Author Barbara Ehrenreich on the reality of the U.S. economy and life after graduation
In the wealthiest nation on earth, millions of people cannot live on the only jobs they can get. Whether that’s something Americans ought to worry about depends on who’s talking.
President George Bush says that the nation’s economy is picking up, that the American dream is secure and things have never been better for job-seekers.
But author Barbara Ehrenreich has actually gone and tried to live those lives, giving up her comfortable Florida home and upper-middle class writer’s entitlements to try her hand at living the minimum-wage life.
What she found was that for an expanding segment of the population, the American dream seems to be descending into nightmare. In every community, people are teetering on the edge of homelessness, one medical bill or bad bounce from landing in homeless shelters and welfare lines.
“When you’re that poor, when you’re making seven dollars an hour, when you’re living on the edge like that, you are more frightened all the time,” said Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2002).
Born on August 26, 1941, Ehrenreich grew up in Butte, Montana, a daughter of a copper miner and a copper miner’s daughter. She attended Reed College, and went on to obtain a Ph.D. in biology from The Rockefeller University in New York City. During the Vietnam War, Ehrenreich decided that biology was not for her and became a member of an activist group in New York City where she helped write and edit a newsletter about health care for the lower class in NYC.
As Ehrenreich continued to write for the activist group, she began to contribute to other magazines and eventually wrote a book as well. Today she is the author of 12 books on various social and economic topics, and has contributed to Time, Harper’s Magazine, New York Times Magazine, and is currently a regular contributor at The Progressive. She is also the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1987-88 and the Sydney Hillman Award for Journalism.
In 2002, Nickel and Dimed became a NY Times bestseller, one of the reasons it was chosen for this year’s UB Reads program at the University at Buffalo. Ehrenreich has also been invited to speak at UB as a member of the Distinguished Speakers Series, and will be speaking at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, October 27 at Alumni Arena.
Ehrenreich recently spoke with Generation to answer questions about her book, the economic and social situation in the U.S. today, and the job outlook for college students. The following are excerpts from that interview.
Generation: Why should college freshmen read your book?
Ehrenreich: I suspect that it’s often assigned to encourage college students to take college seriously, because my book describes the world that they’re likely to enter if they don’t. So I think it’s sometimes used as a sort of a scare tactic.
G: Based on your experiences, is a college degree enough to get you at least a managerial position at Wal-mart? If you’re a college graduate, what can you look forward to today?
E: No… Wal-mart tends to hire managers from within, and I don’t know how much of a premium they put on a college degree. My impression of the job market right now for young, recent college grads is not too promising. It’s now about 25 percent of the people over 21 who have college degrees, and that’s a lot of people. I think for most people, unless you graduated from one of the top MBA or law schools, you’re looking at 25 or 30,000 a year coming out of college, if that.
G: In your book, you briefly mention that you looked online to see how the job and housing markets were in the cities you went to. What else went into your decision about which cities to move to?
E: Well, it’s not exactly scientific. [laughs] I started in Key West because I live near there. It was there that I began to see that being white gave me a racial advantage in the kinds of jobs I was steered to. So I said why not go somewhere where almost everyone is white, and take away that advantage, and just see what happens. That’s why I went to Maine; I was attracted by its whiteness. And then the Twin Cities, I just thought of them, incorrectly I guess, as working class towns, where I thought it would be easier to find housing.
G: Going along those lines then, since you mentioned the race factor, it didn’t seem like you really mentioned it very often in the book. What do you think causes the poor to stay at the poverty-level? Do gender and race play a role?
E: Oh there’s no question about the racial effects. There’s an interesting study just done in the last year where at some university they sent out identical resumes, but some with sort of black-sounding names, like Akisha or something, and then the same resume with a white-sounding name like Mary Anne. They found that the white-sounding named resumes were twice as likely to get a response.
