I like to tell myself that as long as I live by certain rules — shop locally, recycle, commute by bike, listen to NPR — I am doing my part. But lately I wonder.

On Labor Day morning, I sat on my front porch and drank organic coffee with soy milk and read the Sunday paper. The author of an essay in the magazine section lamented how Americans continue to ignore the plight of our low-wage workers, the Wal-Mart “associates” and the fast-food slingers who just barely get by. I shook my head and went on with my day: a trip to the music store, where I bought two new CDs, then a stop by the grocery. One of the checkers said, “Hey, enjoy the day for me.”

There it was, Labor Day. And while I enjoyed my day off, he was selling his by the hour.

It’s the kind of thing I didn’t give much thought to until I started reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s essays and books. She writes with such conviction about poverty and class inequality that you can’t not pay attention.

In her most recent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Henry Holt), Ehrenreich calls the working poor “our society’s major philanthropists.” They sacrifice their health, their relationships, their whole lives so that the privileged can live more affordably and conveniently. To research the book, Ehrenreich went undercover as one of the working poor, taking jobs as a waitress, a hotel maid, a house-cleaner, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart “associate.” On job applications, she depicted herself as a divorced homemaker with little employment experience.

This was in 1998, when welfare-reform advocates talked as if any job would lift someone out of poverty. But Ehrenreich found that the numbers didn’t add up. Even though she owned a car and had no one to support, she had trouble getting by. After she paid for rent and food each month, there wasn’t much left. Sometimes there was nothing left. It was a struggle — financially, physically, and mentally. Many of her co-workers held two jobs and worked sixty to eighty hours a week. Some couldn’t save up enough money for a rent deposit and paid hundreds of dollars a week to live in residential motels. Others lived in their cars. Low-wage work, she concluded, was a trap in all of the ways conservative politicians said welfare was a trap. There was no getting out of it.

Nickel and Dimed became a bestseller, and Ehrenreich traveled the television talk-show circuit. In the book, Ehrenreich uses wit and satirical humor to make fun of herself and to mask her outrage at the general acceptance of anti-union rhetoric, rules against socializing with co-workers, random purse searches, “personality tests” for job applicants, and mandatory drug testing. “If you want to stack Cheerios boxes or vacuum hotel rooms in chemically fascist America,” she writes, “you have to be willing to squat down and pee in front of a health worker (who no doubt had to do the same thing herself).”

I met Ehrenreich when she taught a weekend writing workshop at the University of Oregon. In the classroom, she listened more than lectured. She encouraged us to think and write about class and inequality and to focus more on reporting and “worry about gussying it up later.” And she reminded us of the old newspaper adage that a journalist’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Ehrenreich is a trim woman (she works out at the gym almost daily) with intense blue eyes and silvery blond hair. Raised in a family of Scotch-Irish Democrats, she watched her father work his way out of the copper mines in Butte, Montana, to become an executive.

When she went to college in the sixties, she discovered feminism and the antiwar and civil-rights movements, all of which reinforced the values with which she’d been raised. Trained as a scientist — she earned her Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University in 1968 — she came to journalism through her involvement in social activism. Her specialty was women’s health issues, and her work first appeared in Ms. in the late seventies. In the nineties she was a regular essayist for Time — until the magazine started rejecting pieces she wrote on poverty, inequality, and capital punishment. She has written or coauthored twelve books.

Ehrenreich lives alone near Key West, Florida. She is immensely proud of her two children: Rosa, who teaches at the University of Virginia School of Law, and Ben, a talented freelance journalist who often writes for LA Weekly. In addition to public speaking and the monthly column she writes for the Progressive, Ehrenreich is now at work on a book about the role of communal festivities in social and political movements. “What is drastically missing from our culture,” she says, “although some of us might glimpse it in sporting events and rock concerts, are the regular occasions when you are lifted out of yourself in some kind of joyous community feeling.”

When I visited with Ehrenreich in mid-August, she was staying with her daughter, son-in-law, and seven-month-old grandchild outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. A thunderstorm crashed outside, and after we had finished talking, she loaned me her raincoat and treated me to a movie.


