In her recent best-selling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich calls the working poor ?our society?s major philanthropists.? They sacrifice their health, relationships, and lives so that the privileged can live more conveniently. To research the book, Ehrenreich went undercover, taking jobs as a waitress, a hotel maid, a housecleaner, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart ?associate.?
Trained as a scientist?she earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University in 1968?Ehrenreich began writing about women?s health issues for Ms. in the 1970s. In the ?90s she was a regular essayist for Time?until the magazine began rejecting her pieces on poverty, inequality, and capital punishment. She is the author or coauthor of 12 books.
Why do you think class inequality is such a taboo subject in the mainstream media?
It undercuts the American myth that anybody can become rich, that it?s just a matter of personal ability and determination. To admit that large numbers of people are systematically held back is hard, because it means upward mobility is not an option for everybody. But that?s the way it is.
Journalist James Fallows says the poor have become ?invisibilized? in our society. They?re given very little mention in the media. The media system is fed by corporate advertising, and advertisers want ?good demographics??that is, they want to reach mostly the upper middle class.
The media played an important role in the civil rights movement. Why don?t they play a larger role in the workers? rights movement?
Again, being beholden to corporate advertisers has some effect. Also, a couple of generations ago, journalism was a blue-collar occupation. Today we have the idea that journalists are celebrities?people with pretty faces who read the news on TV and get a million dollars a year. I hear complaints that a career in journalism is out of the reach of the lower classes. Two factors are the high cost of tuition at journalism school?which can be $30,000 a year?and the fact that to break into journalism you often have to intern for free at some publication. Now, who can work for free unless their parents are supporting them?
Many editors claim that middle-class readers aren?t interested in the working poor. And yet they?re buying your book.
One reason is that Nickel and Dimed is just about me trying to survive, so people who are completely unfamiliar with the world of low-wage work can see it through the eyes of someone who is somewhat like them. Also, writing subjectively in the first person freed me to be funny. If I were writing about other people?s miseries and hard work and suffering, I would not be funny. I would be lugubrious. But writing about my own trials, I can be as silly or as whimsical as I want.
Do you think Americans are more sensitive to the plight of the working poor after all the media coverage of corporate misbehavior?
No, because the emphasis has been on the investors as victims. There?s not enough reporting on the routine corporate lawbreaking that affects primarily workers. I think Wal-Mart belongs on the list of corrupt corporations?alongside Enron, WorldCom, and the rest?for its practice of making people work past the end of their shift and not paying them for it. That?s corporate crime. It?s not as stunning in terms of dollars, but it means a tremendous amount to the people it affects.
Adapted and condensed from The Sun (Jan. 2003). Subscriptions: $34/yr. (12 issues) from Box 469061, Escondido, CA 92046.