The University Record, February 4, 2002

Author and critic finds life hard as member of ‘working poor’

By Judith Steeh
News and Information Services

“How can anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How are the millions of women booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour?” These are the questions that propelled author and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich to abandon her comfortable Florida home and set out on a quest to discover whether she could support herself at low-wage, unskilled jobs. She will describe the experiment in a free public lecture sponsored by the Center for the Education of Women (CEW) 4–5:30 p.m. Feb. 7 in the Pendleton Room of the Michigan Union.

Ehrenreich has a Ph.D. in biology. Her writing, however, covers a wide range of social issues, on topics as diverse as war, the sexual politics of sickness, attitudes of men and women, middle class, welfare reform, and even 150 years of expert advice to women. “The underlying thread in all my work is the social and moral concern about economic and gender injustice,” she said in a recent interview. “In addition, I’d have to add simple curiosity and the fact that I don’t recognize disciplinary boundaries.”

Beginning as a waitress and hotel housekeeper in Key West, Fla., and moving through jobs as a housecleaner and a nurse’s aide in Maine, and finishing with a stint at Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Ehrenreich ultimately discovered that she probably could not have coped over the long term. “The thing I was least prepared for was the difficulty of finding affordable housing, even though I purposely avoided high-rent areas like Boston or San Francisco,” she said. “Of course there are things I could have done to live even more cheaply, like live with a roommate, but even so it would have been extraordinarily difficult,” she added.

She sees access to health care as a major problem facing low-wage workers. “Most of the employers I had, offered some kind of health care, but in every case the employee contributions were so high that virtually no one could afford them. The poor are already paying a disproportionately large percentage of their income for rent; there’s no way they could afford the health care contributions as well,” she said.

Ehrenreich admits that when she ended her stint as a low-wage worker she was “angrier than I was when I started.” She concludes her book with the observation that “the working poor are the major philanthropists of our society. They go hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently; they neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect.”

Today, Ehrenreich notes, the working poor are even worse off. She did her research during the economic boom of the late 1990s; now the boom is over, layoffs are more common, and states facing declining revenues are cutting back on services for the poor. “Only about 40 percent of people who are laid off are eligible for unemployment compensation,” she noted. “The safety net, especially after welfare reform, is being cut away, bit by bit.”

On a more positive note, Ehrenreich says she is achieving her goal. “I wanted to make the professional middle class, the kind of people who buy magazines like Harper’s, more aware of all the invisible people who make it possible for them to live their comfortable lives,” she said. “The response to my book has been very gratifying, not only from those people, but also from activist groups, unions and even Congress.”