Ehrenreich discusses experience of living as one of the working poor
Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel & Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America,” told a crowd of about 200 gathered Wednesday afternoon in the UT Arlington Architecture Building auditorium that she was decidedly nervous sitting among five professors as part of her campus visit.
“I’m not going to be tested, am I?” she asked.
Ehrenreich’s 2008 book “Nickel & Dimed” is an incisive look at working-class poverty that chronicles her own attempt to live on minimum wage. The book is required reading at more than 600 colleges and universities.
The event was part of UT Arlington’s 23rd Annual Women's History Month, which features three speakers with compelling insights on the series theme, “Life on the Edge: Women and Hard Times.” Ehrenreich spoke Wednesday evening at the Rosebud Theater as part of the Maverick Speakers Series and Annual Celebration of Excellence by Students, or ACES.
The afternoon session was moderated by Dana Dunn, UT Arlington professor of sociology. Panelists Stephanie Cole, Doreen Elliott, Susan Hekman and Emily Spence – all UT Arlington faculty members – joined Ehrenreich on stage and asked the author questions.
Here’s what Ehrenreich said:
On why the working poor cling to the notion that they at some time will get wealthy:
“We get that idea from TV. Turn on the TV and that’s all you see – the wealthy. We never see the working poor on TV.”
On how or if her book “Nickel & Dimed” evolved to a more anthropological look at the working poor:
“I got emotionally involved with these people. It wasn’t so much about the working poor but about me trying to get by being one of the working poor. It was more of a reality show.” She said during one of her first book signings in Florida, a waitress she had worked with came up and told her she knew the author-turned-waitress was hiding something when she first met her. I asked, “What was I hiding? She told me I looked like I just came out of a shelter or jail. I guess I fit in too well.”
On why working poor eat fast food when eating rice and beans would be cheaper and more nutritious:
“There’s a tremendous amount of ignorance about the poor… You need a colander for the beans, a pot to cook the beans in, herbs and spices to go in the beans. And you might live at a residential motel with no stove or fridge.”
On the political bends of the people she featured in the book:
“There wasn’t a lot of political talk. We talked about family or work or health. A lot of these jobs are gendered or racially coded. Often the women are looking up to men, then further up to more men.” But Ehrenreich stopped short of saying there was gender solidarity. For instance, she said maids often reported to the women of the house. “They’d say, ‘She’s one of the family.’ Oh, please: like the maid is going to inherit a family’s wealth or be invited to Thanksgiving dinner.”
On minimum wage:
“Of course it needs to be raised.” She said after she wrote “Nickel & Dimed,” she undertook a personal mission to raise awareness about the financial inadequacies of minimum wage. She said since 1998, 29 states had increased minimum wage above the federal level. Ehrenreich said when people are polled on this issue; everyone agrees the minimum wage needs to be raised. She said it would be tougher to institute change under this current recession.
Ehrenreich said she would author another book, which will debut in October. She said it’s about positive thinking in American culture and the evils of such.