top of page

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich was an American author and activist. Born to Democrat parents who frequently encouraged discussion around race and labor issues, she initially pursued theoretical physics in college but decided to pursue a career in public health, frequently speaking on discrimination in healthcare and housing and sexism in women's health. Throughout her career, she has published numerous books detailing her experiences in investigative journalism. Arguably, the most famous of these is Nickel and Dimed, a study on low-wage workers in America and the true level of social mobility one average person can achieve; the book has become a modern classic of social justice. Ehrenreich later created the initiative The Economic Hardship Reporting Project based on her experience researching for Nickel and Dimed to support immersive journalism. She has taught and lectured at NYU, the University of Missouri, UC Santa Barbara, Ohio State University, the University of Oregon, and UC Berkeley. She was also the founder of United Professionals, a labor support organization, and a co-chair of The Democratic Socialists of America. She has received the National Magazine Award, the Sidney Hillman Award, the Puffin Prize for Creative Citizenship, a Four Freedoms Award, a Ford Foundation award, the Erasmus Prize, and numerous honorary degrees. She died on September 1st, 2022 of a stroke at 81 years old.

Spectator Magazine: So, you started with a PhD in cellular immunology then you worked with the Democratic Socialists of America. Can you tell us a little bit about how you went from that background to deciding to become a writer and some of the milestones in that transformation?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, there was no point where I said, “Oh, I don’t think I’ll be a scientist, I think I’ll be a writer.” I never have made very lasting career plans. It happened because after graduate school in science, I was not interested in being a lab scientist. (Laughs) I discovered that pretty decisively. But I did get my PhD and then I went on to work with a little radical group in New York City. I think I started there in 1969 and we put out a newsletter every month about healthcare issues for low-income New Yorkers. We liked to expose who is really controlling the public health sector, ‘cause it’s all really private. And, you know, it was fun. I found I really enjoyed editing for a bulletin and I even more enjoyed doing investigative reporting. I loved it. And it seems natural to come from science to this kind of thing where you go after a question in every possible way to come up with a story. So that was the beginning. It was a long time before I said, “Hey, that’s what I’d like to put on an income tax form— that my occupation is a writer.” But it sort of snuck up on me peculiarly. It was kind of dumb to get simultaneously divorced and quit my job. (Laughter) But I did it. Anybody here going to be a journalist or a writer?

SM: It’s not out of the question.

BE: Okay, here’s the sad part of my story: it’s not possible to do what I did then, today. In the ‘80’s there were all these magazines: they had lots of money, they’d take you out for lunch to talk about story ideas. I could pretty much support my kids and myself— with some child support from my ex-husband— on my writing. Now that meant working very hard and being very disciplined. I had to churn out, like, four thousand-dollar pieces a month. I ended up making about that much, and I don’t know what that would be today, but it would be hard to make that same amount writing. Nobody wants to pay us anymore. The internet was not a boon to freelance writers. It was sort of a disaster because they decided, “Why pay you? You’re a dime a dozen.” (Laughs) So, that leads to something I do right now— the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. We raise money from foundations to help mostly poor people so they can make some money for things they write. For example— they were paying $150 for a piece of any length. So one of the first things we did for them was in fact a great piece, by a writer who was reduced to selling his own plasma to make ends meet. So we say, “Okay you can pay him your $150 and we will make it up so he makes enough money, like a dollar a word.” That’s what we used to be paid. So we just try to get it up to that. And then, that writer was able to get a little bit more of a push.

SM: So it’s essentially a subsidy?

BE: Yeah. But we do a lot of work with the writers too. Some of them are extremely experienced and they were just laid off from a newspaper and don’t need much help, but maybe we’ll push them in some sort of a direction to be more lively or something ‘cause newspapers tend to be dull. Before we send it off to possible outlets, we edit it, so that the editor and the outlet— which could be the New York Times— is getting a pretty decent piece of copy. we’re very thrilled by how well this has been going. It’s not a long term solution. It just depends on getting more rich people to say this is important for them— that they do need information, they do need to know about class and inequality in America — class, race, and gender inequality.

 

"...that they do need information, they do need to know about class and inequality in America — class, race, and gender inequality."

SM: That's something you wrote about in Nickel and Dimed, right? What were the most physically and mentally challenging experiences? What did you want your readers to take away with them?

