Barbara Ehrenreich Talked With BF About Economic Justice Issues Being Moral Values -- And the Dems in Congress Who Have Sold Out to Corporations
BuzzFlash has interviewed Barbara Ehrenreich, author and advocate for besieged blue collar workers of the United States, three times. She is best known for her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which she didn’t just interview people about the drudgery and low pay of so many jobs, she actually got herself hired to work them. She told BuzzFlash in 2005 that John Kerry lacked the passion to address class issues in the 2005 election: “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.” Indeed, they are.
First posted in April, 2005.
Barbara Ehrenreich Brings You Life Without Safety Nets -- the Growing Reality for Everyday Americans
When someone works for less pay than she can live on … she has made a great sacrifice for you … The "working poor" … are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone. — Nickel and Dimed
Barbara Ehrenreich 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. 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.
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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: They’ve just gotten worse. As I’m sure you know, wages have actually declined. And with slightly higher unemployment, it’s harder for workers to challenge anything in the workplace because it’s so easy to replace them – 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. There’s 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, it’s going to mean, as Paul Krugman says, there’s 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, it’s 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 weren’t better able to inform working Americans that their pockets were being picked?
Barbara Ehrenreich: That’s 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 don’t think it’s unique to the credit card legislation. I don’t know the reason why there’s 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 they’ve 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 it’s the right thing to do, but also for purely strategic reasons. Unless the Democratic Party can offer Americans a different vision for America, it’s just hard to see them winning elections and leading the country. Would you agree with that?
Barbara Ehrenreich: I certainly do. And I think we’ve 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 don’t know.
BuzzFlash: Neo-conservatives want to take us back to pre-FDR days when there was virtually no safety net. They’re 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 verdict’s still out on Social Security, but they want to privatize that, too. After all the research you’ve 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 can’t figure it out. The Social Security privatization campaign Bush is currently running does not have strong popular support. People don’t want it. Even Wall Street isn’t enthusiastic about it. And it’s not going to save money. It’s 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 doesn’t make sense. I almost think there’s a philosophical point they want to drive home, which is that they don’t like anything that involves some kind of mutual risk-sharing -- you know, pooling our wealth to help each other. There’s no other way I can explain it to myself.
BuzzFlash: Let’s 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. It’s done with the same form of journalism, putting myself into the actual situation and studying it that way.
BuzzFlash: What’s the title for the book?
Barbara Ehrenreich: "Bait and Switch," and the tentative subtitle is "The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."
BuzzFlash: It’s 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 didn’t know how hard it was, and now I do. That’s 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 wasn’t 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, they’ll 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 I’m 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: There’s 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, they’re not getting by in America. But where does that assumption come from, the current demonizing of the poor?
Barbara Ehrenreich: That’s 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 even earlier.
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 don’t know how to look ahead and only seek out personal gratification and so forth.
We’re 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 better.
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 don’t 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 we’re not going to see a lot of big national initiatives. Then, if I’m 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. It’s 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. That’s what I try to do.
BuzzFlash: Barbara, thank you so much for talking with us.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Thank you.