From Dana's Guests

Labor These Days: The Work and Message of Barbara Ehrenreich

More and more people are finding it near impossible to survive in a country with such tremendous resources. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening at an alarming pace. While some of its citizens reside in multiple luxury homes, and enjoy the influence that comes with having more, America has yet to effectively acknowledge and deal with the fact that far too many of its other citizens are slipping faster and faster into a world of barely surviving. Having to choose between food and gas, medicine or mortgage, is no longer “the thing that only happens to other people”. People that, at one time felt, they were somehow in the game, are having to deal with the sobering realization that the rules have suddenly changed.

This is America’s dirty little secret...

Barbara Ehrenreich has certainly earned the credibility to speak on this subject the hard way. Going undercover to investigate what it’s like for America’s working poor and the shrinking middle-class, she has lived the nightmare of trying to make it on inadequate wages. She has discovered, first-hand, the painful reality that is often too difficult and shameful to deal with. Together in a conversation with Bill Moyers, she exposes the dirt that continues to be swept under the carpet.


Barbara Ehrenreich


ANNOUNCER: From our studio in New York, Bill Moyers.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to The Journal. You have to wonder: Once Rupert Murdoch actually takes control of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, will he allow the paper's crack investigative reporters to keep exposing the other predators in town. Look at this story in last Friday's JOURNAL. Reporter Ianthe Jeanne Dugan, describes how the pirates of private equity at Blackstone Group, here in New York, bought a travel reservation company in Colorado, and immediately laid off 841 people. In one swoop, Blackstone and its partner, recouped their entire investments in just seven months. One of the quickest returns on capital for a deal like this, ever. Just by firing people, the fat cats made a killing, while ordinary workers in the trenches were buried alive. Dugan tells of those fired workers selling their homes to make ends meet, going without health insurance, making sandwiches and coffee in part-time jobs. While back in New York the Blackstone Chief Executive, Stephen Schwarzman, who is worth more than $5 billion, celebrates the Colorado massacre in his 35 room Manhattan apartment.

Barbara Ehrenreich has been writing about these issues about inequality in America for years now as one of our foremost independent journalists. When she reports, Ehreneich steps into the real-life shoes of the people she's writing about. For this bestselling book, NICKEL AND DIMED, Barbara Ehrenreich spent months working as a waitress, a cleaning woman, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk, among other low-wage jobs. And tried to make ends meet for $7 an hour. A recent film THE AMERICAN RULING CLASS, finds her in a diner talking about how the other half really lives....

BARBARA EHRENREICH: From the first day I started working here I've been running. And first, I was running around after Gail, she's another waitress here.

GAIL: Okay, Barb, can you take the pancakes to 63?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: It's so much - it's overwhelming. I can't even think about the fact that I may be too tired to get out to the parking lot by the end of the day.

BILL MOYERS:For BAIT AND SWTICH, she went undercover in the disappearing world of the middle class, posing as a white collar job seeker. Recently, in a departure, she's published a different kind of book. DANCING IN THE STREETS: A HISTORY OF COLLECTIVE JOY. Welcome to The Journal.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Great to be with you, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: You've been writing about it, but the-- THE ECONOMIST MAGAZINE-

The Economist says "A growing body of evidence suggests that the meritocratic ideal is in trouble in America. Income inequality is going to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. America is increasingly looking like Imperial Britain, with ...a gap right in between the people who make decisions and shape the culture, and the vast major of ordinary working stiffs." I mean, even The Economist said, "We're becoming a European style class-based society."


Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy
January 2007
Metropolitan Books

In the acclaimed Blood Rites, Barbara Ehrenreich delved into the origins of our species’ attraction to war. Here, she explores the opposite impulse, one that has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a term for it: the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in ecstatic revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing.

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
Paperback now available!
Metropolitan Books

Bait and Switch highlights the people who’ve done everything right -- gotten college degrees, developed marketable skills, and built up impressive résumés -- yet have become repeatedly vulnerable to financial disaster, and not simply due to the vagaries of the business cycle.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
May 2001
Metropolitan Books

Millions of Americans work for poverty-level wages, and one day Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 to $7 an hour?

Click here for more information on these and other books by Barbara Ehrenreich.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, I would say, not a European style. But a third world style. You know, that we are more-- we are the most-- class divided of the industrialized countries, the most polarized. You know, we're-- in a-- in a different rank from-- France, or Germany, or-- or Britain, where there's actually more social mobility, more upward mobility in than there is - what we're coming to resemble, is something more like Brazil, which has always had its wealthy, wealthy people, and then has extremely poor people.

