Remembering Barbara Ehrenreich, Acid Wit and Workers’ Champion
Barbara Ehrenreich, who died Sept. 1 at the age of 81, was one of the greatest literary representatives of the working class. A wildly premonitory thinker, she was blessed with an acidly witty prose style that could make the direst subject matter captivating and was proof that activism and journalism not only can mix but really should more often.
It was not by chance that she was an early participant and co-chair of Democratic Socialists of America, the leftwing group that has recently had such a strong rebirth. Her involvement was at least part of why she could see what was wrong in this country and name it with more humor and clarity than most in the center-Democratic media. In this sense as well as many others, she was akin to the undercover muckraker The Jungle’s Upton Sinclair, who was a card-carrying Socialist, and George Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Civil War.
Barbara, whom I met a decade ago (I’ve run the non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project which she founded for nearly that long), was not typical of the great journalists of her generation. Instead, her writing, and her very being, expanded the meaning of media accountability long before the downsides and lies of objectivity or “both sides-ism,” were widely discussed. “I have never seen a conflict between journalism and activism,” she said. “As a journalist, I search for the truth. But as a moral person, I am also obliged to do something about it.”
Barbara knew that the bright line that was enforced within the media between journalism and advocacy could, in truth, mask ideology. She knew that what counts as reporting neutrally can reinforce the status quo, recording only what is already there, in official language that has already been accepted and naturalized, or in acronyms and milquetoast phrases. It doesn’t capture what was once or could soon be a reality. She also cast a cold eye on the kind of popular writers who mused about, say, so-called deadbeat dads from their laptops or traded in false equivalencies in pieces tossed off on the way to their second homes. In her many years as an essayist for TIME, she tried to be the opposite of this archetype, writing with panache and clarity about everything from her support of Ralph Nader, her take on family values and what the popularity of dinosaur movies said about unity.
However, in the days since her death, these details didn’t tend to make the obituaries of the major publications. This seems to me more than an incidental elision: it was her political engagement that defined the quality of her work. She emerged from activist and unionist culture rather than the hyper-professionalized zones of the newsroom or the journalism school.
Her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, in which Barbara went undercover, laboring at low-wage gigs like waitressing or cleaning houses, was a best seller, but it now can be wrongly neutralized into just a set of yarns about the poor. Its point and form were, in fact, completely fresh, as was her volume on witches and midwives; another on the transformational pleasure in dancing and music; a third on the tacky commercial industry that has grown up around being a cancer survivor; and my favorite, Fear of Falling, about the status anxiety of the middle class.
She was able to predict trends in part because she was neither a hide-bound reporter nor its new version, a data-crunching technocrat. Instead, she combined the scientific method (she had a Ph.D in biology) with what I call lyrical leftism, a style fomented in the 1970s. It’s partly an understanding that everyday life, even popular culture, can lead to political sea changes. Her very specific mindset derived from having grown up blue-collar adjacent: she came from a town full of mines, not a coastal city where the view-from-nowhere was being made.
The so-called neutrality of policy wonks riled her up too and you can see that distaste for this white collar, distanced jargon in Nickel and Dimed, too. It was one of the first books to represent America’s working poor as an emergency. This reckoning was metabolized a bit more after the financial crisis of 2008. However, to this day this reality has still not been fully absorbed by America at large. As Barbara wrote, these workers were in truth “the major philanthropists of our society.” How? “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.”
I think—and I believe Barbara thought—readers had forgotten our country’s vast working class because the privileged caste no longer interacted with them, except when receiving services. As Barbara said in an interview, “Millions of people do this kind of work every day for their entire lives—haven’t you noticed them?” In addition, the 1980s and 90s media and political leadership purveyed a bootstrapping Yuppie narrative, actively excluding those who weren’t white collar from their studios and podiums. Her book became the one to revive people’s interest in the majority experience partly because she used the approach of the relatable person going “undercover.” This made everyday horrors that had been naturalized shocking and engaging to readers.
Her 21 books and numerous essays, are on the shelf with the most timeless literature about class, partly because her unabashed voice made readers feel less alone. That’s also some of why, after her death, there has been a very personal outpouring of feeling about her on social media. I was struck most by the posts by people who had read Nickel and Dimed while they were waitressing. One reader tweeted that that book “came out the year my life blew up, the dotcom bubble burst and I went to work as a graveyard waitress…couldn’t have done it without her.” Barbara’s work evoked such a sense of fellow feeling from readers because of how unshakeable her voice was—full of sympathy for the ordinary people she met, always darkly humorous, willing to call out everyone from New Age gurus to powerful politicos on both sides of the aisle.
Fear of Falling, which Barbara wrote before Nickel and Dimed, and published in 1989, cast her typical ultraviolet light on what she described as America’s managerial class and their anxieties about slipping out of the middle class. “Money does not bring happiness,” she wrote, “only the wherewithal, perhaps, to endure its absence.”
My story overlaps with hers in another one of her activist-meets-journalist moments—her attempt to save America’s independent journalists. As Barbara wrote, “In America, only the rich can afford to write about poverty,” referring to the elite economic status of many journalists, the early collapse of independent reporting, and such venture capitalists as Alden Global Capital that have bought up newspapers and laid off reporters as they chased higher profits. Unlike traditional journalists who might see a problem, write about it, and move on, Barbara decided to do something about it, setting up a nonprofit journalism organization to advocate for destabilized and underpaid American voices.
The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which she founded in 2012 in response to the fallout of the recession, supports and edits writers experiencing poverty or reporting first-hand on it (including one who covered his own eviction.) Sometimes our contributor checks needed to be wired to indigent writers so they could pay for hotel rooms and car rentals while they reported. Barbara, never one for formality, would sometimes issue these payments from her own bank account, for expediency. Can you imagine your typical editor at any normal publication (and plenty have access to trust funds) doing something like this? Even her managerial practices were radical and edgy, sometimes humorously so: she’d ask to meet me in cheap diners where she’d order just a cup of black coffee and give the waitress a $10 tip; she got potential granters to our organization to convene with us in rundown midtown hotels far from any glass-enclosed offices; she’d show far more interest in writers who couldn’t pay their rent than in the most famous television news show hosts. When we met with one of the latter, I am not sure Barbara ever broke a smile.
Barbara was consistently concerned with human solidarity, one of the few contemporary journalists for whom that was an organizing principle.
Her influence was so pungent that despite her recent health setbacks, she seemed deathless, like the ancient cave paintings with which she became entranced by late in life. That she died as we approached Labor Day would seem fitting, although given her penchant for myth-busting she would probably roll her eyes at the notion of a news hook for her passing. She could say out the side of her mouth something like “news pegs are products of the Hallmark Media Industrial Complex, Alissa.”
I now turn in my mind to her writing on religious experience in her book Living With A Wild God. From a young age, she wrote, she thought of the conundrum of being as what she dubbed “the situation.” She described it as the fact that we all share “ecstatic springtimes and bitter winters,” and also that our lifetimes of beautiful experiences all ultimately end in death. This wasn’t some kind of late-life spiritual kick that took her away from her radical inclinations. Instead, it was further proof of her commitment to materialism. She looked at individual deaths as part of the saga of social struggle. “The situation,” she wrote, led her young self to wonder, “What is the point of our brief existence?”
She got as close to anyone to finding out.
Alissa Quart is the Executive Director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of four non-fiction books including the acclaimed Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, and Republic of Outsiders as well as two poetry books, most recently Thoughts and Prayers.
Co-published with TIME.