An interview of Barbara Ehrenreich by Tom Engelhardt 6/4/06
You turn into a middle-class, suburban housing project on the periphery of Charlottesville, Virginia, and at a row of attached homes, you pull up in front of the one with the yellow “for sale” sign on the tiny patch of grass. Ushered inside, you take in an interior of paint cans, a mop and pail, and cleaning liquids. On the small porch that overlooks a communal backyard, workmen are painting the weathered wood railings a nice, clean white. Later, when they’re gone, we step out for a minute, on a balmy late spring afternoon, and she says, “You know what I need out here? Flowers!” And it’s true, the nearest neighbor’s small porch is a riot of red, orange, and purple blooms, while hanging from her railing are three plant holders with only dirt and the scraps of dead vegetation in them.

Not surprising really. Barbara Ehrenreich, our foremost journalist of, and dissector of class is regularly not here. Practically a household name since she entered the low-wage working class disguised as herself and, in her already classic account, Nickel and Dimed, reported back on just how difficult it is for so many hard-working Americans to get by. Then, a few years later, she repeated the process with the middle class, only to find herself not in the workforce but among the desperately unemployed who had fallen out of an ever meaner corporate world. Her most recent book, Bait and Switch, The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, was the result. Now, she spends much time traveling the country talking to audiences about her – and their – experiences. She has become a blogger, is involved in launching a new group to help organize the middle-class unemployed, and in her spare time she’s even finished a new book.

Now, after four years in Virginia (at least some of the time), she’s about to head north. She gestures at the bookshelves. “There are a lot fewer books this week than last. I’m giving them to the Virginia Organizing Project.” And it’s true, the place is clearly being stripped down for sale. But you have the feeling, looking around, that it was a no-frills life to begin with, as Ehrenreich herself, in her short hair, jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, presents a distinctly no-frills look. (Suddenly, imagining her with an image make-over advisor in Bait and Switch trying to give herself that perfect corporate look of employability seems amusing.)

Her mind is wide-ranging and daring indeed. Some years back, in a book entitled Blood Rites, she even managed to turn traditional ideas about the origins of war on their head. She is a thoroughly no-nonsense national resource.

Looking forward to a trip to the local gym followed by a visit with her two grandchildren (the daughters of her daughter Rosa Brooks, a law professor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times), we sit down at a paper-and-book cluttered dining-room table, which shows no evidence of having held a meal in some time, and – eye on the clock, no fooling around – begin.

Tomdispatch: You were at a graduation ceremony recently where the students were bouncing beach balls in the stands. The college president leaned over and whispered, “This is the problem with having the commencement in the afternoon. Some of these people have been partying for hours.” In response, you wrote: “There are reasons, whether the graduates know them or not, to want to greet one’s entrance into the work world with an excess of Bud.” Could you start by explaining why an excess of Bud might be an appropriate response to leaving college today?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, a lot of graduates are simply not going to find jobs appropriate to their credentials. They’re going to be wait staff. They’re going to be call-center operators. Their twenties could be spent like that. I recently got Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute to do some research on this. It’s still tentative, but he found that 17% of people in jobs that do not require college degrees have them. Those are very often people in their twenties who can’t get professional-type employment, or people in their fifties who have been through one too many lay-off and are no longer employable because they’re quote too old. So I was thinking of that, and then I was thinking that for a lot of those who do get jobs, you know, the fun is over. They’re going to be sitting in cubicles and they won’t be able to bounce balls around when they’re in boring meetings with their bosses.

TD: The real earnings of college graduates fell by 5% between 2000 and 2004, so they also have that to look forward to.

Ehrenreich: There still is a real big earnings gap between college and non-college graduates, but it’s begun to shrink. Jared tells me that the reason it was growing so fast in the nineties was not that college graduates were doing so well, but that low-wage people, blue-collar people, were doing so poorly. Their wages were being held down – and that remains true.

TD: In 1989, you published a book about the middle class, or the professional-managerial class as you call them, entitled Fear of Falling. The book was way ahead of its time. If you were titling a work on the subject today you might just call it, Falling.

