By Jennifer S. Levin, re-posted from her blog:
In 2001, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, an exposé about minimum-wage workers, propelled author Barbara Ehrenreich to the New York Times Best Seller List and planted her in the American imagination as a advocate for the poor and working class. Ehrenreich’s prose is invitingly direct and often witty. A tone of biting satire permeates her writing, especially when she rhetorically points out the obvious to people who are oblivious to the reality of true financial struggle. She has written along these themes in numerous books, including Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1990), Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (2005), and This Land is Their Land : Reports from a Divided Nation (2008). Her most recent book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (2009), challenges the wisdom of enforcing a cheery outlook in all spheres, from cancer treatment to your own lay-off. Her new endeavor, with the Institute for Policy Studies, is the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which pays out-of-work journalists to write about economic issues and then helps them place the articles in major media outlets.
Ehrenreich talks about her work on March 13 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The presentation is part of the Lannan Foundation’s In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom series; following her presentation, Ehrenreich will join in conversation with popular Lannan host and founder of Alternative Radio David Barsamian. Ehrenreich spoke to Pasatiempo in advance of her visit.
Pasatiempo: In This Land is Their Land, which came out prior to the last presidential election, you ask for the public conversation around economic inequality to be revived—and it has been, to some extent. What do you think of the Occupy Movement? Do you have thoughts on Mitt Romney’s “47%” remarks?
Ehrenreich: I have quite a few thoughts. The Occupy Movement was—and still is, in a less visible way—an expression of frustration over the huge inequality in this society. I was fascinated by the way the encampments brought together people of very different backgrounds—people who were already homeless and joined encampments because it was a better place to sleep, and people who were the stereotypical 24-year-olds with huge student debt and no jobs. Not to mention laid-off blue collar workers. I was just amazed at how all these different groups came together. As for Romney, I’m glad he made those remarks. It was one of the things that sunk him. The 47% was mostly a reference to people on Social Security and people who use Medicare, but it got conflated in his remarks, giving the sense that 47% of Americans are welfare bums. I don’t have any problem with welfare myself—I wish we had more of it—but he was applying the stigma that’s usually attached to the very poor who turn to the government for aid when they are desperate, the mythical Welfare Queens, to everyone who depends on Medicare or Social Security. That certainly backfired for him.
What did you make of the seemingly endless “rape gaffes” made by Republicans during the election season?
Barbara Ehrenreich, looking snarky.
I’m just speculating, but there does seem to be a lack of biological knowledge.When someone thinks that women can’t get impregnated through rape, you have to straighten that guy out. What happened in his high school biology class? But there is vindictiveness, a punitive tone, in the increasing abortion restrictions—like requiring invasive ultrasounds when the procedure doesn’t require any ultrasound. That really took me aback. There was no way I was going to vote for Romney against Obama, but I began to get really bent out of shape when there was one so-called “rape gaffe” after another. Why were these guys so damn concerned about the possible future of their sperm in all situations?
What do you think about fetal personhood laws?
I have some formal education in biology, and I keep an eye on this stuff. We’re getting to the point technologically where we can take any body cell, like a skin cell from the inside of my mouth, and put it in a culture and get a whole new Barbara out of it. At the point where this becomes more feasible, every cell in your body is a potential new person. Are we going to prosecute people who pick their pimples? And we should address the fact that most fertilized eggs, zygotes, do not implant. They’re flushed away in the monthly menstrual flow, which makes me think that we should require women to save their used tampons so we can culture all the potential babies that might be in them. The whole idea of personhood has gotten so totally compromised by the idea that corporations are people, too. Philosophically if a corporation is a person, I suppose the cells at the end of your fingertips are people, too.
Are you aware that Santa Fe has one of the highest living wages in the country?
I am not only aware, but I will take one little molecule of credit for it. I came to Santa Fe at the behest of the Living Wage Committee to speak at an event. I met with different groups who were supporting the living wage.
Many chain stores closed after passage of the living wage ordinance, but Wal-Mart, where you worked during your Nickel and Dimed research, is still here. Do you think a living wage would change the experience of working there?
That would have to be determined empirically. I’d like to talk to Wal-Mart workers receiving Santa Fe’s living wage. Right now the organization Our Wal-Mart is focused not on the wage issue but on control of one’s schedule, to have input into when you are scheduled to work, what your hours are.
What will you discuss in your presentation for the Lannan Foundation?
I’m going to talk about some themes that have emerged in my recent years of reporting and now working with younger journalists on the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. One of the things that most disturbs and obsesses me right now are all the ways in which once you start falling down economically in society, you fall faster and faster. There are all these traps. For example, credit becomes more expensive if you are already kind of poor, or the fact that a lot of employers don’t want to hire people who are unemployed, which is a total joke. It’s now virtually illegal to be homeless in America because anything people do in public spaces has been made illegal. You can’t sleep; you can’t sit down. Suppose one of your headlights goes out in your car and you can’t afford $100 to fix it. So you get stopped and fined more than $100. You can’t pay that either, so you get in arrears with the court and a warrant is issued for your arrest. Prisoners in some county jails are now being charged for their room and board. Obviously you can see the spiral down. If you get out after just a few weeks in jail, and you owe X number of dollars for your stay, there’s no hope, no end to that cycle.
Barbara Ehrenreich with David Barsamian
Lannan In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom Series
Wednesday, March 13 | 7 p.m.
Lensic Performing Arts Center
211 West San Francisco St.
This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on March 8, 2013.