BE: I really was reporting. I didn’t have a point I wanted to make. When I went into this and started getting these jobs, living in different parts of the country, I said, “I’m just going to write down at the end of the day everything that happened. And I’m not going to judge what is important.” Although, I knew what I was feeling, and that influenced me a lot. I think one of the hardest things to deal with feeling-wise were the daily humiliations of being a low-wage worker. Like this restaurant I worked for where one day the manager on duty called all of us waitstaff off the floor and into the back room so he could have a talk with us. We lined up against the wall and he said, “There has been a drug incident here.” Oh Jesus, where am I? Middle school? (Laughter) It almost felt like “Excuse me, I don’t belong here!” And the worst is that you could lose your job and then you’re not going to be able to survive for the two weeks or so it takes to get another job. So I learned a huge amount. Not that it was a completely unknown world to me, because a lot of my family is working class. I didn’t feel odd or out of place with my coworkers. The real odd thing was at the end of it, when I knew I was going to leave a place I would tell anybody who I had gotten to like or know especially well, “You know I have to tell you now I’m not actually a whatever— nursing home aide. I’m actually a writer! And I’m here to do an exposé about how people are treated in these sorts of jobs.” And they’d say “Huh? Oh, does that mean you won’t be here on the evening shift next week?” (laughter) Nobody believed me! I remember telling this one young woman “Look! Go to the library, look in the card catalogue — which we had in the ‘olden days’— and you’ll see my name is there, books by me.” And she said “Uh huh.”

 

SM: Did you feel the pressure yourself in “Is there going to be enough money?” So is it more how people were treated or the constant worry of just making enough to survive?

BE: In my case I really knew I would survive. One of the things I decided at the outset was that if it looked like I was going to be in the streets, I was gonna cut the experiment off. I was too old for that. (laughter) So I had some sense of protection. But the way people were treated… like in a house cleaning job, we had to get to work at 7:30 in the morning, but then we just waited around while the boss decided who would be in which car together and what the route would be. At about 8:15 the clock would actually start ticking. See, it wasn’t ticking for us before that. That was 45 minutes of stolen time. Time theft, I call it — wage theft. And it goes on everywhere. So there is the insult and the discomfort and everything combines with the loss of wages.

SM: Given those issues you mentioned, why does the working class support Trump in such large numbers?

BE: Oh god. (Laughter) At this point, I don’t know. But in 2016, there was not much the Democrats could say to the working class, which is a pretty heterogeneous population anyway. The Democrats have not done much and then Hillary Clinton's campaign just didn't know how to work with working class people. “The deplorables” sunk her as much as anything. So it was the failure of the Democratic party, I would say.

SM: Do you think there is any hope of democratic socialism taking hold? Or do you think socialism is going to continue to be this smear tactic that the right uses?

BE: Well, I think it's changed a lot. In the 80s, you hesitated to say, “I am a socialist.” The audience could walk out. Now it's sayable and we owe that, I think, mostly to Bernie but also to people like AOC and Rashida Tlaib.

SM: In Nickel and Dimed you worked a lot of traditionally women's jobs as a maid, a nurse, and there was a theme of socialism and feminism and how they reinforce each other. Could you talk more about how socialism and feminism interconnect?

BE: Boy, you’re taking me back. It’s all the same problem, isn’t it? Well, obviously, women workers would be enormously helped by a more labor friendly government that makes it possible to, say, miss a day of work because you have a sick kid, obvious things like that. But we can’t just say, “Oh yeah, okay, socialism will take care of it all.” We also have to focus on these other dynamics: racism, sexism, homophobia.

"But we can’t just say, "Oh yeah, okay, socialism will take care of it all.""

SM: It's interesting because in many ways independence and the idea of being financially independent is a feminist ideal, whereas in socialism, it’s more the idea of interdependence and depending on other people. How do those two almost conflicting ideas work together?

BE: They weren't always conflicting. What happened in feminism is it kind of got taken over by, or bent, in a direction of individualism and “You can make it yourself, you can dress for success, and learn how to intimidate men,” and things like that and “You don't need a team, a squad or something.” But that's not how it started out and that's what we saw taking over at a certain point and we socialist-feminists thought of mainstream feminism as sort of bourgeois feminism because of the emphasis on individual success. So one of my roles within the women's movement, was to say, “No, we build this together.”

SM: Was that towards the end of the women's movement or was that third-wave feminism or is that just…

BE: No, no, it was certainly very clear in the 80s that was the direction things were going and it was tricky because you didn’t want to offend your bourgeois feminist friends and you needed to challenge them a little bit too, so it was… a lot of arguments… a lot of meetings.

