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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Incorruptible Observer: Barbara Ehrenreich

Bob Herbert "Herbert's Heroes"
Oct. 14, 2005
The Incorruptible Observer: Barbara Ehrenreich

Long before the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, the writer Barbara Ehrenreich was saying that the poor needed to be more visible. “We have to do much more to dramatize poverty,” she said, “and make it something the politicians can’t look away from. It’s too easy right now for the poor to blend in.”

Ehrenreich is the author of the phenomenal best-seller "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," and a new book, "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."

I have long admired her willingness to dodge the easy stories and go after the corrosion beneath the smiley-face veneer of America that is so often presented by politicians, corporations and the mainstream media. Over the past couple of decades, a time when most affluent Americans had turned completely away from the subject of poverty, Ehrenreich was learning as much as she could about it. She has used the term “state of emergency” to characterize the precarious existence of millions of poor Americans.

In “Nickel and Dimed,” Ehrenreich took a series of low-paying jobs in an effort to answer the question: “How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?” The experience, at times, was harrowing. “My guess,” she said at one point in the book, “is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers — the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being ‘reamed out’ by managers — are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you are actually worth.”

It’s not just the poor, however. Ehrenreich reminds us that even in the mighty middle class, so often lionized as the epitome of all things good in America, all is not well. In “Bait and Switch,” she tackles the problem of the white-collar unemployed. These are the men and women who have done everything right — gotten a good education, worked hard, and developed what they believed were marketable skills — only to find themselves the hapless victims of downsizing, right-sizing, outsourcing, whatever.

To compile the material for “Bait and Switch,” Ehrenreich used her maiden name and went off in search of a job in public relations. She assumed that finding a job would be tough, which is why she was writing the book. But it was tougher than she imagined. Chapter 5 begins:

“I came home to the realization that my trip [to Atlanta], which cost me more than $1,000, airfare included, netted me little more than a lip pencil, a tube of foundation, and a handful of business cards. In fact, I am almost four months into my search — a point at which I expected to be running from interview to interview. The daffodils are fighting their way up in my tiny front yard and my cash reserves have sunk by almost $4,000, but I am not noticeably any closer to employment than when I started back in December.”

Ehrenreich’s work is a critique of society that keeps in mind that most Americans are ordinary people struggling with the not-so-easy task of putting a decent life together. What they don’t need is the constant threat of abuse and exploitation from those who are far wealthier, more powerful and much better connected — the insiders, the giant corporations, and the government officials who see themselves as rulers rather than representatives.

The powerful can look out for themselves. Ehrenreich’s writing over the years has urged us to keep in mind that a primary mission of the society is to look out for the integrity and the dignity of those who are not so powerful.

Last year Ehrenreich received the $100,000 Puffin/Nation Prize for her sustained commitment to social justice. “Barbara Ehrenreich urges us to remember there is a widening gap between the values this country was founded on and the values we present to the world today,” said Perry Rosenstein, president of the Puffin Foundation. “She encourages us to think of those of us who carry more than their fair share of the burden, and inspires us to do more to help the many Americans who are struggling.”

Hamilton Fish, president of the Nation Institute, recently told me: “Obviously, we wanted to honor her body of work, but also in this interlude of co-opted mainstream media we wanted to offer her as the model of journalistic independence. She’s the humane, inquisitive, incorruptible observer.”


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