When Barbara Ehrenreich was a graduate student in biology in the '70s, the social and political changes of the preceding decade impressed her more than lab work, and she began loosely applying her knowledge of science and feminism by writing about women's health issues for Ms. magazine. Digging into the roots of feminist discontent, she became a self-taught historian, which led to a thriving career writing books and essays about patriarchal traditions, class divisions, and economics. Ehrenreich's work has appeared in magazines ranging from general-interest publications like Time, Harper's, and TV Guide to such ideologically charged outlets as The Nation, Progressive, and In These Times. Her books The Worst Years Of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes From A Decade Of Greed and Fear Of Falling: The Inner Life Of The Middle Class became best-sellers. For her most recent book, Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, Ehrenreich attempted to live on low-wage jobs with restaurants, maid services, and retail chains in three different communities over the course of a year. Nickel And Dimed's potent mixture of social criticism and humorous personal observation has proven so popular that, when reached by phone for this interview, Ehrenreich was in the midst of a new leg of a book tour that has been rolling on since spring, adding ever more stops. In between signings and broadcast-media appearances, she spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about her upcoming projects, the lessons learned from Nickel And Dimed, and the state of the nation.
The Onion: When you started Nickel And Dimed, did you anticipate the results?
Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, I thought at the beginning that it would be very hard. Certainly I was thinking about the welfare-reform, welfare-to-work situation. It would be very, very hard, if you were making $6 to $8 an hour, to support children. But I thought it might be doable for me, for one person. So I just didn't know. It looked like it was going to be sort of marginal. Wasn't sure.
O: But you went into it, obviously, with some sort of—if not an agenda, at least a bias.
BE: Well, yeah. I guess if you had asked me, I'd have said, "Well, it probably won't work." But I wasn't so sure. I felt as an individual, just as myself to support, that I might well be able to do it. But then I tried to not let anything I did bias it in the direction of failure. In fact, I made myself rules, like I had to work very hard and be an obedient, cheerful, hardworking employee everywhere, and I had to take the best-paying jobs I could get.
O: Given your academic background, do you feel conflicted when you do something that's more… "immersive," as you say?
BE: My academic background isn't too relevant. [Laughs.] I have a Ph.D. in cell biology. And that's really manual labor. I mean, experimental science, you do it with your hands. So it's very different. You're out there in a lab, cleaning test tubes, and it just wasn't that fascinating. I mean, I shouldn't say that. Experimental science is fascinating, but I don't want to do it. I want other people to do it, and I'll read about it.
O: What's your take on the current economy, with the market declining and with President Bush talking about tapping into Social Security? Were these trends inevitable, or should the current administration be held responsible? [This interview was conducted before the World Trade Center bombings. —ed.]
BE: Oh, I don't know what causes Wall Street to do what it does. I mean, I'm not an economist, but it often looks to me that that's more like mass psychology than about anything really happening in the economy. It used to be, a few years ago, that they'd be thrilled every time unemployment rose. The Dow would go up. So I don't quite understand why they're not happy now. It's about the moods of a bunch of guys in pinstriped suits, it seems to me, as opposed to what's really happening in the economy. I don't know. I read that there are indications of worldwide recession, but that could mean that rents come down. Let's look at the bright side!
O: Do you think our leaders have any direct effect on how the economy moves? Or is it just some kind of abstract, natural process?
BE: This is a paradox. I don't understand it. People tend to judge presidents on how the economy performs, and yet we don't expect them to have the power to do much about it. Or we don't want them to exercise that power, if they were to have it. So I don't know.
O: I'm asking because Nickel And Dimed, and the book you're co-authoring with Frances Fox Piven about welfare reform, are books which suggest certain policies—increasing the minimum wage, extending access to inexpensive housing—that some might say would cause the economy to suffer. Would you agree, and if so, is that a price we have to pay?
BE: I'd have to say, "Whose economy?" It seemed so clear to me, when I was doing these low-wage jobs, especially if I had a TV that I could get CNN on… I'd watch the Nasdaq rising, the ebullience bubbling, and so forth, and it was so odd, because it seemed perfectly clear that there were two economies: one that was very enjoyable and visible on cable-channel shows, and this other which I had entered, where about a third of the country lives. And that one has been in a permanent depression.
