Barbara Ehrenreich — who died this September at age 81 — was a renowned American writer. Ehrenreich was well known for writing Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, which was published in 2001.
It’s a first-person account of Ehrenreich’s time “going undercover” to work at Walmart. Rather than studying poverty from a distance, Ehrenreich took a low wage job. She wrote from a bird’s eye view, knowing the closer she could get to the story, the more accurately she could portray the life of an average low wage worker.
Nickel and Dimed inspired a new field of anti-poverty writing and journalism, challenging the questions we asked about the so-called have-nots. Instead of asking why they can’t work harder, it begged questions like: How does it feel to be unable to make ends meet? How does poverty limit your opportunities? And how severely are the odds stacked against the poor?
There were already sociologists and economists whose work had proven poverty was usually the result of structural barriers, not individual choices. But often their approach was dry, using statistics over narratives to make their point. Ehrenreich took their research to a whole new experiential level by writing a book that unpacked what hardship was like day in and out — showing rather than telling the story.
Nickel and Dimed encouraged America to stop looking at those in poverty like “the other.” Asking readers instead to put yourself in their shoes sympathetically, empathetically and intellectually. After reading her blow by blow account of how bad it really is for the have-nots, more Americans might be open to transformative solutions that get at the systemic issues of poverty.
Humanizing the face of poverty can galvanize support for programs like nutritional assistance, affordable housing, and universal childcare. It makes the national conscience readier to admit to the national failings as well as federal solutions to turn things around. It’s why I use storytelling and poetry in my own social justice work.
It’s for Ehrenreich’s contributions to economic justice in her books and public appearances, as well as for becoming a benefactor to other writers through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) — which she founded to support magazine pieces addressing poverty — that her death inspired many tributes.
Amy Goodman aired a tribute to Ehrenreich on her Democracy Now broadcast. The broadcast features a clip of Ehrenreich speaking.
“The mainstream media’s theory of poverty, which they can’t help but come back to, is that it is a character failure. It is manifested by laziness, or promiscuity, or addiction. Well, there is an alternative theory of poverty that it’s caused by the pathetically low wages so many Americans earn,” says Ehrenreich, laying out the hypocrisy of mainstream stereotypes with a matter-of-factness that makes the audience laugh.
The broadcast also features Ehrenreich’s close collaborator and now Executive Director of EHRP, Alyssa Quart, talking about the project. She explains its mission is two-fold: On one hand, it funds professional writers to research poverty. On the other hand, it funds writers who are in hardship to write about their own experiences. The latter includes writers who may have substantial journalistic experience, and some who don’t, but they each have a story to tell about how poverty entrapped them. Their stories collectively affirm the reality that hardest working individuals and families can be ensnared by it.
When I think about her legacy, what most impresses me is that Ehrenreich did not criticize a situation without endeavoring to rectify it. She saw that poverty was a blindspot in mainstream media, because the people who were most oppressed by it didn’t have a voice. Through EHRP, she endeavored to change this.
Ehrenreich recognized there was a pool of potential writers with firsthand accounts of experiencing unemployment, or living on minimal subsistence wages. The problem was that too many publishers and editors lived in a cosmopolitan bubble. In her essay “In America Only the Rich can Afford to Write about Poverty” she recorded how difficult it was to get magazines to run her anti-poverty material. There are editors so insensitive they expected her to glamorize poverty. Ehrenreich remembered:
“I once spent two hours over an expensive lunch – paid for, of course, by a major publication – trying to pitch to a clearly indifferent editor who finally conceded, over decaf espresso and crème brulee, “OK, do your thing on poverty. But can you make it upscale?” Then there was the editor of a nationwide, and quite liberal, magazine who responded to my pitch for a story involving blue-collar men by asking, “Hmm, but can they talk?”
To respond to the editor’s question: yes, working class Americans can talk. They can also write.
I am myself a beneficiary of Barbara Ehrenreich’s generosity. In 2014, EHRP funded me to write, research and edit a story about “donating” (in effect selling) blood plasma to obtain money to pay my rent. It was a first-person narrative, drawing on my own financial desperation to convey why millions of other people sold plasma despite the risks. I talked to her several times over the phone regarding this story, as well as a few other EHRP pieces. I was impressed by the fact that she offered significant research support. Freelance writers usually get a flat fee They have to pay for out of pocket expenses themselves. Given this burden, which stories don’t get told?
Hundreds of people who must juggle two low-paying day jobs, or who struggle to find time to prepare their only daily meal, or handle significant responsibilities, including childcare, have stories that don’t get told.
My work with EHRP was a turning point in my writing interests. While previously I focused on writing political science, believing it captured “the big picture,” I realized that material drawn from my life experience was important, which led to the personal stories I have developed for ChangeWire at Community Change.
Ehrenreich’s philosophy of empowering working class writers and activists is shared by the organization which supported this story. Community Change, like EHRP, believes in amplifying the voices of underrepresented citizens. It believes that economically insecure Americans must share our stories and our ideas for solutions. It’s when the country understands what we experience that it will acknowledge what we need. And end poverty.