SM: We wanted to ask one question about your book Bright-Sided. In it, you attack the positive thinking and positive psychology trend where you claim that it is undermining America. We wanted to ask, for the skeptic, could you explain what you see as the inherent dangers in the positive psychology trend?

BE: Well, we should be very practical about it. It becomes a “blame the victim” kind of thing. I had first encountered all of this “bright-siding” when I was being treated for breast cancer. The line in breast cancer was, “Well, if you have a positive attitude, if you are hopeful enough and optimistic, you will overcome this. If you don’t, you will die.” And that’s just terrible. And it means that you die feeling guilty because “Why weren’t you more positive?” That’s not the problem here… so that kind of thing infuriates me. Or when you tell an unemployed person to be positive. In my other book Bait and Switch, it was incredible to me. I decided to look into the life of unemployed white collar workers, and I couldn’t get a job. This is really tragic. I was faking being a PR person. But that’s what a writer can do! I could do that… and, actually where I belong in the job market is at the entry level. The waitress, the house cleaner, that kind of thing. That’s what I learned.

SM: It’s interesting how you went from the story of your experience with cancer and the blame the victim mentality, but towards the end of the book you got into the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007–2008 and directed the problem of positive thinking into this yawning gap.

BE: It was fascinating to do the research and try to talk to some of these finance guys. They would say, “The atmosphere around here was just high fives and enthusiasm and everything is great and anybody who said anything different was dragging down the mood of the company and should be let go.” I thought, “This is insane!” But that’s how American business was running. Now, I don’t know how much that applies today. I should think there would have been some learning. You have to take in some negative comments and notice negative trends now but they were all so blinded by this idea that you could get anything you wanted just by wanting it hard enough, by thinking, “Oh, I’ll sell 100,000 of these gizmos and become a rich person.”

SM: What steps do you think have been taken and what steps do you think need to be taken to prevent that sort of toxic bright-sided boom and bust from happening again?

BE: I’ve tried. (Laughter) You feel like such a grouch going around saying things like this. You know? “Don’t be optimistic! Don’t be hopeful!” But I enjoyed doing that too.

SM: We all enjoy it. (Laughter)

BE: I can’t say I enjoyed it in a mean way. It just frustrates me so much that people can be sucked into insane ideologies. Like the ideology of the big 2006 bestseller The Secret and what she preached was that you can have anything you want just by visualizing it, or saying affirmations to yourself like, “Oh, I’m Barbara and I am so great. I deserve a diamond necklace and it’ll come to me!” I don’t know. Am I nuts?

SM: How do you stay involved when there are so many terrible things going on? How do you care about it all and not get exhausted?

BE: I don’t think I figured it out. You know, I talked to friends, we’d sob on each other’s shoulders and stuff, and keep looking for little pressure points, looking for things to do, anything that we can intervene in on some, like, local level. Last winter I did a little, I didn’t have to do much, to help organize some local people in Alexandria around immigration issues. And we had public events, where we had slideshows, we talked about the fate of children near the border, and I felt like I was getting off lightly. (Laughs) I’d make the phone calls. I’m not going to say I’m as bewildered as you are cause you’re probably not as bewildered as I am. (laughter)

"...keep looking for little pressure points, looking for things to do, anything that we can intervene in on some, like, local level."

SM: No, we’re pretty bewildered.

BE: Well, one of the things that honestly has been very bewildering for a lot of leftists of my generation is they expect the world to be rational, and they want to know, “Trump must have a plan, we have to understand what that plan is.” No. He doesn’t have to have a plan, it’s just nuttiness. It’s just one crazy ass thing after another. This is just insanity on display. I never thought much about narcissism until Trump. I’m tracing its spread and how it dug into so many aspects of life. We have a hyper narcissistic culture here. I love the idea of “self care.” You know, you’re supposed to be rubbing oils on your body and getting massages. It was this maddening little phase right after Trump was elected when the mainstream media was full of articles about self care; take long walks in the country, do this. Come on. That’s not social change, that’s bullshit. Yeah, so I am interested in — intellectually — what happened here. You know, what happened, specifically, in America, but not only in America.

SM: Do you think that the hold capitalism has on America has contributed to our narcissism?

BE: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean it’s the consumer culture that is constantly bringing us messages that we should look out for ourselves, that we should indulge ourselves, “you deserve a treat, you deserve a vacation, you deserve a spa visit,” etc, and… you’re making me feel like a grouch again. (Laughter)

SM: Well it’s not to say that people don’t deserve a treat or an indulgence once in a while, but it's the idea, if I have this right, that with capitalism, we always deserve that and we’re not, we shouldn’t be focusing on anything else. Is that right?