BILL MOYERS: The first book of yours I read was, FEAR OF FALLING: THE INNER LIFE OF THE MIDDLE CLASS. And that was before the safety net was-- was-- where it was fraying. The loss of pensions, the loss of insurance, the loss of upward mobility. How do you measure the pain of the middle class in America today?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Some of the things are hard to get an exact-- fix on. Unemployment is low. And yet, you were just mentioning the people laid off, you know, when a hedge fund or a private equity firm comes in and takes over your company, and decides to squeeze it for profits. Those people get laid off, but they get jobs. You mentioned the-- woman-- working in--

BILL MOYERS: Part-time.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: --working-- she works part-time making sandwiches-- probably in the $7 to $9 or less-- range of pay. Now, she's counted as employed. So, she doesn't-- she-- that pain is not going to show up in the unemployment statistics. White collar people are driven out of their jobs, churned out of their jobs by the re-organizations-- by mergers, by-- buy out. They'll-- you know, after a few months, they'll take something. But it will usually be at a lot less pay than they got. The majority of people get laid off, you know, come out at a lot lower pay. But if they get anything, they're counted as employed.

BILL MOYERS: You know ever since I-- I read, NICKEL AND DIMED, I wanted-- I wanted to ask you, how do these women, like the maids? You became one. Like the waitresses, you became one. How do they keep going, day in and day out?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Bills to pay, things like that. I mean, to not see a lot of alternatives when you are just faced with expenses. That you have to keep moving, to keep a roof over your head, or to feed your children. And even-- you know, I would keep thinking, "Hm, I should look for another job." You know, the typical middle class, like, "Well, I should look for something better," you know. And then, I began to figure out, if you're paid very little, it could be a disaster to change jobs. Because you might have to go one, two, three weeks without any paycheck at all. And that's not doable. There was one woman who said something to me that was so poignant. I-- you know, it's-- it's painful to repeat. She said, speaking of her hopes for the future, she said, "My big wish would be to have a job, which were-- if I missed work one day, like for-- if I have this one-- a child home sick or something, I would still be able to buy groceries the next day." And I thought, yeah, that's-- that's quite a hope.

BILL MOYERS: You know, when you write and talk this way, don't people call you a Marxist?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: They can call me anything, but--

BILL MOYERS: And the Wall Street Journal says, "You're trying to-- trying to stoke a class war." I mean, that's a knock on this kind of reporting isn't it?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah, well, look, I didn't start the class war that's being gone on here. The class war that's been coming from the side of the extremely wealthy. It-- you know, it's been happening for a while. But it's a class war which has been very one-sided. Unions are weak in our country. They should be leading, you know, the charge against this. But the squeezing of people on-- wages and then on benefits and that's a big thing in the middle class too, you know, that your health insurance package shrinks, your pension is gone. College tuitions are rising. You know, that kind of squeeze-- this is not-- this has not been enough fight back.

BILL MOYERS: I know you gave the-- you gave the commencement at Haverford . And your last line in that commencement speech in May was, "Go out and raise some hell." What do we do about it? I mean, what practically can people do about this issue?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, I think the first thing is to remember that there are, you know, ways that people can-- of making change by working together. You know, we-- we sort of lose that idea. That this-- this American culture has been full of wonderful examples of people working together-- collectively is the old word-- to make change. The Civil Rights Movement, it wasn't just a couple of, you know, superstars like Martin Luther King. It was thousands and thousands, millions I should say, of people taking risks, becoming leaders in their community. The Women's movement, you know, it wasn't only Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan . It was again, millions of women coming together and saying, "We're-- we're going to make change here. We're going to march. We're going to demand different legislation

BILL MOYERS: You know, you have been not only a journalist but an activist. I mean, I've seen you marching with poor people in Michigan-- and demonstrating with immigrants. why did you decide to cross the line between explaining the world and trying to change the world?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: I can't really distinguish these things. If I get incensed about some injustice, you can't make me-- I will not just going to sit at my desk, at my computer all the time. I-- I might want to march out on that. And there's another interesting thing to me. I learn a lot in those situations. A year ago I was at the picket line of-- janitors at University of Miami. And these were-- janitors were earning $6 and change. And now they were on a hunger strike. And I listened to them. You know, I took notes. And that's part of me as a journalist.

BILL MOYERS: A janitor, I understand, is the fastest growing job in America, right?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: It is. And that's something to think about when we're told, "Oh, don't worry about the-- the class polarization in America and the shrinking middle class and things like that." There's-- you just have to get an education to get ahead. Get an education to get ahead when the fastest growing jobs have been in things like janitorial services and food services and, you know, home health aides.

