Brings You Life Without Safety Nets -- the Growing Reality for Everyday
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
I almost think thereís a philosophical point they want to drive
home -- which is that they donít like anything that involves some kind
of mutual risk-sharing -- you know, pooling our wealth to help each
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Barbara Ehrenreich is highly educated and enjoys a comfortable lifestyle
ordinarily, but in 2001, she walked away from it to take a close-up and
personal look at the struggles of the working poor. She took whatever
work she could get as a "divorced homemaker reentering the workforce"
-- waiting tables in Florida, stocking clothing at a Minnesota Wal-Mart,
and signing on as a maid with a cleaning service in Maine -- all the while
driving Rent-a-Wrecks and subsisting on her paltry paychecks. Nickel
and Dimed is the book she wrote about her experiences. Now, author
and lecturer Ehrenreich has become an advocate for the forgotten in an
America that favors corporations over workers, and the haves over the
have-nots. She talked with BuzzFlash about economic justice and populism,
elitist opinions about the poor, and her campaign to awaken the affluent
to the intensifying struggles of our hard-working poor.
* * *
BuzzFlash: Your landmark book, Nickel
and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, was published in 2001.
How have things changed for working families over the last four years
under the Bush Administration?
Barbara Ehrenreich: Theyíve just gotten worse. As Iím
sure you know, wages have actually declined. And with slightly higher
unemployment, itís harder for workers to challenge anything in the workplace
because itís so easy to replace them Ė replace anybody who appears to
be a troublemaker. As we speak, there is an incredible assault going on,
not just on the poor, but also the middle class, especially with the campaign
to privatize Social Security. Thereís also the recent bankruptcy bill
that passed, which I am aghast at, that will provide loopholes for the
wealthy so they can protect their assets. But for the poor and the middle
class, itís going to mean, as Paul Krugman says, thereís no fresh start,
and families will be tied to what he called debt peonage.
BuzzFlash: The bankruptcy bill was completely construed
to make it sound like working people were abusing or gaming the system,
when the reverse is true. As you said, itís actually the rich who have
the ability to make risky investments but then turn around and get protection
and avoid personal responsibility. The credit card industry has been working
on this legislation since 1997. Why do you think progressives werenít
better able to inform working Americans that their pockets were being
Barbara Ehrenreich: Thatís the question about so many
things -- the tax cuts for the rich, the coming federal budget, which
is full of cuts in almost any program that has helped poor and working-class
people, like Medicaid. I donít think itís unique to the credit card legislation.
I donít know the reason why thereís not more outrage.
BuzzFlash: The conservatives have been able to court
many working families by using social issues such as gay marriage, school
prayer and guns, and the Democrats have been unable or unwilling to address
this fact. The Republicans have a very effective strategy, when you consider
theyíve been able to convince an entire bloc of voters to vote against
their own self-interest. How can progressives or Democrats reach out to
working families and convince them that their values are actually in alignment
with working families, especially in terms of economic justice?
Barbara Ehrenreich: First remember that the trend holds that
people who are poorer vote Democratic, compared to people who are richer.
That did not change in 2004. I think you can overstate that case too much.
One of the problems with the Kerry campaign was that he was not able to
articulate economic justice issues as moral values issues with the kind
of passion he should have done. These are moral issues.
BuzzFlash: We believe the Democratic Party must become
champions of populist values -- fighting for good jobs, livable wages,
and affordable health care -- not only for moral reasons, because itís
the right thing to do, but also for purely strategic reasons. Unless the
Democratic Party can offer Americans a different vision for America, itís
just hard to see them winning elections and leading the country. Would
you agree with that?
Barbara Ehrenreich: I certainly do. And I think weíve been arguing
this for a long time, that they need more of an economically populist
approach. I lose hope, though, in the Democratic Party -- whatever bits
of hope I had for it -- when I see, for example, that half of the Senate
Democrats voted for the bankruptcy bill. Are they too compromised by their
own campaign contributions from banks and the credit card industry? I
BuzzFlash: Neo-conservatives want to take us back to
pre-FDR days when there was virtually no safety net. Theyíre eroding workers
rights with respect to overtime rules, or making it virtually impossible
for people to get out of debt with the bankruptcy bill. As you said, the
verdictís still out on Social Security, but they want to privatize that,
too. After all the research youíve done on poverty, could you explain
this world view of the neo-conservatives? What rationale could there be
for such a policy?