Passaro: What surprised you most during your months of low-wage work?

Ehrenreich: It was a surprise to me how challenging these jobs were. I was expecting that I would be doing dull, repetitive work, that I would be bored out of my mind. Instead I was struggling all the time, physically and mentally, to master these jobs. At Wal-Mart I had to memorize the locations of hundreds of clothing items so I could put everything back in its exact place. In the nursing home I had about fifteen minutes to learn the names and dietary requirements of thirty patients. It took all the concentration I had. So I no longer use the word unskilled to describe any job.

Passaro: How do you think your experience would have been different if you were a man?

Ehrenreich: A lot of low-wage jobs are really for either sex now because, as heavy industry declines, the “masculine” jobs of the past are not there anymore. There are men working at Wal-Mart and in restaurants and in nursing homes. The only difference for me is that a man probably would not have been as fearful as I was about living in a creepy residential motel with no privacy or security. That’s when it struck me that I was a woman far from home in a dangerous situation.

To admit that large numbers of people are systematically held back is hard, because it means upward mobility is not an option for everybody. But that’s the way it is. There are just too many things pressing poor people down, keeping them where they are.

Passaro: In one of the restaurants where you worked, an immigrant dishwasher whom you had befriended was accused of stealing from the storage room, and the manager threatened to fire him. Even though you suspected the dishwasher hadn’t taken anything, you didn’t speak up for him. What did you learn from that?

Ehrenreich: I didn’t feel good about it, but I don’t know that I could have done anything. The heroic ideal would have been to drop my cover and get the guy a lawyer. But a lawyer couldn’t have helped him. You have no rights on a job. Anybody can be fired on suspicion of anything. I could have said to the manager, “Look, I’ve gotten to know George, and I can’t believe that he would’ve stolen something.” But why should the manager listen to me? I was only slightly above George in that hierarchy.

Passaro: What are some other ways that workers have no rights?

Ehrenreich: Their privacy is constantly being invaded with drug testing and other forms of surveillance. And it’s not just low-wage workers. More and more workers of all types are being spied on by cameras on the job. I think drug testing is completely unjustified if you’re not driving a school bus or an airplane. I was warned by a co-worker at one job that I had to be careful what I had in my purse because the manager could search it any time it was on their property. If you’re a white-collar or pink-collar worker and you use e-mail, it’s probably being read. Some firms monitor the websites people visit on their lunch hours, which is nobody’s business. They might be trying to get help for a health problem they don’t want to talk to their employer about.

What we need is a civil-rights movement for workers. They’re not treated with dignity. They’re not treated with respect. They don’t have elementary forms of privacy. They can be fired for having a funny look on their face.

Passaro: You wrote that this person you became while working at Wal-Mart could have been you if your father had not gotten out of the mines in Montana. This person was meaner than you and “not as smart as I had hoped.” How close were you to being this person?

Ehrenreich: Closer than you might think. My sister has a college degree and is very bright and quick-minded, yet she has spent most of her working life in the pink-collar ghetto, as a telephone business agent. So education and intelligence don’t guarantee you a professional position in life.

It’s a mystery to me how my sister and I ended up with such different lives. My family was upwardly mobile and went through quite a few social classes in the course of my growing up, but I was always aware of cousins, aunts, and uncles who remained blue-collar people. It wasn’t until I got to college that I became aware of the real upper classes. I saw then that I didn’t come from the same background as many of the other students. The house I grew up in always had books, but there were aspects of the culture that I had never encountered. I had never had the slightest exposure to chamber music, for example. I really tried to look interested, but . . . [Laughs.]

Passaro: When you went back to your middle-class life after working low-wage jobs, how were you different?

Ehrenreich: I was more impatient with affluent people who don’t see these problems or who aren’t particularly interested and brush them off. That attitude became distasteful to me when I encountered it in the social world. There have been cocktail parties I decided not to attend for that reason. Fortunately, most of my friends, whether middle-class or upper-middle-class, don’t fit that description and are working for change in some way.

Passaro: Why do you think class inequality is such a taboo subject in the mainstream media?

