employers from reducing wages or not allowing wages to keep up with inflation in any way.
Who's your pick for the Democratic presidential nomination?
I have favored Edwards because he's better on these economic issues. Since 2004 he's really focused on poverty as an issue. I think it would be kind of funny if I didn't support him, given my concerns.
What's your advice to him?
We can't just talk about "the poor" as if that were a demographic subgroup. Middle-class people fall into poverty all the time through layoffs or downsizing. So I would say, "Make the link." Don't talk about the poor as some kind of "them." I don't think he does. But we're not going to build a strong movement for economic justice unless we connect middle-class concerns with those of the poor.
How do you do that?
We have to be constantly saying, "This could happen to you. This could happen to any of us." Too many medical bills? A job loss? A divorce? A death in the family? That could be you.
What's your next project?
I'm working on a book right now about positive thinking in America. I ran into it when I was working on Bait and Switch : Unemployed people were constantly being told they just needed a positive attitude. And when I had breast cancer a few years ago it was the same. "Just put on this pink ribbon and a smile."
You described the recent mortgage crisis in America on your blog (barbaraehrenreich.com) as "the first case in history in which the downtrodden manage to bring down an unfair economic system without going to the trouble of a revolution." How did that happen?
A lot of people have been trying to make a lot of money off of the poor, which sounds weird. But there are two ways to do that. One is the classic way, by underpaying them. That's the Wal-Mart way, to have people working for you on wages they can't actually live on. And the second way, which is much newer as a big-time phenomenon, is through easy credit. We're all aware of predatory lending in the form of payday loans. Just recently [the easy-credit industry] really ballooned. And there was a very revealing BusinessWeek story on May 21 called "The Poverty Business" about bigger companies getting into this—giving people very dodgy loans knowing that really you could make a lot of money in the aggregate on poor people, who individually are not very interesting to big business. You have a lot of the economy…becoming more dependent on risky loans, which are especially risky because people are paid so little and are really not going to be able to pay that interest. What I realized there was, our low wages in America have been somewhat, in a weird way, temporarily compensated for by easy credit. And that's dangerous.
Why should we give folks who made bad choices taking out bad loans a pass?
That's the common argument. "They need to be more economically literate. Why didn't they understand that?" Two answers to that: I just got a mortgage myself and bought a house. I didn't read any of it. It's not just the poor who are sloppy about that kind of thing. We all sort of expected things to be on the up-and-up. Secondly, what remains to be determined is the amount of fraud involved—the number of people who signed a mortgage, the terms for which were changed after they signed. We don't know how much of that went on.
Ehrenreich's next Oregon reading is Oct. 18 at Willamette University in Salem.
Born in Butte, Mont., Ehrenreich is the author of numerous books and magazine articles. Her latest book project dissects America's obsession with positive thinking.