From the Bottom Up

Author and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich visited UT's LBJ School last week to deliver a talk sponsored by the KLRU Distinguished Speakers Series. Introduced by UT economist James Galbraith as "a George Orwell for our time, with a touch of the wit and perception of Thorstein Veblen," Ehrenreich recounted her experiences in researching and writing her most recent book, Nickeled and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America, for which she labored at minimum-wage jobs in several cities to discover how ordinary working people are managing in the "new economy." She began by joking how mainstream magazine editors often respond to story pitches about the working poor: "All right, you can do it, but can you make it upscale?" And she mocked the Bush administration's notion that women on welfare should escape poverty by marrying: "That would only work if all the millionaire contributors to the Republican Party could be assigned to marry a woman on welfare -- or if we adopted polyandry, so one woman could marry enough working men with wages sufficient to support a family."

Ehrenreich's more serious commentary -- of working as a waitress, a housecleaner, a hotel worker, and a Wal-Mart "associate" -- recounted that even with her middle-class advantages (higher education, a car, no children to support) she could not make enough to live on, even by holding down two jobs. She found full-time co-workers who had become uncounted "homeless" (they lived in their cars), and realized the meaninglessness of the "official poverty level" that is based only on food costs but ignores rent, medical care, and the true effects of inflation. Using the realistic statistics of the Economic Policy Institute, Ehrenreich estimates that some 29% of Americans live in poverty, unable to make a living wage of $14 an hour for a family of three.

Moreover, Ehrenreich's experience took place before 9/11 and the economic downturn, which has hit the working poor the hardest. The biggest lesson she learned, she said, is that "low-wage workers are our major philanthropists ... sustaining our middle-class lifestyles with underpaid and exhausting labor." In response to the common argument, "This is what 'the market' dictates," she asked: "What is the economy for, if not to allow people to live a decent life?"

She closed the evening with her sense of the ultimate consequences of such structural inequality: "You don't have a democracy when some people can buy their own politicians, and other people can't afford to buy groceries."

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