As for gender, it’s hard for me to say based on my experience, because a lot of the low wage jobs are jobs that have been traditionally female, like waitressing, service jobs, nursing homes, retail, etc. So I was just entering a world where that seemed to be what was out there. Now there are plenty of low wage jobs for men too. In restaurants where I worked, the worst of the jobs were held by men; these would be dishwashing and busing, and they were held by immigrant men. And so I didn’t see that it was a huge advantage to be a man. That’s mainly because of de-industrialization, which is very vivid in Buffalo. Buffalo was a steel town once, and those jobs are pretty much gone. So a young man in Buffalo, with just a high school degree is not going to be able to go into a relatively decent paying union job in the steel mills, he’s going to be maybe driving a forklift in the back of a Wal-mart store.
G: When you were in each location, did you consider going a little bit farther and telling your landlords that you couldn’t pay the next month’s rent just to see what they would do?
E: No, I didn’t… I didn’t want to be thrown out. [laughs]
G: You said in your book that when you “sat down one morning in your real home to pay bills from your past life, you were dazzled by the two- and three-figure sums owed to outfits like Club Body Tech and Amazon.com.” Have you altered your spending habits since this experiment or made any lifestyle changes?
E: No, I still belong to a gym, and as a writer, part of my work is that I always need books. What are you expecting? I should give up my gym membership? [laughs]
G: Then maybe do you tip better now that you’ve done this then?
E: I certainly do. [laughs] Religiously. And I don’t base tipping on whether I think I got good service. I don’t think I’m in a position to be the supervisor. I base it on the fact that I know the person isn’t paid enough.
G: So what’s a good tip percentage?
E: Twenty-five percent.
G: What was your biggest surprise about trying to make it on minimum wages? What did you just not plan for?
E: Rent! I was wrong about what it would cost to live, indoors that is. I had thought, in my early calculations before I set out, that I could keep rent down to 500 a month. And even for the most minimal places, that turned out to be ridiculously conservative. You know, there are parts of the country, I realize now, more rural parts, where I could’ve gotten a place for around 300 maybe, but I didn’t want to go to those rural places because there are fewer jobs there.
G: Do you think that poor people gravitate towards the cities because of jobs, or is it just a coincidence that poor people are there and then they never move away and then their kids grow up there and stay there?
E: It’s a big racial difference here. African-Americans migrated north in the ‘40s and ‘50s for industrial jobs, and into the center of cities like Buffalo, and Gary, Indiana, for those jobs. As did poor whites from Appalachia, for example, at the same time. As those jobs have ended in recent years, the poor whites have sort of dispersed into the suburbs. An interesting thing is the growth of poverty in the suburbs. It’s growing more rapidly in the suburbs by far than in the cities. So there’s a real diaspora of the white poor. And I could see that in the fact that I could find this weird housing in these residential motels on the fringe of cities. But it’s not so easy for the black poor to disperse into the suburbs because of prejudice and housing. So they remain more concentrated. But yes, in general, people move where the jobs are. And one of the things that has been driving those people that can, including a lot of Latino immigrants, to the suburbs, is that the jobs are out there, like the retail jobs.
G: I’m guessing that you are up to date on the federal legislation regarding minimum wages, and the recent disapproval of a raise to the federal minimum wage. What do you think it’s going to take for the minimum wage to be raised in this country? What would need to change?
E: Well, I think the first step would be to vote for Kerry, because he is the one that’s talking about raising the minimum wage to seven dollars an hour. He’s made that a centerpiece of his economic policy. The Bush administration is as loyal to big business as you can possibly be, and that’s not on their agenda.
G: Does Kerry have any other ideas about how to attack the problem of poverty?
E: The Democrats really have been sounding pretty good, at least in terms of recognizing the problem this time around. They have talked again and again about there being two Americas, one that remains in a permanent kind of depression, and the other one that has been doing pretty well. They have talked about health care and the absolute need to have some sort of universal health care that would cover all of us; not just the poor as measured by the government.
G: What was the worst job that you took? Which one would be the one you would have had to quit first because of either physical or emotional reasons?
E: Oh, definitely the housecleaning job. Because that was physically just so difficult. Almost everybody there, out of about 30 women, had some sort of injury even after a few months; turnover was very high. It was back and knee injuries. Which could be attributed to the fact, for example, that we had a backpack vacuum cleaner.