BE: Yeah, what do you want? Do you want new clothes? A new car? So it’s the consumer culture, the hyper individualism of so much of our educational system. You’re competing with everyone else, in high school; it’s insane what you go through in high school.

SM: Don’t we know it.

BE: Well, I have my granddaughters, who are 15 and 18. The 18 year old is just about to graduate, and it’s all stress, it’s all anxiety, all the time. And homework. I have to be the hippie of the family and say, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter that much where you go to college, whether you go to college, etc.” But there’s nobody saying that to people right now. I mean, this is a time that, I’ll be direct here, teenagers should be taking to the streets, and have been, and say, “What are you leaving us, boomers?” (Laughs) I challenge us to do more things to support and everything, but you [teenagers] have to take the lead.

SM: How has the education system changed in America, since you were last involved in it?

BE: Oh, I don’t know what’s happened. It wasn’t such a big deal. I didn’t agonize over where to go to college or agonize about grades all that much. Not compared to my granddaughters. Something has changed. More people go to college, relatively, so there are more people trying to get into the schools. And you all are very sophisticated about status differences between colleges and various high schools and prep schools and everything.

SM: How does the decreasing value of a degree, but the rising cost of college tuition affect society?

BE: Oh, it’s terrible. That’s an issue the Economic Hardship Reporting Project has often written about and reported on, starting with an article about suicides over student debt. You know, some people are still paying off their own student debt when their kids start college. Some people are still paying it off when they get onto Social Security. It’s nuts. That’s another reason why I’m for Bernie: free education, as long as you want it, and whatever you want. School debt is massive, and it’s ruining people’s lives. Like medical bills ruin people’s lives, and cause people to commit suicide. Now I’m getting more hopeless than when you came. (Laughter)

SM: Not to “bright-side” the interview, but you are expecting a new grandchild, and you know, there are things to be positive about. What are some things that give you hope that there will continue to be positive change in society?

BE: Well, it’s mostly young people: Greta... And you guys! No, but it’s the fact that my granddaughter’s were influenced by me, “You must become a revolutionary!” (Laughter) They were hitting the streets right after Trump was elected. Student organized protests in DC. I felt so conflicted. On one hand, I was so proud of my granddaughters, on the other hand, I was so dashed that my generation had left them with such problems. Um… we tried.

SM: Your generation stopped the Vietnam War, you were able to make enormous changes for Civil Rights in the South and the North. You sparked the environmental movement, the women’s movement. Your generation left a lot of positive legacy. In fact, it has shown the way for the younger generation. Your writings and your generation’s activism are the road map for us, but this generation has almost become overwhelmed with bad news, and it’s hard to think what can we do that will make a difference when it’s all so overwhelming.

BE: It was never as bad as this. This is a new order of threat, to the species, if not to any other living things on Earth. And I don’t know how you guys think about that in your lives.

SM: What will it look like for future generations, if these issues are so currently pressing?

BE: We have never faced anything like this, as a species, and... I’ve been doing more thinking about us as a species, recently. I wrote one big essay this last year, which was about Paleolithic cave art. But that was, you know, a way of getting some perspective, for me. It seems to me as a journalist I’m not going to contribute anything to the journalistic dialogue about Trump. He’s um… all the conservatives have taken over that turf, so Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post. They don’t need me. George Will can do it (laughter). So, it just seems to be like we have to really get it together as a species. And you were talking about the need to come together to be able to work collectively, and that was the point of my cave art essay. Once humans could do that— had to do that — and we’ve just lost the way. We just don’t know how to help each other. How to get together and face a common threat. But I just don’t think business can go on as usual. I think there should be, you know, right now, with the impeachment sort of hovering over us and proof that Trump is nuts enough to start nuclear wars and whatever. We really need to be out there in huge numbers.

 

"We really need to be out there in huge numbers."

You could say, “Well, that’s really not a very original thought,” and it’s not. But that’s what my generation came up with. You know, we’ll walk the streets. We need to be thinking of how to protect vulnerable people like immigrants, recent immigrants, not so recent immigrants. We have to be building up networks of support for people like that, as well as for workers on strike. So that would be my priority. Let’s think of who’s facing real trouble now, and what we can do to help.

—Barbara Ehrenreich for Spectator Magazine, 20__

bottom of page