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?
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
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
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).
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