Ehrenreich on poverty, activism and politics

Barbara Ehrenreich appeals to college students. She opens her Community Learning Day keynote address with remarks about underage drinking.

“Make it legal,” she insists in a common-sense tone that is condescending to policy makers.

Students cheer to that. They know Ehrenreich is not just pandering to them because most of them read her book, “Nickel and Dimed,” for summer reading. They’re well aware of her left-leaning politic.

Ehrenreich has become one of the most well known activists for the poor and women’s rights. She’s a journalist who shuns objectivity to provoke social change. During her keynote speech on social inequality, she revealed what she learned as an undercover low-wage worker in the United States and voiced the changes she believes need to be made in government to influence the state of national poverty.

Ehrenreich has always paid attention to poverty. Hers are blue-collar roots in Butte, Montana. During her lifetime, she saw her father rise out of a job as a miner to become a comfortable, middle-class executive.

“It was like going on a tour of the social class system of America, except for the top parts,” she said.

This has had a major influence on her writing. She’s always been conscious of the struggles of low-wage workers. But when she suggested to an editor at Harper’s Magazine that “some writer” should go undercover and try to live like a low-wage American, she had no idea how closely she would experience that lifestyle.

Over three months, she would take on six jobs and live in three different cities. She was a waitress at two restaurants and a hotel maid in Key West, a housemaid and nursing home assistant in Portland, Maine, and a Wal-Mart employee in Minneapolis.

Ultimately, she was not successful in making ends meet. With housing costs, taxes, childcare and food, she said she often wound up in negative numbers.

Still, the federal government did not classify Ehrenreich as living “in poverty.”

“If you calculate what people really need to live on at a very basic level, you come up with very different numbers,” she said. “Some of the numbers that different groups – including the Department of Labor – have come up with recently range from 20 to 33 percent of the population really living in poverty.”

But what exactly has she learned about living in poverty? Each job she took on required a lot of memorization and hard work, she said.

“I never use the word “unskilled” anymore to describe any job. All jobs take skill, intelligence, and a great deal of concentration.”

Before her speech, Ehrenreich answered a few questions about her book and her politic.

Question: How did you manage to blend in with low-wage workers without revealing that you were a middle-class person with an education?

Barbara Ehrenreich: I didn’t have to pose. It didn’t take any acting, I was myself. Same hair, same clothes. You don’t have to dress up very much for interviews for these kinds of jobs. I blended in all too well. Funny story – I had a book signing in Key West when the book came out and a woman came up to me and she said, ‘Oh I worked at Gerrys,’ so called, the same place I had worked. And she said, ‘I saw you when you were there for an interview. I knew right away you were hiding something.’ I thought, ‘oh my God, I guess she could tell I was really middle- class.’ She said, ‘I knew you were just out of a shelter or jail.’ Oh, well, time for a makeover.

Q: I know you originally studied the sciences in college. Why the switch to social advocacy?

B.E.: I studied many things. I studied chemistry in college, then I switched to physics, switched to bio. Then I got involved in the anti-war movement and finally decided I did not want to be an experimental researcher. I wanted to be some kind of social change agent. It was growing throughout the ’60s. A lot of people in my generation dropped their careers they had prepared for to become activists.

Q: I understand you were born into a family that typically didn’t go to college.

B.E.: Mine were blue-collar roots in Butte, Mont. The men were miners or railroad workers. My father had an amazing ride out of the mines and by the time I was in my teens, we were quite comfortably middle-class, and he’d become an executive. It was like going on a tour of the social class system of America, except for the top parts. It’s something that sticks in your mind. These are your roots. Your cousins are miners, waitresses, factory workers – that’s family.

Q: And does this have an influence on what you write about today?

B.E.: A big influence. I was always aware, or if I didn’t want to be, I was made aware in college that my background was culturally different. My family read a lot but we didn’t know music or ballet or anything.

Q: How was your experience as a guest columnist for The New York Times this summer?

B.E. I replaced Tom Friedman. That was a very intense experience. I’m not used to coming up with two essays per week. That was all I could concentrate on for about five weeks. But I enjoyed it a lot.

Q: I know you wrote a column defending Moore from the criticism that he is a member of the ‘liberal elite.’ If someone accused you of being the same, how would you respond?

B.E.: I have become more ‘financially elite’ thanks to royalties from this book, so some of that applies (to me). But I’d written about that years and years ago in a book called “Fear of Falling.” It’s that old conservative trick of pawning off anybody who speaks up for the underdog and saying, ‘oh well, they’re really an elitist.’ It’s entirely the other way around. If you listen to the populist right-wing broadcast people like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, they’re not taking the side of the little guy or gal. They’re taking the corporations’ side. They’re taking the side of the powerful and the wealthy again and again. No matter how much they want to put down people who drink chardonnay and eat French cheese or something, they objectively represent the elite, so there’s been a very clever kind of Orwellian inversion there.

Q: I also saw your article comparing George W. Bush to King George III.

B.E.: That was my daughter’s idea. I have to give her credit. My daughter’s a human rights lawyer and she said, ‘mom check out the Declaration of Independence.’ And I said, ‘wow, did I ever read past the first paragraph?’

Q: So you have strong feelings about the upcoming election.

B.E.: I have extremely strong feelings about this election. I think the war makes us a lot less safe. It’s quite apart from both the tragic deaths of both Americans and Iraqis and people of other nationalities. The war has been terrific propaganda for Islamic fundamentalist insurgents throughout the world, and it terrifies me. You might call me a security mom or grandmom. I have two tiny granddaughters now and I am terrified about the world they’re inheriting.

Q: So you are leaning left this election?

B.E.: Oh yes, I have never been so emotionally dependent on one man as I am now. Co-dependent on both men actually. (Kerry) wouldn’t have been my choice though. I preferred Kucinich and Dean, but I will do anything …

Q: As a journalist, I know that desire to be able to nudge the world a little. How do you feel your book and your writing have contributed to social activism and solving problems like poverty in the United States?

B.E.: I wish I could tell you I’ve done more. Very soon after the book was published was Sept. 11 and it just erased all these issues from the national mind. I think we’ve been fighting our way back to attention on domestic dangers like extreme poverty. I am proud though, that many affluent people tell me that the book opened their eyes to things they hadn’t thought about before. Poor people in low-wage jobs tell me they feel well represented – that I portrayed their jobs well, and that’s very heartening to me. Getting a lot of views from people trying to make change, that makes me feel good.