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||| Barbara Ehrenreich At Towson University |||
Susan Lantz

Barbara Ehrenreich, whose best-selling book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," was chosen as Towson University's Book of the Year for 2002, gave a talk at the university on October 1. A long-time activist and award-winning political esayist, Ehrenreich is the author of several books and has written about feminism and class issues for a wide variety of publications including Time, The Nation, Harper's, In These Times, Z, and Mother Jones, among many others.

At Towson University, Ehrenreich discussed her experiences researching and writing "Nickel and Dimed" and also spoke out against war with Iraq and in support of the Student Worker Alliance of Towson (SWAT), which fights for a living wage for workers contracted by the university.

Ehrenreich began, "I've had an obsession over the years with welfare reform. Under pressure from a Republican Congress, Clinton ended single mother's cash support. The current president has called welfare reform a resounding success, and Bush's administration has added a new twist, posing marriage as a solution to lifting women out of poverty. Is it the business of the federal government to tell us we should get married? Don't people tend to marry within their own class? And what about women who are not heterosexual?"

She continued, "This statement led me to sit down and figure out how many men a woman coming off of welfare would have to marry to get out of povery--the answer is a number more than two. The idea for 'Nickel and Dimed' came out of a lunch with an editor. I was talking about how the math regarding poverty didn't work out. I can look in the employment section of the paper and see what wages are, and then flip to the housing section and see what rent is--it doesn't equal out. I decided to see if I could live on the wages earned in entry-level work, accepting the best paying jobs I could find but not using my experience or qualifications."

Ehrenreich's jobs during the year she spent researching the book included watress, hotel housekeeper, maid, nursing home aide, and WalMart "associate." She said despite the booming economy at the time, it was harder to find jobs than she'd anticipated, and several barriers were placed in the way of employment. She was made to take drug tests, and "personality" or honesty tests.

She said, "Wal-Mart's test asked questions like: 'All rules should be followed all the time, agree or disagree?' I chose the 'strongly agree' option, not wanting to sound like a suck-up. I was wrong; the correct answer was apparently 'totally agree.'"

Ehrenreich noted that each of the jobs she took were physically difficult, especially housekeeping, where all of her fellow employees had sustained some type of work-related injury. She said that they were also mentally much harder than she had expected, confirming her suspicion that "no job is unskilled. Every job takes intelligence, skill, and stamina."

And, difficult work was made much harder in every case by management practices, as intimidation and suspicion were the rule at every job she held. "There were peculiar rules, like the 'no talking' rule at Wal-mart, where we weren't supposed ever to chat with our fellow employees. Housekeeping was possibly the hardest; we were not allowed to have a drink of water during the entire time we were cleaning a house, up to four hours at a time," Ehrenreich said.

She cited recent research that has documented even more extreme practices, mentioning a book about how rare bathroom breaks have become in the workplace such that women in one factory had to take to wearing adult diapers on the job, so infrequent were breaks. "Some American workplaces are beginning to offer the kinds of conditions we associate with third world countries," she asserted.

Ehrenreich's employment during this period earned her an average of $7 an hour, also the average salary for women coming off of welfare. She quickly discovered how difficult it is to live on wages the federal government considers sufficient. Rent took almost all of her paycheck every month. A half-sized trailer in Key West, Florida went for $625 a month without utilities, leaving her about $300 a month for food and gas. Much worse was Minnesota, where she found it impossible to rent even a tiny trailer for less than $800, which would have left about $30 a week to live on after rent. She found herself falling back on residential motels, which she learned were a common last resort for the working poor.

She said, "the motel where I stayed was creepy, and unsafe, with no privacy: I was on the ground floor with no shades in the window." Other rooms were shared by whole families, or more than one family. In fact, the motel was unaffordable for most people making wages similar to Ehrenreich, at $250 per week, unless rooms were shared.

Ehrenreich was quick to point out the many relative advantages she had over many of her co-workers and other people she met. "I'm white and English-speaking, which means I had a better chance of getting jobs, and better jobs, than others. Very importantly, I had no children with me, while the average woman coming off of welfare has two."

With the impossibility of raising two children on $30 a week after rent, many of the women Ehrenreich worked with were forced to have more than one full-time or near full-time job. Many did not get by, she said, and several women were homeless. "The fact that they did not even consider themselves homeless if they had a car to sleep in shows how skewed things have become," Ehrenreich said, "I saw women who did not get enough to eat, who worked two jobs and still had to choose between feeding their children or eating a meal themselves."

"The work ethic I was raised to respect is not true," Ehrenreich was forced to conclude. "Do the employers have a pay ethic? People are worked to the point of exhaustion, with no hope of getting ahead." Ehrenreich said that the meaninglessness of the official poverty level, known to be hopelessly unrealistic, became bitingly clear. While officially only 11% of Americans are poor, the federal gauge of poverty is based only on food costs, which have not increased that much over the past few decades. On the other hand, the cost of rent has inflated much, much more, thanks in part to skyrocketing demand by the wealthy. Licensed child care costs $1000 a month, unlicensed care can be about $400 a month, both obviously out of the reach of women coming off of welfare, and many other women too.

