His most famous book began with a simple journal question. (How) can you make minimum wage in the US that was $7 an hour in the late 1990s? Barbara Ehrenreich, who died Friday at age 81, marvels at the conversation with the headmaster. That lunch consisted of salmon and seasonal vegetables, she describes in her bestseller Nickelodeon and Timed – Getting On (No) in AmericaShe decides to ‘experience’ how an army of wage slaves survives in her country.
Ehrenreich goes undercover as a waiter, elderly caregiver, dishwasher, and Walmart worker. She soon discovers the answer to her question: no. But above all, what his book reveals is how precarious labor not only deprives millions of Americans, but also pushes them deeper into poverty.
For example, Ehrenreich describes how employers do not pay the first paycheck immediately to prevent a new employee from quitting immediately. Paying rent is difficult, as landlords often ask for two months’ wages as a deposit. This forces people to live in hostels which are significantly more expensive than normal rental housing. And where you can’t cook yourself, but can only heat the crumbs in the microwave.
Such jobs are not a stepping stone to the middle class, but a downward spiral. This was an insight in 2001, when the dotcom bubble burst and anti-globalization reared its head. Ehrenreich’s book gives new urgency to the union movement and the debate over a higher minimum wage.
Fear of falling
All his reports and books on themes like inequality, gender difference – and then death and aging – are colored by social engagement. Ehrenreich gets it from a left-wing, anti-authoritarian (and alcoholic) family in Montana.
When she moves to the big city to study, she embraces activism, including democratic socialists. His journalistic career took off thanks to another steady job in 1989 (Fear of Fall: The Inner Life of the Middle Class), which describes how many Americans fear falling on ice. An analysis that, even after a quarter of a century, is still being carried out in the Netherlands mainly by politicians from a Christian-democratic background. Click up taken to Wopke Hoekstra).
Ehrenreich found his covert journalism daring in ‘The Flexible Shell’. “Millions of people do this kind of work every day, for the rest of their lives.” He said when he received the Erasmus Prize in 2018. “They never notice you?”
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A version of this article appeared in the September 5, 2022 issue of the newspaper
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