Investigating whether she could lead a sustainable lifestyle on $6 or $7 per hour, political essayist Barbara Ehrenreich worked as a house cleaner, waitress and Wal-Mart salesperson, among other low-wage careers, between 1998 and 2000. Unable to afford a residence in a trailer park working at these jobs, Ehrenreich lived in a residential motel for part of the experiment, where she saw families living in one room with a queen bed, but no window shades, tables or refrigerators. Her employers required her to take drug tests, which Ehrenreich called “a little ritual of humiliation.”
Those experiences became the basis of Ehrenreich’s 2001 bestseller, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.” Ehrenreich delivered a related speech on the theme of “The Class Divide” on Monday night in Cook Auditorium, as the Dartmouth College Ethics Institute’s Dorsett Fellow for 2008.
Laziness or other personality flaws are not responsible for a person’s poverty, Ehrenreich argued in her lecture. Instead, she said, poverty is the product of inadequate wages.
“Poverty is not a problem of lifestyle,” Ehrenreich said. “Poverty is basically a shortage of money.”
Speaking about the low-wage job market, Ehrenreich said, “It has come to resemble a third-world country, and I don’t say this lightly.”
Ehrenreich interspersed such statements with humor, brightening the mood in the hall. At one point she recalled how her education and previous career experiences were worthless when she applied for low-wage jobs.
“I never saw a ‘Help Wanted’ ad for a sarcastic, feminist political essayist,” Ehrenreich said.
Ehrenreich applied her personal observations as a low-wage worker to the state of American society in general, juxtaposing the conditions of the working poor against the opulence of America’s richest citizens. This contrast represents an economic and moral crisis, she said.
Appraising present U.S .economic and anti-poverty policy, Ehrenreich said that the Bush administration misunderstands poverty’s causes. President George W. Bush’s anti-poverty policy, she said, could be summarized in one word: “marriage.”
The Administration also underestimates the severity of the consequences of insufficient wages, Ehrenreich said, asserting that the official poverty level does not reflect real social conditions. Ehrenreich referenced the recent sub-prime mortgage lending crisis, which she linked directly to poverty, as another failure of the U.S. economy.
“Easy credit is our economy’s substitute for decent wages,” Ehrenreich said.
Ehrenreich said people who earn wages too low to be practical actually donate their labor to society’s more affluent members.
“It is time to end the involuntary philanthropy of America’s working people,” she said.
Congress could help remedy the situation, Ehrenreich said, by passing a stimulus package to boost services like the allotment of food stamps. Ehrenreich said the nation may need to generate private and public jobs that pay a living wage. In the longer term, Ehrenreich said the nation also needs universal health insurance and subsidized housing and childcare. Ehrenreich recommended the institution of a progressive income tax and ending the war in Iraq to pay for those plans.
Timothy Duggan, an assistant director of Collis and student activities, said he thinks Ehrenreich’s policy ideas may not be feasible, but agreed with her overall message.
“Right now, she’s going head-to-head with an economist, and she might not win that battle,” Duggan said. “But she’s right on her point that we have to have compassion.”