In contrast, the Economic Policy Institue has created a poverty scale that takes into account costs like rent and child and medical care, concluding that 29% of American families do not earn enough to avoid significant hardships, a rate Ehrenreich finds more accurate.

"We've become a highly polarized society," Ehrenreich said, "all of the gaps are growing. Economically, the wealthiest 1% of Americans owns 40% of wealth in the country. In 2001 the incomes of the top 5% rose to $261,000 on average, while the wages of the poor and middle class declined. We're also a socially polarized society, as there is less and less interaction between people at the top and people at the bottom. They don't use the same services or go to the same schools. As college tuition rises in price, fewer qualified students are coming from lower-income families than twenty years ago."

Ehrenreich added that American society is becoming increasingly "morally polarized," as people's ideas of what constitutes right or wrong behavior vary with class. "The myth has been that poor people are lazy, dissolute, etc. Now things are starting to look different--anything goes at the top, but at the bottom you have to be perfect. At Tyco, the CFO and CEO stole 600 million dollars. While they were under investigation, Tyco offered the CFO a 45 million dollar severance package. Meanwhile, at my Wal-mart orientation they showed us a warning video of a cashier stealing 400 dollars from a register and going to jail for four years. We are becoming further divided into what might become two nations."

What can be done? "First of all, we need to stop doing some of the things we're doing, treating American workers as criminals and renewable resources that can be thrown away. We need to stop the decline of affordable housing. We also need to start doing things that should have been done years ago. We need universal health insurance. We need subsidized child care, and a system of cash supports for people who can't take a job because they already have one taking care of children or elderly relatives."

Ehrenreich said, "War takes up all of the resources that could be used for a healthy society. After the Cold War we were supposed to get a "peace dividend," which never happened. War with Iraq is an effort to distract us from domestic crimes like poverty and corporate crime. I also think we're going to get a lot more terrorism from groups like Al Qaeda," if the war on Iraq is not stopped. "I was stopped at the airport the other day, and I thought 'I'd feel so much safer if, instead of searching my shoes in airports, the government would stop messing with Iraq and back off a little with Sharon.'"

She went on to praise the Living Wage movement that had its start in Baltimore, saying, "If you work full time you should be able to live in decency and safety. What is the economy for if not to provide people with a decent life? If it isn't working, it should be changed."

Ehrenreich spoke in support of students involved in building alliances with workers to fight for a living wage, like the Student-Worker Alliance of Towson, and others around the country. "I urge you to get involved in efforts like those of these students, and in efforts to take back from corporate crimianls and warmongers. America's low-wage workers should be considered our major philanthropists. Many of our conveniences only exist because of someone's low-paid, exhaustive work. Involuntary philanthropy is the gift of the working poor."

A question and answer session followed Ehrenreich's talk, before which she also issued an invitation to people who wished to say something about how others could get involved in activism.

Question: These problems always seem obvious to me, being not from the U.S. Why are Americans so blind to this?

Ehrenreich: It depends which Americans we're talking about. The upper-middle class has been very isolated. No contact in any meaningful way with others, and we're talking about the class that includes our doctors, lawyers, and decision-makers. I was in Sweden last week. There are countries with a more generous way of taking care of citizens.

Q: What was your reaction when you found out you had to have two jobs at once to survive?

Ehrenreich: I did two waitressing jobs at once, and I did one housekeeping and one waitressing job at once. Two jobs in one day is hard, and I fared much better when I had one week job and one weekend job.

Q: What kind of effect do right-to-work laws in the southern states have on the working poor?

Ehrenreich: They've made it harder to get unions in. There have still been some victories, though.

Q: I'm in shock that you didn't realize this was going on. Nine out of ten black people could have told you this. What are you doing differently now that you know?

Ehrenreich: I think it's a little unfair to say that I was ignorant. I've been writing about these issues for many years. What I've tried to do is spread the word about affordable housing and welfare reform. I give donations too. Basically, I see my role as being a troublemaker around these issues.

Q: I teach in some local colleges, and it's really become clear that we tend to see capitalism as a given in the U.S. Do you think this is the problem?

Ehrenreich: I have my own critiques of capitalism, but the fact is that some capitalist countries do a hell of a lot better than we do. Ours is a particularly dangerous form of capitalism. We don't have to wait for the fall of capitalism to be a little less cruel.

Matt Warfield of SWAT also gave a statement.

Warfield: Aramark workers don't make a living wage. We pay a lot of money to come to school here, and we're supposedly learning moral development. We need to pressure the (university) administration not to take advantage of workers in our community.


This piece was originally published on the Baltimore Independent Media Center site. Indymedia articles are non-copyright and may be reproduced for non-commercial usage only.

Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" is published by Metropolitan/Owl Books

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