Barbara Ehrenreich: I canít figure it out. The Social
Security privatization campaign Bush is currently running does not have
strong popular support. People donít want it. Even Wall Street isnít enthusiastic
about it. And itís not going to save money. Itís going to cost, I think,
about two trillion dollars just in transitional costs because some workers
will take their money and put it in private accounts. The government will
have to make up for that to pay for those currently depending on Social
Security. So it doesnít make sense. I almost think thereís a philosophical
point they want to drive home, which is that they donít like anything
that involves some kind of mutual risk-sharing -- you know, pooling our
wealth to help each other. Thereís no other way I can explain it to myself.
BuzzFlash: Letís talk just very briefly about your book,
Nickel and Dimed.
Have you considered putting out a second edition or updating the book?
Barbara Ehrenreich: No. My next book, which will be out
in September, is about being a white-collar worker and unemployed. Itís
done with the same form of journalism, putting myself into the actual
situation and studying it that way.
BuzzFlash: Whatís the title for the book?
Barbara Ehrenreich: "Bait and Switch," and
the tentative subtitle is "The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."
BuzzFlash: Itís becoming very common for universities
to require all incoming freshmen to read the same book, and several schools
have chosen Nickel
and Dimed. It was a New York Times bestseller and is
still very, very popular. It will be on the paperback bestseller list.
I know you travel a lot and do numerous speaking engagements. How often
do people come up to you and say thank you, or talk to you about the book
in the sense that it gave a voice to working people?
Barbara Ehrenreich: It happens all the time, because
I still trudge around the country, if not the world, talking about these
issues. I get affluent people saying, you opened my eyes,
or I never really looked at all the people around me who were serving
or cleaning, and didnít know how hard it was, and now I do. Thatís great
to hear. And then I hear from a lot of people who are in these situations
and have been in them for a long time. Some of those letters I post on
NickelandDimed.net, because I
want there to be a place for people to speak for themselves.
BuzzFlash: One thing that people came away with from
your book was just an appreciation of the energy and skill that many workers
have. You have a Ph.D. in biology, and you joked that you thought some
of these jobs might be easy for you to pick up. But in fact, that wasnít
the case. It seems a lot of people appreciate your book and how it created
a sense of appreciation for what it takes to work in any number of jobs.
Barbara Ehrenreich: That is the value of this form of
journalism as opposed to just interviewing people. When you interview
people, theyíll say, yeah, the job was hard, or something like that. But
I actually put myself in that situation and found how difficult it was
for me to learn to do the work, and how difficult it was physically to
keep up, even though Iím a very strong person. That comes through, by
this type of investigating. I could only find out by entering into this
world in my actual body.
BuzzFlash: Thereís this assumption that working people
are somehow lazy, but in fact, after reading your book, the opposite is
clearly true, and they seem to never stop working. And as you say in the
subtitle, theyíre not getting by in America. But where does that assumption
come from, the current demonizing of the poor?
Barbara Ehrenreich: Thatís a very, very historically
old assumption, or I should say a part of elite ideology. It goes back
centuries, really, and into English poor laws in the 19th Century and
It was very prominent in this country in the build-up to welfare reform
in the mid-nineties, with constant attacks on the poorest of the poor,
that people who need to rely on welfare now and then are lazy, and promiscuous
and addicted. The mindset that working people are lazy is part of a larger
view that poverty is the result of a character defect or a set of character
defects -- that people donít know how to look ahead and only seek out
personal gratification and so forth.
Weíre hearing a little less of that since welfare reform passed. I think
what I hear more of is a kind of conservative retort that poor people
made the wrong choices, and they should have gone to college. Getting
out of poverty is something you just "will" to do, or poor people
should have postponed childbearing until they had a middle-class income.
Actually what it all comes down to is, they should have chosen their parents
BuzzFlash: What do you say to progressives who come hear
you speak and ask what can they do in the dark days of a second term of
a Bush Administration?
Barbara Ehrenreich: I donít pretend to have an answer.
I say some of the best resistance has been going on at the grassroots
level, at the local and state levels, with some exceptions. And I think
the AARP and the NAACP have swung into more of a fighting stance.
Mostly, though, I say weíre not going to see a lot of big national initiatives.
Then, if Iím giving a public lecture, I ask people in the audience who
are involved with anything local to stand up and say something about it.
And I try to turn the Q and A part of the event into a kind of a rally.
Itís wonderful to see. Just two weeks ago, I was in Salt Lake City at
the University of Utah, and one person after another stood up and said
we need help providing support for striking coal miners. We need books.
We need volunteers, please get involved in this group or that group, or
an anti-war demonstration next week, or whatever. Thatís what I try to
BuzzFlash: Barbara, thank you so much for talking with
Barbara Ehrenreich: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreichís Web site