G: Did you ever figure out why they used that vacuum?
E: Everything is about speed. You’re not unplugging, you’re not finding outlets. I’m very strong, because of all those gym memberships [laughs], but it’s hard when you’ve got that weight on your back. You’re not just hiking with that weight on your back. You’re going down under sofas, around things, you’re on your knees, you’re on the floor then you’re standing up over and over again.
The other thing is that we cleaned floors on our hands and knees. That was supposed to be a great wonderful traditional thing that we did, and that’s very hard on your knees. I didn’t write about this, but I began to get a kind of repetitive stress injury in my right forearm from the scrubbing motion. And I would try to switch to the left arm as much as possible, but you’ve really got to scrub with your strongest arm. So I think that I couldn’t have lasted. At some point I would’ve said, “do I want to incur lasting damage?”
G: What theories do you have on why the women you worked with were always so accepting of their positions and unwilling to buck the system?
E: Because in theory, they needed the money. One woman said that her husband was already mad at her for taking off too much time from work. But she was sick or pregnant, and she got this injury, and it only occurred to me later, who was going to pay that emergency room bill? I thought she would need an x-ray right away; that would be my response to something like that happening to a member of my family. You know, “we’re going to the ER and you’re getting an x-ray,” but it didn’t even enter my head that an ER visit could be hundreds of dollars. And there’s no guarantee that the boss would pay. When you’re that poor, when you’re making seven dollars an hour, when you’re living on the edge like that – you are more frightened all the time, than, say, you or I would be. If you are so much on the edge that several weeks without pay could mean an eviction and homelessness, you’re terrified.
G: From your experiences, could you explain what the rationale behind drug testing is? Could you figure out what the corporate reasoning was behind spending all this money?
E: Well, you’d have to ask some management people that, and I would love to hear their answers, because it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. There are so many academic studies now that show that it doesn’t reduce absenteeism, it doesn’t reduce accidents, and it doesn’t increase productivity. Like in one study, it decreased productivity because, you know, it gives people a bad feeling. I have to say it’s just part of discipline. Part of disciplining the work force and sending people a message that no part of their lives is exempt from surveillance by the boss. That they own you. That you can’t have that joint on Saturday night although it would have no effect whatsoever on your work. It’s a psychological control thing.
G: Did you plan for your book to become a book while you were writing it, or was it just supposed to be an article?
E: Well, the first chapter, “Key West,” that was an article that appeared in Harper’s Magazine. And then it created a lot of discussion. It got a lot of response. So my book editor said, “Go out and do some more of this and we’ll have a book!” [laughs]
G: Of all the people that you met in all the cities that you went to, whose life showed you most blatantly that we have a problem in the U.S.?
E: Well, there’s somebody who’s always stood out in my mind just for the tragedy of her situation, and it was the older woman at the housecleaning service. And she had to quit because she had to have knee surgery. Her knees and back had been ruined by the job, but she was very, very good at the job. So it was her last day of work and the boss never said a word to us or to her about the fact that she put in two years of service; that’s so unusual for anybody to last two years.
We always had a little meeting before we went out to clean our houses; that would’ve been the opportunity for the franchise owner, to say “This is so-and-so’s last day and we’re really going to miss her and we’re wishing her well for surgery.” Not a word. At the end of the day, her ride didn’t show up and I ended up driving her home, and she was just crushed. And she said “You know, he [the boss] never liked me once my health trouble started.” It would’ve meant so much to her if he had said something. And she certainly deserved it; she was an excellent team leader. And when she said that, it just hit me. We have an economy that uses people up and then throws them away.
G: Do you think that most people that you talk to from that economic class consider it an accurate portrayal?
E: Yeah, I think so. I’ve never heard from anybody saying, “Oh, you’ve got it all wrong, you were only there such a short time. It’s not like that at all.” I have had people on the contrary, especially the retail part, and the restaurant part, which are so familiar to so many, say, “Yeah, you got it.”
G: Is there anything else you think college students right now need to know about your book or the economic conditions in the U.S.?
E: Well, I think I’d better save that for my talk… [laughs]