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Ear to the Ground

Barbara Ehrenreich: ‘Poverty Has Been Criminalized in America’

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Posted on Aug 14, 2011
Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Ten years ago, writer Barbara Ehrenreich published “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” a blockbuster book on the state of the working poor in America. The project originated during a lunch with Lewis Lapham, now editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine, after the two asked themselves: “How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?”

“Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism—you know, go out there and try it for themselves,” Ehrenreich said, without knowing that someone would be her. What followed was a work of investigative journalism worthy of mention alongside George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier” and Jack London’s “The People of the Abyss.” Two and a half years into the Great Recession, when poverty has become “criminalized,” as Ehrenreich says, her description of life in the underclass is more urgent than ever.

Read her new afterword—which appears in the 10th anniversary re-release of “Nickel and Dimed” published this summer—below.—ARK

TomDispatch:

I completed the manuscript for Nickel and Dimed in a time of seemingly boundless prosperity. Technology innovators and venture capitalists were acquiring sudden fortunes, buying up McMansions like the ones I had cleaned in Maine and much larger. Even secretaries in some hi-tech firms were striking it rich with their stock options. There was loose talk about a permanent conquest of the business cycle, and a sassy new spirit infecting American capitalism. In San Francisco, a billboard for an e-trading firm proclaimed, “Make love not war,” and then—down at the bottom—“Screw it, just make money.”

When Nickel and Dimed was published in May 2001, cracks were appearing in the dot-com bubble and the stock market had begun to falter, but the book still evidently came as a surprise, even a revelation, to many. Again and again, in that first year or two after publication, people came up to me and opened with the words, “I never thought…” or “I hadn’t realized…”

To my own amazement, Nickel and Dimed quickly ascended to the bestseller list and began winning awards. Criticisms, too, have accumulated over the years. But for the most part, the book has been far better received than I could have imagined it would be, with an impact extending well into the more comfortable classes. A Florida woman wrote to tell me that, before reading it, she’d always been annoyed at the poor for what she saw as their self-inflicted obesity. Now she understood that a healthy diet wasn’t always an option.  And if I had a quarter for every person who’s told me he or she now tipped more generously, I would be able to start my own foundation.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, August 16, 2011 at 11:23 am Link to this comment

G. B. Shaw observed, did he not, that the only crime in the society of his times was being poor?  Things have not changed very much.

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OzarkMichael's avatar

By OzarkMichael, August 15, 2011 at 4:05 pm Link to this comment

Pauline Mott said: “You make the same erroneous, uninformed assumptions about the poor of your nation. Why is being poor viewed as a lack of personal responsibility.”

actually, now… you are the one making assumptions. But as a Leftist, thats part of your gig. Its a birthright of sorts.

You have assumed a position of superiority and believe it to be a fact. Thats part of what i was complaining about. Read my post again. Who is engaged in ‘class thinking’? The poor? No. Its the Leftist. Its you, my self rightious friend.

The failure and lack of responsibility that i was talking about is the Leftist’s attitude towards the poor, Leftists think they are the ones who care so much more than people like me… oh but they dont do as much on an individual level. So it isnt an accusation about poor people at all but at folks like yourself.

Your assumed superiority is just too much, too easy a target, to the point that you dont even know that YOU were the ones I was making fun of.

Normally i just keep playing with you guys, since you have entrenched stereotypes and prejudices against folks like me… usually i let you simmer in those juices.

But since I tripped up initially, and for that reason only, I owe ya some straight talk.

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kerryrose's avatar

By kerryrose, August 15, 2011 at 9:03 am Link to this comment

prisnersdilema

That was a beautiful post.

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prisnersdilema's avatar

By prisnersdilema, August 15, 2011 at 7:18 am Link to this comment

The poor are guilty, of being poor…

The rich are innoscent by dint of their wealth…

and the poor are always a nats eyebrow away from something that will land them in the joint….

the meanness, of this country, has consumed many lives, broken the spirit of able bodied men and women, who want only a chance at a decent job,...

While the wealthy congratulate themselves for raping this country, and fattening themselves, in the feed lot of Wall Street…

Progressives, use the vitims for political gain…but no where in their political views, is there room for touching,...embracing.. the real America.

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kerryrose's avatar

By kerryrose, August 15, 2011 at 5:15 am Link to this comment

gerard

I know a married woman with two children who grew up desperately poor.  She and her husband placed a large modular home in the front yard of the shack she grew up in and her elderly father still lives in.  Her husband is long-term unemployed and she has an aide job at the local high school.  They are living on the edge, but their lawn looks like a golf course and she wears madras with airs.

They are both rabid Tea Partiers.  How can that be?  I don’t know but it must be Self-hatred instead of hatred for the other.

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By Pauline Mott, August 14, 2011 at 11:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

OzarkMichael,
I guess we should be grateful that a self righteous prick such as yourself would admit to a mistake. See how easy it was for you to make erroneous assumptions about the author. You make the same erroneous, uninformed assumptions about the poor of your nation. Why is being poor viewed as a lack of personal responsibility. For instance the pipefitter who was injured and unable to ply his trade, was that a lack of responsibility? His wife lost her job due to the recession, is that irresponsible of her? Here was a typical family, a skilled tradesman with a wife and kids, getting by making a living, raising their family, paying their bills and living a normal life when they are hit by a series of disasters that were beyond their control. Tell me where they failed to act responsibly. The failure of responsibility illustrated in this article is the governments failure to protect the American people from the depraved pillaging of the national wealth by the Wall Street Banksters, their failure, due to a depraved ideology, to effectively help those in need, to prevent the massive exodus of family supporting jobs to overseas locations, to offer decent education and healthcare to all and above all their failure to govern for the people instead of for their own self interest.

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By Awi, August 14, 2011 at 9:14 pm Link to this comment

Wow, someone who can write discovers poverty and makes a fortune on a book.

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OzarkMichael's avatar

By OzarkMichael, August 14, 2011 at 8:08 pm Link to this comment

aargh I was wrong. similar name, but doh i was remembering Paul and Ann Ehrlich.

Apologies to John and Barbara Ehrenreich. also to gerard since I was being a smart ass.

I hate being wrong.

go ahead and say it….

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OzarkMichael's avatar

By OzarkMichael, August 14, 2011 at 7:46 pm Link to this comment

Does anyone know of any studies that show whether a person who works harder to succeed is more charitable towards individuals who are poor than the Leftists who mostly think grand thoughts about ‘the poor’?

Lack of individual responsibility is the source of so much failure, and class thinking belies a lack of appreciation for individuality. 

I only ask that question because i have suspicions and like gerard, I seek proof to confirm my prejudice.

While we wait for the data to pour in, lets chat about Ms Ehrenreich. I know her name from 30 years ago, like an old friend.

i cant remember the title of the book but it will come to me. It was about population control. She was into doom-doom-doom back then. and the government needed to take some pretty harsh “progressive” steps or it was gonna be death for us all. She became famous for a book that was completely wrong in its predictions, and a little heavy handed with solutions.

What is her gig now? the economy? really? i would have thought she would be more of a global-warming type.

lemmie find that book.

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By GW=MCHammered, August 14, 2011 at 7:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Corporate Psychopathy

http://siivola.org/monte/papers_grouped/uncopyrighted/Misc/corporate_psychopathy.htm

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By gerard, August 14, 2011 at 6:03 pm Link to this comment

Does anyone know of any studies on whether or not a person’s fear of him/herself becoming poor can cause that person to hate, fear, disrespect, punish poor people? Or simply avoid thinking about them?

Fear is the source of so much negative behavior that I’m suspicious, but have no evidence.

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