In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich left her life as a writer and joined the millions of Americans who struggle to make ends meet on a minimum-wage salary.
Working as a waitress, hotel maid, housekeeper, nursing home aide and a Wal-Mart sales associate, Ehnreich — a renowned author and journalist — tried to see whether one could feasibly rise up from poverty. At 8 p.m. tonight in Campbell Hall, she will talk about her experiences as chronicled in her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. During the two-year project, Ehrenreich spent a month in each of five U.S. locales, including Portland, Minnesota and Key West, Florida, often doubling up on jobs to make ends meet. In an interview, she said her personal activism partially led her to pursue this project.
“I’m a journalist and a writer and a commentator and a political activist,” Ehrenreich said. “I was concerned by welfare reform — that’s what inspired me. It didn’t seem to me the wages out there were adequate, but nobody seemed to believe me when I would write about this. It didn’t seem to impress people.”
Ehrenreich said her experiences working at jobs earning minimum wage helped reinforce and enhance her opinions about poverty-stricken lifestyles.
“The main [effect] of the experience was to make me angrier, really angrier,” she said. “I had been angry in some way, but it was more abstract. I got out there in my own body and saw how people were treated in ways that I couldn’t intervene to help them… It left me with a lot of rather positive anger about the need for change and economic justice.”
Ehrenreich said she worked five different jobs averaging $7 an hour, which she said was not enough to make rent in any given city she lived. However, she said she also gained a positive experience about her minimum-wage lifestyle.
“There were things I liked about some of these jobs,” Ehrenreich said. “Both [waiting tables and aiding the elderly] require a lot of human interaction where you can do something nice for people. I enjoyed often — not always, but often — a sense of camaraderie with my fellow workers who would often be very supportive, and I was dependent on them to teach me the job. I was also impressed by their generosity.”
Because she met her future minimum-wage co-workers both socially and through her activism, Ehrenreich said she did not think negatively about them.
“I did not have the stereotype about lazy, degenerate people who don’t get ahead because it’s their own fault,” she said. “I did not have that stereotype.”
She said, however, that she did harbor negative expectations of what each job would be like.
“I thought low-wage jobs — so called dead-end jobs — would be boring or wouldn’t be able to hold my interest because they would be too trivial,” Ehrenreich said. “Well, was I ever wrong about that. I had a really hard time learning to do each job. I had to concentrate and memorize a lot of stuff. So I learned a great respect for jobs that are often considered menial and unskilled.”
In her book, Ehrenreich said one of her main goals was to inform readers of the invisible people in society who make life as we know it possible.
“I’m in a hotel room right now,” she said. “Somebody cleans it. Just thinking about her as a human being is important and asking, ‘How many rooms does she clean [and] what does she earn?’ I want people to have all those questions in their minds and to see the person who is serving them or maybe the person who they can’t actually see… I want people to see them as fellow human beings.”
Ehrenreich also said she wants the upper and middle classes to get involved by participating in a living-wage campaign, or involving themselves in groups working for affordable housing, or by simply considering how their vote can directly affect the poor.
University students do not need to leave campus to learn more about economic problems, Ehrenreich said, as campus employees like clerical workers, food service people, housekeepers and maintenance workers are often poorly paid and poorly treated.
“There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people on the UCSB campus who are making your education possible and don’t get any glory for it in the way that faculty and administration get noticed,” she said.
Ehrenreich, who assisted a student-organized UC Berkeley project two years ago that published investigative findings about how campus workers were poorly treated, said students at American universities are becoming more aware of the poor treatment of campus workers on their campuses.
“It’s a real movement and I think the next step to that movement is to start talking about tuition issues, so that it is not a matter of pitting the needs of the workers against the needs of the students,” she said. “We need enough money for higher education, so that young people who are not wealthy can go to college and so that none of the people who work on the college campus are struggling to make rent every month.”
Ehrenreich is an award-winning journalist and has published several other books including, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class and The Snarling Citizen. Ehrenreich earned a Ph.D. in Biology from Rockefeller University and was a Regents Lecturer in Sociology at UCSB.