June 9, 2001
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Journalist and critic Barbara Ehrenreich has just written a book about how the "other half" lives. I mean that half -- and I use the term colloquially -- of those of us who are poor. A fact that goes under-reported, she says, is that having a job doesn't rescue a person from poverty. Twenty percent of the homeless have full or part-time jobs, and according to the Conference of Mayors, 67 percent of adults requesting food aid are people with jobs. Her book, Nickel and Dimed: about (not) getting by in America focuses on the working poor. Barbara Ehrenreich, welcome to the show!
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Glad to be with you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Nickel and Dimed you went under cover, so to speak.
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yes. I wasn't really under cover. I was using my own name and so forth, but the idea was or-- initially just simply to see if I could make enough money in entry level jobs to live on for a month at a time and I tried this in three different cities. Ended up working as a waitress, a hotel housekeeper; a nursing home aide; a Wal-Mart floor clerk and a maid with a housecleaning service.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the reaction to your book?
BARBARA EHRENREICH: I'm, I'm amazed at the response! That there is a lot of interest in it and that a lot of people are quite surprised.
BARBARA EHRENREICH: People were surprised that there were poor people out there?!
BARBARA EHRENREICH:I, I think there is an element of that, yes, in the reception to the, the book. Focus in the media tends to be on those more sensational things that the so-called underclass does. You know very poor people will get into the news if they commit a crime, or neglect or abandon their children or take drugs or something. But the, the much larger number of people who are the working poor --they don't get a lot of attention in the media!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you tried to write on this subject before?
BARBARA EHRENREICH:Oh! Oh, again and again and again. I mean it's really pushing up hill. A few years ago I was pitching a story on Women in Poverty to a - an editor of a major national magazine that will go unnamed, and we were out on one of those, you know, luxurious lunches and-- he was really visibly bored with the, with my idea and sort of rolling his eyes, and finally we get to the, you know, the end of the lunch and he said okay, Barbara! Do your thing on poverty, but make it upscale. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Upscale poverty. What is that?
BARBARA EHRENREICH:I, I don't know! [LAUGHTER] But you see -- he so clearly was revealing what is a very common media bias that you know we want to present an upscale image because that's what attracts advertisers!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So as someone who is very sensitive to this issue, could you summarize the way you see the poor and the issues related to the poor presented in the mainstream media?
BARBARA EHRENREICH: I just don't think there's very much about them! We used to have Roseanne on TV. We don't have her. I mean there's this-- almost elimination of anybody who - on - in the sitcoms and dramas anyway - who isn't a young doctor a young lawyer or something like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You mentioned Roseanne. I remember when that show showed up on the networks, and there were a lot of stories talking about the big breakthrough -- someone recognized as an ordinary working stiff making it to prime time.
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well there have been different breakthroughs in the past. I mean in the early 60s there was the quote "discovery of poverty" [LAUGHS] which -- it's sort of funny, and like Columbus discovering America, you know, it was always there but the media discovered it in the way of Michael Harrington's book The Other America. Then in the late 1960s, early '70s there was a quote "discovery" in the mainstream media of the blue collar working class. We had movies like The Deerhunter; movies that were about that group. But you know after -- in the '80s that tapered off, and then in the '90s there's just a-- they're gone! They're not - you know, it, it's-- it's the Invisible People.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After you've overcome the resistance and you've gotten some of these stories into the press, what has been the reaction?
BARBARA EHRENREICH:Not much. Not much. I hate, I hate to say. I mean I've tried different ways of writing about this. I've written, you know, your statistical-filled heavy duty essays. I've written humorous things about this--invisibility of the poor, and I felt like hmmm! [LAUGHS] What does it take?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Barbara Ehrenreich, what do people want you to write about?
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Ah, let me think. [LAUGHS] I find myself facing a lot a kind of ghetto-ization into so-called "women's issues."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But not working class women.
BARBARA EHRENREICH:No. I think class is-- a taboo in our society. It, it, it really is. I mean it is amazing the things I can get away with saying on a subject of, say, sex or sexuality or gender, but really, the, the door shuts when, when the issue is economic inequality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thanks very much.
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Oh, thank you for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Nickel and Dimed: on not getting by in America.