Ehrenreich: What I was thinking about then was the fear of intergenerational falling, the fear a lot of upper-middle class people have that their children will not get into the same class, because you can’t just bequeath your class status to them. They can’t inherit. They have to go through this whole education thing. Now, it could be Free Fall, though it isn’t quite that bad… yet.

TD: In Bait and Switch, the book where, as an investigative reporter, you sought a corporate job and found yourself in the world of the middle-class unemployed or anxiously employed, you wrote, “On many fronts, the American middle class is under attack as never before.” What happened to the middle class between then and now?

Ehrenreich: In Fear of Falling, I was concerned with the distance between the professional managerial class and the traditional working class. I thought I saw a new class developing. The strict Marxist idea is: You’ve got the bourgeoisie. Everybody else is a wage earner and they’re not that different, whether they’re accountants or laborers. And I was saying, no, there’s a real difference here. The white-collar worker who sits at a desk is telling other people what to do in one way or another. Such workers are in positions of authority when compared to blue and pink-collar people.

Back then, I was emphasizing the differences. Today, in Bait and Switch, what I’m emphasizing is the lack of difference, that the security the professional-managerial class thought it had is gone. The safest part of that class, when I was writing in the eighties, seemed to be the professionals and managers with corporate positions. Then something happened in the nineties. Companies began to look at even those people as expenses to be eliminated rather than assets to be nurtured. What I was seeing in the late eighties was this pretty tight middle class where, really, the only problem was to get your kids into it, too.

TD: Your fear was for your children. Now it’s for you …
Ehrenreich: … and of course, your children, too.

TD: In Bait and Switch, you describe life in the corporate world as a “perpetual winnowing process.”

Ehrenreich: One way that shows itself now is in the requirement in so many jobs for an annual – or even an every six-month – evaluation. You’re constantly on your toes, constantly being reviewed, and potentially always up for elimination.

TD: And how do you account for the change in corporate culture?

Ehrenreich: I’m not sure. This is partly a mystery to me, but the pioneers were people like [Sunbeam’s] Al (“Chainsaw”) Dunlap and Jack Welsh at GE, who took pride in eliminating as many people as possible, white as well as blue collar and were richly rewarded by seeing their stock prices rise and their CEO pay go up. Leanness became the currency, what you wanted to achieve. I think part of that – but I don’t know enough yet to say this with confidence – had to do with the fact that top executives were increasingly being rewarded with stock options, so that the distance between management and ownership was no longer there. A CEO knew that, if he could raise quarterly profits via cuts, he would get handsomely rewarded. The easiest way to raise profits is to cut expenses and the biggest expense is labor. Of course, the better way to increase profits would be to sell a better product, or more of them, or at a higher price.

TD: You’re famous now for having been in two worlds as an investigative journalist, the low-wage world of the working class in Nickel and Dimed and the middle-class unemployed one in Bait and Switch. You’ve also, it seems to me, been one of the relatively few members of the professional managerial class to gnaw at the issue of class regularly. I suspect on this issue you really feel your politics. What was it that got you to class analysis and what kept you there when so many others were heading the other direction?

Ehrenreich: I’m sure it has something to do with my background. When I was born, my father was a copper miner in Butte, Montana. It was a hard-core, blue-collar situation. But ours was an amazing story of upward mobility. My father managed to get through college … well, the Butte School of Mines … while he was a miner. He was, by his own account, a genius. [She laughs.] Eventually, he got out of the mines and ended up as a corporate executive. He started out doing research as a metallurgist and then got turned into an executive. So my childhood was sort of an unguided tour of American classes.

TD: For people I’ve known, leaping classes tended to be a complicated, painful experience.

Ehrenreich: Well, my dad was always a heavy drinker, but he was a falling-down drunk by the time he finished his career – or it was finished for him. He wanted all that. He wanted success. He wanted to make more money – not that we were ever wealthy, but we certainly got toward the upper end of the middle class. But he also had this social nostalgia for the mines and would often talk about men he had worked with, things that had happened. It was clear to me that that was a real world of much stronger ties among people.

TD: And that he had lost something?