Ehrenreich: It undercuts the American myth that anybody can become rich, that it’s just a matter of personal ability and determination. There’s a greater openness to talking about class in European countries with a feudal heritage. Where you once had an aristocracy, it’s hard to get away from the idea that there are different classes. We don’t have that inherited aristocracy, and so we like to tell ourselves that everybody is equal. To admit that large numbers of people are systematically held back is hard, because it means upward mobility is not an option for everybody. But that’s the way it is. There are just too many things pressing poor people down, keeping them where they are.

There was some increased awareness of class in the early sixties, with the “discovery” of poverty, but then poverty got undiscovered sometime in the nineties. Journalist James Fallows says the poor have become “invisiblized” in our society. They’re given very little mention in the news and entertainment media. You just don’t hear about them. The media system is fed by corporate advertising, and advertisers want “good demographics” — that is, they want to reach mostly the upper middle class.

I also blame affluent people who are smug and self-satisfied and don’t want to notice the world around them. The upper classes have withdrawn from the public realm: They don’t use public parks, public schools, or public transportation. Some don’t even live on public roads. It was very different in the mid-twentieth century, when there was some truth behind the idea that we were all one big middle class. That has been disrupted by class polarization — the increasing wealth of the rich and the decline of the middle class.

Big businesses are against welfare because it might pay people — or at least single mothers — enough [to] say no to the job market. . . . But big businesses don’t come out and say this. Instead they express concern that welfare is undermining the work ethic.

Passaro: The media played an important role in the civil-rights movement. Why don’t they play a larger role in the workers’-rights movement?

Ehrenreich: Again, being beholden to corporate advertisers has some effect. Corporate advertisers are concerned about placing ads in a “good editorial environment.” They don’t want their advertisement right across from an article on how workers of the world should unite and overthrow their capitalist bosses. There would be complaints. I’m not saying it’s monolithic, but the drift, the trend, is: don’t offend the big-money guys.

It also has to do with the class background of journalists themselves. A couple of generations ago, journalism was a blue-collar occupation. Today we have the idea that journalists are celebrities — people with pretty faces who read the news on TV and get a million dollars a year. Inside journalism schools I hear complaints that a career in journalism is out of the reach of the lower classes. Two factors are the high cost of tuition at journalism school — which can be thirty thousand dollars a year — and the fact that to break into journalism you often have to intern for free at some publication. Now, who can work for free unless their parents are supporting them?

Of course, my son has been quite successful as a journalist, and he didn’t go to journalism school. He also didn’t intern, because I couldn’t afford to support him while he did. But it’s unusual for someone like him to get in. There’s not enough being done to make it easier for people from other classes and races than the dominant ones to enter the field.

Passaro: Many editors claim the middle class isn’t interested in reading about poverty or the working poor. So why did Nickel and Dimed grab the attention of the media and the middle-class people who are presumably reading it?

Ehrenreich: One reason is that Nickel and Dimed is very personal and subjective, not preachy. It’s not about the poor in general. It’s just about me trying to survive. So people who are completely unfamiliar with the world of low-wage work can see it through the eyes of someone who is somewhat like them.

Also, writing subjectively in the first person freed me to be funny. If I were writing about other people’s miseries and hard work and suffering, I would not be funny. I would be lugubrious. But writing about my own trials, I can be as silly or as whimsical as I want.

Passaro: Do you think Americans are more sensitive to the plight of the working poor after all the media coverage of corporate misbehavior?

Ehrenreich: No, because the emphasis has been on the investors as victims. There’s not enough reporting on the routine corporate lawbreaking that affects primarily workers. I think Wal-Mart belongs on the list of corrupt corporations — alongside Enron, WorldCom, et al. — for its practice of making people work past the end of their shift and not paying them for it. That’s corporate crime. It’s not as stunning in terms of dollars, but it means a tremendous amount to the people it affects.

Passaro: What about this so-called romance the middle class has these days with certain blue-collar workers, such as miners and firefighters?

Ehrenreich: It’s very touching, but unfortunately it’s undercut by political reality. A few weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush was demanding more tax cuts for the rich as part of an “economic stimulus” package. And the airlines’ $15 billion bailout didn’t include a cent for laid-off airline workers.

