There's a story Barbara Ehrenreich likes to tell. She was having lunchsalmon and field greenswith the editor of a major magazine, pitching a story about women and poverty. The editor was bored as hell, and finallyover decaf espressoshe surrendered, exasperated. "Oh, all right, Barbara," he conceded. "Do your poverty thing. Just make it upscale." As an activist scribe, Ehrenreich has spent years writing essays bemoaning the middle class's definition of poverty and its ignorance of low-wage America, perhaps most famously in Fear of Falling (1989). She was hardly surprised by the editor's response. "Magazine and newspaper people are concerned, of course, about their demographic for advertisers. They don't want to be the favorite of forklift operators; they don't want to be a bummer for yuppies," she explains.
To research and write her latest book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 221 pp., $23), Ehrenreich wondered how "the roughly 4 million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform were going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour." At the behest of Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, she diverged from her usual statistically based opinion pieces, and wrote, for the first time, a first-person account of her experiences in the low-wage workforce.
Ehrenreich worked a total of six jobs over three months, sometimes putting in seven days a week. In Key West, she worked in two restaurants serving burgers, and when these jobs didn't pay the bills, she added a shift cleaning motel rooms. In Portland, Maine, she scrubbed McMansions for a corporate outfit that paid $6.63 an hour and worked in a nursing home. In Minneapolis, she joined the ranks of workers refolding White Stag couture for the nation's largest employer, Wal-Mart. Though Ehrenreich's circumstances were surely a best-case scenariono children to support, the benefits of good health care, and white skinshe still failed to make ends meet.
In print, Ehrenreich's voice booms. Add to that the physical duress she endured in each of her six jobs and you'd expect her to be a towering, sinewy mass, a Xena of the progressive intellectual community. It's surprising, then, to see this slim, unassuming woman dwarfed by a huge vinyl booth at Times Square's Roxy Delicatessen. It's painful to imagine this near-60-year-old on her hands and knees, scrubbing a kitchen floorlet alone the women she writes about who labor while pregnant or while suffering from malnutrition.
It is also awkward to sympathize with this woman, whose "struggle" was the intentional product of upper-middle-class tourism, no matter how well-intentioned. But Ehrenreich's childhood saw the collars in her family turn from blue to white, and her autobiographical introspection throughout the book delivers a compelling narrative thread. Ehrenreich's father was a copper miner in Butte, Montana, who managed to earn a doctorate and join the professional-managerial class. Here is Ehrenreich musing on her assumed downward mobility: "Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you're left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real, if her father hadn't managed to climb out of the minesshe's meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I hoped." Strangely, outside of a push for unions (she aborted a brief attempt to organize antilabor Wal-Mart during her tenure) and an insistence that the employer class feel "shame," Ehrenreich offers no way to fix the broken and hideous labor machine she describes.
This is a more personal Ehrenreich, one who describes herself as "deeply, deeply angry" as she stabs away at her chicken salad. It was her rage about Vietnam that yanked her out of the sciences (she has a Ph.D. in biology) and into activist writing. Pain and suffering have always enraged her: "So much of it is totally unnecessary and artificially generated by stupid social arrangements which are benefiting a few through the completely gratuitous torment of others," she says. While working low-wage jobs, she was subjected to demeaning drug and personality tests, and ordered to obey rules that forbid talking at Wal-Mart or having a sip of water while cleaning someone's houseall life-as-we-know-it for the bulk of American workers. "The low-wage workplace is a dictatorship," she says, "and that was a rude shock."
A waitress at Brooklyn's St. Clair diner thinks this might be the most important revelation of Ehrenreich's book. "I've worked in places like the Carnegie Deli," says Camille, who declined to give her last name, "where we had the rules like no talking to the kitchen [staff], dehumanizing conditions, endless shifts. People need to know."
Nevertheless, it's frustrating that Ehrenreich doesn't offer any proposals as she has in the past. In a recent New York Times magazine piece she lamented that "the mobility of workers, combined with the weakness of unions, means that there is little or no sustained on-site challenge to overbearing authority." Her solution? "What we need is nothing less than a new civil rights movementthis time, for American workers." A vague and hardly unique pronouncement, but one that along with her book has started her phone ringing with calls from progressive lobbyists in Washington. There's been talk of Ehrenreich appearing before a progressive caucus hearing. "I don't usually think about rushing to Congress, but why not," she says with a sly smile.
Her most directed jab at the upper middle class came in an essay for Harper's, "Maid to Order," which called for an end to the "servant economy" and passionately condemned anyone employing domestic cleaning helpa denunciation that allegedly had listservs like Fem-Econ abuzz with outrage, and critics like Judith Shulevitz, then at Slate, up in arms. "Greater numbers of women are getting to do what they want to do, and Ehrenreich wants them to give it up and tend to their homes. Luckily, there's not a chance in hell they'll listen to her," she wrote in a column entitled "Barbara Ehrenreich, Enemy of Labor."
But Ehrenreich has plenty of supporters, from The New York Times Book Review, which anointed her "our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism," to the workers she writes about, like Becky, who makes 50 bucks a day waiting tables at the St. Clair. "Who works this job and has the time or the energy to write about it for the other side?" Becky says.
Energy is something Ehrenreich seems to have in excess, maintained by a career freelancer's zeal to be constantly pushing toward the next project (in this case, a book debunking welfare reform with Francis Fox Piven) and, of course, the fuel of outrage. "I'm permanently pissed off about a zillion things, but the trick is to be sustained by a slow-burning, purifying rage without letting it eat you up," she says, with a thank-you nod to the waitress who arrives to refill her iced tea. "Go read the Old Testament! Those prophets aren't sitting around saying 'have a nice day.' There are role models where anger is a source for social change." It will be interesting to see just what sort of specific social change Ehrenreich eventually recommends when, as she writes, "the strikes and disruption" come, when millions of American low-wage workers "tire of getting so little in return." Haven't they already?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.