O: And that segment is aware of the other economy because it's on TV…
BE: Well, I don't know how much awareness there is, either way. I don't think a lot of low-wage people had any idea about the "dot-com boom." Of course, they might have heard the words or something, but it wasn't something very much on their minds. The way it's impinged on their lives would be, in some areas of the country, the increasing unaffordability of housing.
O: Doesn't Wal-Mart offer stock options to their employees?
BE: Yes. And I have not done the research to tell you how helpful that would be. Obviously, you have to stay a couple of years to get in on that, and some of the people I worked with believed they would make money. But most people rotate out of Wal-Mart pretty fast. So it might be that the United Food And Commercial Workers, who are about to try and organize Wal-Mart, have looked into that and are attempting to debunk it.
O: Has there been a labor movement emerging from Wal-Mart since you worked there?
BE: Well, I had a very thrilling event to go to in May in Minneapolis, on my book tour. There was a rally set up by local unions and other groups, just to launch an organizing drive in the local "big-box" retail places, specifically Wal-Mart. So I felt very vindicated. [Laughs.]
O: Does the working class still have a political voice?
BE: Not much. It used to have a political party that sort of represented it. Somewhat. But that party no longer does.
O: Is there a way for the Democratic Party to get back in touch with the working class?
BE: Yeah! They know what to do! They're just not doing it! I mean, this whole thing about patients' rights this summer… Okay, good idea, patients in HMOs should have rights. But what about the right to be a patient? To get medical care? I mean, they've just gone further and further away from those sort of basic life-shaping kinds of issues.
O: One thing that rang true in Nickel And Dimed was this sense that members of the service economy resent their customers. Waiters wish they were out to eat, maids wish they were on vacation…
BE: I sort of loved the customers in my restaurant, usually. I felt like I was their nurse and they were my patients. There was something wrong with them, and they couldn't feed themselves. They needed someone to bring them their food. And sometimes they needed a little nutritional counseling, too, which I would cheerfully offer. That, I liked. There was something sort of maternal about being a hostess. It was the Wal-Mart customers who I really began to hate. [Laughs.] Because they were undoing everything that I was doing, and my whole job was to undo what they were doing. It was this absolute structural antagonism. They'd wander through, idly pick up something from a rack, and then let it drop somewhere else. Better to let it drop on the floor, frankly, where I could see it, than to secret it to some strange new place they found. Anyway, I didn't want the customers coming into my department.
O: Having spent a lot of time in an academic setting, and then having to go pick clothes off the floor for a living… Even though that's something that you chose to do for a purpose, were there days when you said to yourself, "I have a Ph.D."?
BE: Well, I was having a hard time remembering where all those clothes went. My mind, which has many things in it, now had to make room for the exact location of the Jordache clamdiggers with the green stripes down the sides. I was struggling, believe me, to master all my jobs. The only time I ever had any daydreaming time was in the housecleaning job. Sometimes I'd get a big expanse to scrub, where there weren't any challenging decisions to make for several minutes at a time. Then I could daydream.
O: Certainly, though, you resented it when your superiors would chastise you for the way you were doing your job.
BE: But I didn't resent them because, like, "Hey, I'm a Ph.D." [Laughs.] I felt sometimes I'd be scolded for things I didn't do wrong, and I'd be praised for things that I didn't think I'd done so well. And things I did heroically, I'd get no notice at all. It would be so arbitrary.
O: If you're out now at a restaurant and you get bad service, do you complain?
BE: Uh, it depends how bad. The other day in a hotel, they didn't bring up my breakfast on time. I had to get out, and the room-service breakfast didn't come, and then it was the wrong breakfast. I thought of complaining to the hotel. I tipped the guy anyway, because I figured it wasn't his fault; it was someone screwing up in the kitchen. But it depends. Also, I think the pressure is on people not to be good in terms of customer service. I was chastised in one of those restaurants for talking too much to customers, for being too pleasant. Wal-Mart customer service is not even there. I initially imagined that I'd be giving people a lot of fashion tips. I had this sort of Lord & Taylor image of what it would be like, but you don't have time to interact with the customers. They wouldn't want you to, anyway.