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 Barbara Ehrenreich

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Your Questions 6 Questions >

P.O.V.'s Borders visitors sent Barbara Ehrenreich these questions in response to her work and her answers to P.O.V.'s initial 6 Questions. Read on!

Question: There's been some talk about the concept of a "living wage." From the experiences that you had working low-paying jobs, how would you calculate a "living wage?"

I wouldn't even try; this is a job for the experts. Two years ago, the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC calculated that, as a national average, a family of three (one adult and two children) needed to earn $14 an hour in order to live at a barebones but adequate level. But that's just a national average; obviously, you need to earn more to live in San Francisco or Boston than in rural Missouri. There's a scholar — Diana Pearce at the University of Washington — who devotes herself to calculating what a living wage would be for different cities and states. It's an arduous task, since she has to take into account local costs of housing, childcare, transportation, etc.

Question: I find it difficult to separate out how much of a "border" is internal and how much is external. I know a 20 year old single mother of a three year old, with a history of serious sexual abuse, who is successfully making her way in the professional world — at some cost, no doubt. But after years of therapy, she finally believed in herself and worked incredibly hard and is progressing. She had all kinds of borders in her way. Granted, professional borders can be artificial, exclusionary etc. What makes one person be able to succeed and another to fail? I'm interested in your comments.

All kinds of things — including personality and, it should be said, luck. But I don't think we'll discover the secret to ending poverty through psychological comparisons of those who escape it and those who don't. For one thing, poverty is correlated with depression, which is itself a major obstacle to upward mobility.

Ever since the idea of a "culture of poverty" arose in the 1960s, many affluent people have subscribed to the convenient and self-flattering myth that poverty represents some kind of characterological disorder involving laziness, promiscuity, "inability to defer gratification," and so forth. I have a simpler theory: Poverty isn't a mental disorder; it's a lack of money.

Question: It seems from your responses that a border to you is necessarily a negative thing. Can you think of any instances where borders are a positive? Where people self-identifying around certain shared characteristics, to the exclusion of other people, can be constructive?

I'm not the only one who thinks the absence of borders can be a good thing: Wal-Mart's store brand of trendy, youth-oriented, clothing is called "No Borders," and I've listened to classic rock stations which advertise themselves as "rock without borders." In our globalized world, I think many of us yearn for more freedom of movement and a chance to interact with others everywhere.

But I don't associate people "people self-identifying around certain shared characteristics, to the exclusion of other people" with "borders." In order to tear down obstacles in their collective path, people often have to get together with others like themselves. I was a member of many women's-only groups in the 70s and 80s, and our goal was to eliminate the "borders" that kept us in traditional jobs and roles.

Question: I read "Nickel and Dimed" and wondered about the Czech dishwasher that you worked with in Key West. Did you find a lot of immigrants working illegally in the jobs that you had and did you find that employers were taking advantage of them, paying them even less than what they were paying you?

I'm not even sure that this dishwasher was in the U.S . illegally, since this is of course not the kind of thing you can ask someone about. But it is widely believed in Key West that the hotel and restaurant industry depends to a certain extent on extremely underpaid and undocumented workers. According to the Czech dishwasher whom I wrote about, the "agent" who brought him over to this country took a couple of dollars an hour out of his wage.

Question: Housing costs provide the biggest obstacle to low-wage workers in your book, "Nickel and Dimed." Do you think there are realistic solutions to the housing crisis? I mean, I'm not even a low-wage worker and I still spend nearly 50% of my earnings on rent.

Tell me about it! We have a major housing crisis on our hands and I hardly ever hear a politician mention it. I'm not a policy expert on housing, but it seems to me the first steps would be "conservative" in the original sense of restoring what used to be — like former levels of federal support for low-income housing. According to housing expert Cushing Dolbeare, federal subsidies and other supports for low income housing have dropped precipitously since the 1970s. Meanwhile, of course, homeowners, who tend to be middle class or above, continue to get a whopping housing subsidy in the form of the mortgage interest deduction.

Question: Have you done any comparison between the service sector in the U.S. and the service sector abroad, like in say Europe? I find that I get better service in Paris than in New York. Are they paid more there? What's the difference?

Hmm, maybe I can get a grant to study, say, restaurant service in New York versus Paris… But from what I know, European service workers (and all workers) are more likely to be unionized and are better paid than their American counterparts. Plus they get government services unknown to us, like health insurance and, in France anyway, free childcare.

Question: The U.S. economy has taken a beating in the last two years. It seems that, typically, the working poor bear the brunt of slow or damaged economy. How has the Bush White House responded or not responded to the crisis of the working poor?

The answer is "not." The Republicans' major economic concern has been to lower taxes for the rich. Right now they are resisting the extension of unemployment benefits (which tend not to help the poor much anyway, compared to the middle class.)

Of course, the working poor don't make generous campaign contributions, which makes them uninteresting to politicians of either party. Sadly, they also tend not to vote — in 2000 and this year, the electorate was badly skewed toward the upper half of the income distribution. There's a vicious cycle going on: Poor people don't vote because they don't hear candidates addressing their issues, and politicians tend not to address their issues because poor people don't vote…

Question: Was there any point during the planning of "Nickel and Dimed" that you considered eliciting personal essays (that might be published anonymously) from low-wage workers, instead of recounting your story as an "outsider"? I realize that this is an entirely different type of book, would you consider editing such a book?

Remember, my book started as a magazine assignment to go out and try to survive myself, not to interview people or collect essays. Since the book came out, I've gotten so many letters from real low-wage workers that I've started a website on which to post them along with other relevant news and info — www.nickelanddimed.net. If a publisher were interested in a collection of such stories and essays, I'd probably be willing to edit it. But publishers tend not to like collections, alas.

Want to read more? Check out Barbara's answers to P.O.V.'s 6 questions, the same 6 we asked all of the featured guests.

about Barbara Ehrenreich


Barbara Ehrenreich is the acclaimed author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Her articles, reviews, essays and humor have appeared in numerous national publications.


Read an excerpt from:

Nickel and Dimed:
On (Not)
Getting By
in America

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