Passaro: Frances Fox Piven, the political scientist and sociologist — and friend of yours — has pointed out that two-parent families are working four months per year more than they were twenty years ago. What effect has this had on their families and their communities?

Ehrenreich: It’s terrible for them personally. The ultimate effect on the country is that it undermines the possibility for democracy, because you can’t have a democracy unless you have an engaged and informed citizenry. And you can’t be an engaged and informed citizen if you are working two jobs or you get home from work and immediately have to do all the household chores. To be a participant in the real sense, you have to have some leisure time to read, to think, to talk with your neighbors.

My co-workers in the low-wage jobs I worked never talked about politics. I remember hotel housekeepers talking about how you couldn’t fall back on welfare anymore, but they didn’t connect that to welfare reform. The tragedy is that for so many low-wage working mothers, welfare was a sort of unemployment insurance. If you lost your job for some reason — typically because a child was sick and you had to miss a few days — you could go on welfare until you found another job. Now if those women lose a job, I don’t know what they do.

Last spring, Frances Piven and I interviewed women who had gone from welfare, to work, to unemployment, and it’s a desperate situation. Sometimes they can get food stamps or some other kind of very temporary aid or assistance, but a lot of them were talking about skipping meals. There’s no mechanism to track what the effects of welfare reform have been on families — and it’s primarily children we’re talking about. When you listen to the rhetoric of welfare reform, you hardly ever hear any mention of the children, although they are two-thirds of the actual recipients. It’s always about the mother and what we can do to “straighten her out” or “give her back her self-respect.” And the answer is: she’s got to take whatever job she can find.

Passaro: Studies show that former welfare recipients who have completed two- and four-year degrees earn higher wages and report higher levels of family well-being after graduation. Yet welfare reform emphasizes low-wage work over postsecondary education and punishes recipients for going back to school by taking their money away.

Ehrenreich: It’s hard to get information, because it’s different from state to state, but Frances Piven estimates that tens of thousands of women have had to leave two- and four-year colleges as a result of welfare reform.

Big businesses are against welfare because it might pay people — or at least single mothers — enough that they could say no to the job market. And when you’re able to turn down a job because the pay is too low or the conditions are too dangerous or whatever, it puts an upward pressure on wages. Removing the welfare safety net forces everybody into the job market on whatever terms the employers want to impose. But big businesses don’t come out and say this. Instead they express concern that welfare is undermining the work ethic.

A lot of people come up to me and say, “I’ll never go to Wal-Mart again.” Well, terrific. So you go to a nice little boutique, which also pays its retail clerks seven dollars an hour and maybe gets its very expensive clothes from sweatshops, too.

Passaro: A full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour would earn $10,712 a year — more than a thousand dollars below the poverty level for a family of two. The Economic Policy Institute in Washington has proposed that a realistic budget for an average family of three is thirty thousand dollars a year. Why is the federal poverty line so low?

Ehrenreich: The way they calculate poverty was devised in the early sixties and based on the notion that most people spend a third of their earnings on food — which was not true even then. Nevertheless, the reasoning went that if you calculated how much money people spent on food and multiplied that number by three, you would have the poverty-level wage. And that’s what they’ve been doing ever since. The problem is that food prices have been pretty resistant to inflation, whereas housing and healthcare have shot through the roof. So the poverty level is completely misleading. Yet this nation keeps patting itself on the back, saying, “Look, our poverty level is only 12 percent.”

Census data shows that the number of single-mother-headed families in poverty has declined since welfare reform. But on average, these women are making seven dollars an hour, which is $14,560 a year before taxes. They may be above the poverty level, but they are no better off, because they probably lost food stamps and Medicaid and other benefits in the process. More and more it’s up to private charities and food pantries and churches to make up for the loss.

Passaro: Have any policymakers responded to Nickel and Dimed?

Ehrenreich: In the summer of 2001, when the hardcover first came out, there was a lot of interest among Democrats in Congress, and I’ve been invited several times to meet with them. I’d never had the ear of senators and congresspersons before. I thought, Wow. They all swore to do good things — at least to raise the minimum wage, which they haven’t done. Maybe September 11 is to blame. Maybe they never were planning to do anything. There are some terrific people in Congress, but I just don’t see any energy for social change among the leadership.

