Tess Vigeland: Ten years ago, author Barbara Ehrenreich released a book called “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.” It was a stunning portrayal of this country’s working class. Seen through her own eyes as she went undercover in minimum-wage jobs to document what it was like to live on those wages. A 10th anniversary edition is now on bookshelves and Barbara Ehrenreich joins us to talk about that decade. Welcome to the program.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Glad to be with you.
Vigeland: Let’s remind audiences that when this book came out, it was the height of the dot-com bubble, it was before 9/11. A very troubled decade economically since then. Talk to me a little bit about where this book fit into the zeitgeist at that point in time?
Ehrenreich: Well, at that point in time, there was a lot of sense that we have kind of conquered the business cycle, that we could only go up, up and up. So, I think what was surprising to many people about the book was here was a report on people who represent about a third of the American population, who are low-paid workers and who are not doing well in the best of times. Things that really shocked me were finding out that I was sometimes working alongside full-time workers who were homeless, who slept in their pick-up trucks or slept in their vans. People who didn’t get enough to eat. All this, while it was supposed to be peak prosperity.
Vigeland: So here we are 10 years later in a very different environment. Where do you think it would fit now if you published?
Ehrenreich: Well, I don’t know if I could do the same things that I did. Like going out and getting entry-level jobs, because that’s what I did. I would see a “now hiring” sign and I’d present myself and fill out the application form and have a job. I could really walk off the street. There aren’t those signs anymore. So it would not be possible to do the same thing today.
Vigeland: When you look around now at working families, similar to the ones that you basically hung out with for a good period of time, what do you see? Is there a difference?
Ehrenreich: Today? I think things are harder. Very striking that food and fuel costs have gone up so much. Fewer people have any access to medical care, not that a lot of my co-workers did 10 years ago. But now it’s one of the first things that people have to give up. You can’t hold onto that health insurance if it’s, say, $1,000 or $2,000 a month. So I see much more hardship today.
Vigeland: You say in the afterword that’s been updated for the 10th anniversary, that for a couple of years, you’ve been trying to gauge the plight of the working poor through some more traditional methods. You’re not doing the jobs again, but you are talking with people. What, if any, differences are you finding in either the experience or who you end up talking to?
Ehrenreich: Well, now, you’re likely to encounter entering the ranks of the poor more people who started out middle class, who may have higher degrees, may have a master’s degree and then were laid off. And they become a big part of the long-term unemployed. Because once you’re over say 45 or 50, nobody’s gonna wanna hire you. There’s also — this is something I think is more recent — employers do not want to hire unemployed people.
Vigeland: Yep, they’ve come out and said that.
Ehrenreich: Right. And we’ve seen that they, in growing numbers, I think it’s about 70 percent of employers now check your credit rating before hiring you. So, you’re not gonna have a good credit rating if you’ve been out of work for six months. So we’re creating a big category of people who are long-term unemployed and they’re really no longer part of the larger economy.
Vigeland: One criticism that you level at those of us in the media is our focus on what you call the “nouveau poor,” which I think you kinda just touched on now. The folks who were doing just fine before the financial collapse, but who are now leading very different lives. Where do you think the focus should be?
Ehrenreich: Well, I think it has to encompass both the nouveau poor and the chronically poor. There were for decades many prejudices about the chronically poor: They’re lazy, they’re promiscuous, they’re addicted. That’s why they’re poor.
Vigeland: And that’s one criticism that was leveled at you with the book, right? That you were profiling people who should be bootstrapping themselves.
Ehrenreich: Yeah, that I was perhaps not revealing all the terrible self-destructive habits that had caused these people to be poor. And whoever raises that question isn’t really facing up to the question, well, who is going to take care of grandma in a nursing home? But I think one of the things the existence of the nouveau poor should do, is undercut all those prejudices once and for all. It’s not a matter of something wrong with you individually if you fall into poverty.
Vigeland: When you published this book 10 years ago, I don’t know if you remember what was in your head at the time in terms of your expectations for 10 years down the line, what did you think a decade later would look like?
Ehrenreich: I was quite hopeful. Around the time the book came out, there was a growing movement for “a living wage,” that if you work, you should earn enough to live on at some kind of minimal level. So that spirit was growing, up until — what should I call it now? — the first financial crash, the crash in ’07 and ’08.
Vigeland: The financial crisis.
Ehrenreich: Yeah. Do we have to start numbering them now? I don’t know. There was that sense. And then once the recession began, that whole conversation shut down. The line became “you’re lucky to have any job, so just shut up and do it.”
Vigeland: Not where we expected to be.
Ehrenreich: Not where I expected to be. No.
Vigeland: Barbara Ehrenreich, thank you for coming in.
Ehrenreich: My pleasure.
Vigeland: Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.” We’ve been talking with her about the 10th anniversary re-issue of her seminal tale of the working poor “Nickel and Dimed.”
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