BILL MOYERS: Is there any hope that politics in 2008 will address these issues of rising inequality?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: I think that it can't be avoided. You know, even four years ago it was easier to avoid. But now, you know, we've had so many fairly centrist, even conservative-- people beginning to blow the whistle of alarm on this. You quoted THE ECONOMIST. Well, Larry Summers , certainly no--

BILL MOYERS: Former President of--


BILL MOYERS: --Harvard.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: --and an economist, you know, he has begun to say, "Well, there's something really wrong here." It's-- you know, it's not just-- John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich-- anymore. This is something that-- you know, it's too much in our face now.

BILL MOYERS: You know, it-- Oscar Wilde, I think it was, said, "It's the mark of a truly educated person to be deeply moved by statistics." You are very educated. Let me read you a statistic and you tell me if this moves you and why. Since 1979, the share of pretax income going to the top one percent of American households has risen by seven percent points to 16 percent. At the same time the share of income going to the bottom 80 percent has fallen by seven percentage points. What does that say to you, that statistic?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: The polarization is accelerating. The people at the top are getting an ever-greater share of the wealth. And, you know, again, the question is well, what's wrong with that? And I would say-- they're in a better position to compete for things like real estate, housing, et cetera. They're also--

BILL MOYERS: They drive everybody's prices.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah, they're also in a better position to control the-- electoral process, the political process.

BILL MOYERS: Contributions to candidates, right?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah, I mean, there-- you were talking about families who can buy a Congressman or households that can buy a Congressman compared to households that can barely put dinner on the table. You know, that-- that is the-- the kind of--

--we don't have democracy anymore.

BILL MOYERS: That's-- that's the par-- you don't have democracy?


BILL MOYERS: That's the paradox is that if they contribute so much to the political candidates, these candidates can not really talk about working class issues. Because they're obliged financially to the handful of people relative who support their campaign.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, this is what I think-- some of us have been saying to-- at least to the Democratic candidates for a while is, "You know, cut that bond. Cut that bond to the wealthy. And feel-- you know, try being a populist. Try going for the numbers. we don't have the money on our side. We have the numbers of people. And you know, we-- that's-- there's a difference. That top one percent may have all-- a huge disproportionate share of wealth but their numbers are small. We still count. Well, I-- I was going to say we still count votes. I hope we still count votes here.

BILL MOYERS: Why has this become so important? I mean, I-- know that you majored in science. You went to Rockefeller University and doing graduate working with cell biology as your-- as your focus. How did you then start getting involved with poor people?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Huh, well, it partly has to do with my own personal family background-- having come from a blue collar family that was quite poor when I was born and remaining even as my father-- became upwardly mobile and bringing us with him so that I was able to go to college. But, you know, remaining embedded in a expended-- extended family and-- and social network that always had-- and has a lot of people who are struggling in it. So I could never get away from that.

BILL MOYERS: But did science teach you anything about looking into these problems, looking into--

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah, well of course, I think everybody should get a Ph.D. in science. (LAUGHTER)

BILL MOYERS: Do you have a PhD?


BILL MOYERS: In-- in cell biology?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: I-- exactly, right.

BILL MOYERS: What did you bring from that to journalism?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: To me it was sort of a natural. Because science is about asking questions, getting to the bottom of things, investigating. And so I-- I immediately took to investigative journalism which was the first kind of-- journalism I did.

BILL MOYERS: Finally, a real change for you, your last book, DANCING IN THE STREET, A HISTORY OF COLLECTIVE JOY. Why did that intrigue you and what did you learn about collective joy?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: I'm interested in what bonds people together. You know, what brings us together in good ways? And there's not a lot known about that. We-- we spend a lot of time, scholarly time, thinking about love and sex but very little about the-- the kind of joy that can take over a crowd of people or a group of people, in festivity, in ecstatic ritual of some kind, in celebration. So, that drove me into this. Because I think we have to recapture that joy if we are going to make positive change together.

BILL MOYERS: Barbara Ehrenreich, DANCING IN THE STREETS, your latest book and many others. Thank you for joining us on the Journal.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Oh, my pleasure.


Excerpted from her most recent blog entry:

Truckers Protest, The Resistance Begins

Until the beginning of this month, Americans seemed to have nothing to say about their ongoing economic ruin except, “Hit me! Please, hit me again!” You can take my house, but let me mow the lawn for you one more time before you repossess. Take my job and I’ll just slink off somewhere out of sight. Oh, and take my health insurance too; I can always fall back on Advil....

Click here to visit Barbara's Blog and read the rest of her April 7th entry...

Head back to the top.