What we need is a civil-rights movement for workers. They’re not treated with dignity. They’re not treated with respect. They don’t have elementary forms of privacy. They can be fired for having a funny look on their face.

Passaro: You’ve said that you write about things that make you angry.

Ehrenreich: I write about things that I feel a passionate conviction about, and also about things that I’m curious about and want to understand. And I’m happiest when those two come together.

Passaro: I’ve known many people who went into journalism because they wanted social change, and then they learned how difficult it is to make a difference while cranking out stories at a local newspaper or TV station.

Ehrenreich: Journalism schools try to dispel that kind of idealism. Fortunately, I skipped journalism school, so nobody discouraged me. I started writing through involvement in various activist causes. I’ve never made much of a separation between writing and activism — which is not to say that I’m constantly sharpening the same ax. I love doing research on a subject I know little about. I love finding out about new things.

Passaro: At the end of Nickel and Dimed, you predict that someday workers will tire of getting paid such a small percentage of what they’re worth, and there will be strikes and disruption and anger.

Ehrenreich: I’m an old socialist. I always say that.

Passaro: Yet your co-workers in Nickel and Dimed were too worn out, or too preoccupied with child care or transportation, or just plain too intimidated by management to stand up for their rights.

Ehrenreich: Only dedicated organizing will prevent the unions from dying out. During the great wave of union organizing in the thirties, members of the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] saw themselves as part of a real crusade. They weren’t just out to increase union dues, but to change the lives of American workers. That’s one big difference between then and now.

Passaro: Do you think that we should boycott chain stores and restaurants that don’t pay a living wage?

Ehrenreich: And then where are you going to shop or eat? At an upscale restaurant where the busboys and the dishwashers still earn little above minimum wage and the coffee beans have been picked by children in Central America? A lot of people come up to me and say, “I’ll never go to Wal-Mart again.” Well, terrific. So you go to a nice little boutique, which also pays its retail clerks seven dollars an hour and maybe gets its very expensive clothes from sweatshops, too. You could pay two hundred dollars for a dress that some poor seamstress made five dollars for sewing. These problems are so widespread, it’s hard for me to see how boycotting a single business would help much.

That said, if a boycott were called on some particular business, and there were a focused campaign surrounding it, I would respect it. If somebody wanted to call for a boycott of Wal-Mart, for example, I could think of a lot of reasons to do it. They are vicious in their union-busting practices, and they destroy communities and small businesses.

Passaro: Where do you shop?

Ehrenreich: At the Gap. And, for good clothes, on Banana Republic’s sale racks. [Laughs.]

Passaro: I feel guilty wherever I shop.

Ehrenreich: There’s no avoiding that guilt. What are you going to do? Weave your own cloth like Gandhi tried to do?

What we can do to help hardworking people trapped in poverty is fight for increasing social benefits, universal health insurance, and a universal child-care subsidy. We can demand that cities build affordable housing rather than demolishing it or gentrifying it. Another possibility would be to tell the courts to get serious about enforcing the law against firing people for union activity. That’s the law, but it’s not enforced. You could also join the living-wage movement, which is using whatever leverage it has to convince individual cities to raise wages.

There are so many possibilities. I don’t know strategically what makes the most sense. I do know there’s not a lot coming from Washington, so probably it does make more sense to go the local route, like the living-wage movement [www.living-wagecampaign.org].

Passaro: Education is often seen as the best way to move people out of poverty, yet menial jobs are always going to exist. Does the nature of these jobs need to change?

Ehrenreich: The nature of all jobs needs to change, but that’s another issue. [Laughs.] I get a little annoyed when someone says, “What’s wrong with these people? Why don’t they get an education?” Well, great, but then who’s going to take care of your elderly grandmother in the nursing home? Who’s going to wait on you when you go to a restaurant or a discount store? These are important jobs, jobs that need to be done, jobs that take intelligence and concentration and sometimes a great deal of compassion. Why don’t we just pay people decently for doing them?