Ehrenreich: Oh yes! One thing that stuck with me and helped me when I was doing Nickel and Dimed: I had told him in the seventies about young leftists going to work in factories to organize the working class. He thought that was hilarious, but then he said something very interesting: “Do you know what they probably don’t understand? If you want to do something like that, the first thing is you have to do your job right. The first thing is – do the work.” As a miner he had known communists organizing in the mines, but wasn’t always impressed with them because some of them weren’t good miners.

TD: Is there less mobility, and less study of it, than there was in your father’s day?
Ehrenreich: There is less. We don’t compare well to Europe any more on that score.

TD: You now have a blog. You travel the country extensively and, because of your books, you hear from blue-collar and white-collar people in various kinds of trouble. What sorts of stories do you hear these days? What don’t we know?

Ehrenreich: Both chronic, long-term poverty and downward mobility from the middle class are in the same category of things that America likes not to think about. Periodically, we’ll have some little focus on poverty, like post-Katrina, but then it goes away again. After the crash, there was a brief moment of thinking about downwardly mobile software people; then we forgot about them. But it’s there all the time, these crises in people’s lives.

When it comes to the media, anything about economic pain is what gets left out. People sometimes say to me, why do you always focus on the downside? Because morally that seems to be my obligation – to look at pain. Not to celebrate every instance of successful entrepreneurship, but always to think of who’s hurting. That just seems like a basic moral requirement for everybody. But that’s what’s missing too often in the media, the pain.

Stories of pain, the forum on my website is full of them. People will just post them:

    I have a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. I give up. I’ve been searching for three years.
    I’m living with my parents now. I had to give up my apartment, my home.
    I’m working in a call center now.

That’s the kind of thing I hear, over and over. And then people are losing pensions, losing health insurance. That’s happening across the board – to people in middle-class occupations too.

TD: You recently commented, “Thanks to Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, we now have a government with vastly expanded military and surveillance functions and sadly atrophied helping functions. Imagine, for an awkward zoological analogy, a lioness with grossly enlarged claws and teeth but no mammary glands.”

Ehrenreich: This was something I first wrote about in 1997 in an essay in the Nation which they entitled, “Confessions of a Recovering Statist.” I talked about the shift of government, at the end of the Clinton years, away from the helping functions and toward the military, penitentiaries, law enforcement. At what point, I asked, do progressives have to say: I don’t want to expand the helping functions of this government because look what it’s doing? A nice example is public housing – okay, public housing’s a good thing, but when you start doing drug tests on people to get in or stay in such housing, then it’s become an extension of the law enforcement function of government.

I still raise that question. Today, we have this even larger federal government, more and more of it being war-related, surveillance-related. I mean it’s gone beyond our wildest Clinton administration dreams. I think progressives can’t just be seen as pro-big-government when big government has gotten so nasty.

TD: And also when civil society has been stripped of so many of its “civil” capacities, including, as with Katrina, the capacity to rebuild.

Ehrenreich: Katrina’s a perfect example of how militarized the government has gotten even when it’s supposedly trying to help people. The initial response of the government was a military one. When they finally got people down there, it was armed guards to protect the fancy stores and keep people in that convention center – at gunpoint! I mean, this is unbelievable.

TD: And what about the fobbing off of the civil parts of government onto religious and charitable groups, often politicized?

Ehrenreich: It’s partly that the evangelical churches have reached for these things, and then there’s the faith-based approach coming from the Bush administration where the dream was: Let’s turn all social welfare functions over to churches. A lot of the megachurches now function as giant social welfare bureaucracies. I wouldn’t have found this out if I hadn’t been researching Bait and Switch and gone into some of them, because that’s where you go when you want to connect with people to find a job. That’s also where you find after-school care, child care, support groups for battered women, support groups for people with different illnesses. As government helping functions dwindle, the role of the churches grows. What’s sinister is that so many of these churches also support political candidates who are anti-choice, anti-gay, and – not coincidentally – opposed to any kind of expansion of secular social services.

Part Two is immediately below

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bait and Switch : The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream” is available atAmazon