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Barbara Ehrenreich on Poverty, War and Feminism’s Place in the World

StoryDecember 27, 2006
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We play an excerpt of a recent address by Barbara Ehrenreich, best-selling author of “Nickel and Dimed: Surviving in Low-Wage America.” Throughout her three decades of journalism and activism, Ehrenreich has been one of the most consistent chroniclers of class in America. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Barbara Ehrenreich. We are going to bring you different voices in these last few days of this year, commenting on various themes of the last year. Barbara Ehrenreich is known for talking about the poor, the working poor, the middle class and where they stand today in this country. Throughout her three decades of journalism and activism, Barbara Ehrenreich has been one of the most consistent chroniclers of class in America. She’s the author of 13 books, including the New York Times best-seller, Nickel and Dimed: Surviving in Low-Wage America. Her most recent book is called Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.

Well, Barbara Ehrenreich recently spoke in New York City at Cooper Union at the 20th anniversary event of the media watch group FAIR. That’s Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. She was speaking at Cooper Union’s historic Great Hall.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Since this is a FAIR event, I figured I get to vent about some things in the media that have been bothering me. I just figured I can indulge myself here tonight. I can tell you what’s making me mad.

So, let’s start with last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, the one with the elephants going crazy on the cover. Did you see that? At first, you know, my first thought was, “Oh, God, I can’t read another story about Hastert and Foley.” Actually, it was about elephants. But I never got that far, because I was stopped by the column at the beginning of the magazine by James Traub. Anybody ever see this—anybody read that, the column? Come on, nobody reads these things? What’s with this? Why do we call it the mainstream media, if nobody reads it? OK?

Anyway, it starts by saying that welfare reform was, quote, “so successful that there’s no longer any debate about it.” There’s no longer any debate about it because they won’t let those of us who are critical of it speak in the media.

And then he goes on to talk about the need to start a system to reward poor people for good behavior—when occasionally they’re good. Like staying in school or—which is good, I’m all for staying in school—or getting married. Actually, this last one, this is the Bush administration’s anti-poverty program. You might be surprised to know they have an anti-poverty program, and it is marriage—for women. Which would work, of course, if they were willing to draft CEOs into marrying very poor women. Although, as we know, a lot of those CEOs are not exactly marriage material, even the ones who are not currently incarcerated.

But anyway, so I’m reading this, you know, in The New York Times, and there it is, you know? They’ve got to push this marriage stuff. The truth is that most women—face it—end up marrying men of more or less their same social class, which means if you’re a woman in poverty, you’re probably looking at blue-collar guys. And that’s a demographic that has seen their wages sink for three decades now, which once led me to sit down and try to calculate how many blue-collar men does a woman have to marry to lift her out of poverty. And it’s quite a large number.

But I think the real issue here is the mainstream media’s, corporate media’s theory of poverty, which they can’t help but come back to, is that it is a character failure. It is manifested by laziness or promiscuity or addiction or something. Well, there’s an alternative theory of poverty that some of us have been trying to get across, which is that it’s not a character flaw, it is a lack of money. And I think, you know—and that it’s caused, you know, ultimately, by the pathetically low wages so many Americans earn. And I think we have made some progress at getting that point across. Twenty states, as of now, have raised their minimum wages, and that’s because of grassroots pressure all around the country.

One more thing on the subject of marriage, and I’m very pro-marriage. I’ve tried it a number of times. I do have to say something about gay marriage, which is that if you don’t like the idea of gay marriage, don’t marry a gay person. Just solve it that way. And if you are a gay person and you find yourself in the Republican Party, like it now appears so many of the congressional staffers that we have, simply all I have to say is seek help. There are meds for your condition.

There are so many things that bother me. You know, oh, the media—and, Jeff, you’ll remember this one. Our friend Jonathan Tasini was running for the Senate in the primary against Hillary Clinton. And Channel 1 decided he could not debate or participate in any debates on television because he hadn’t raised—what was it, $500,000 you had to have raised? He didn’t—never mind that he was polling 13 percent at that moment. He hadn’t raised $500,000, and he was not a fit participant in a debate for that reason. Channel 1.

Another thing that’s been bothering me, New York Times columnists John Tierney and David Brooks’ constant drumbeat about the innate differences between the sexes. I acknowledge that there are some innate differences between the sexes. For evolutionary reasons that we don’t yet understand, if you’re a male, you’re 10 times more likely to be a columnist for The New York Times. It’s—so this bothers me all the time.

And then, you know, here’s a real stab. We get Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda coming along and starting a radio station for women, which won’t have arguments on it, won’t have debates on it, because they are saying, as they start this new station, that women don’t like to argue and debate. We’re too sweet. We’re too nice. Gloria and Jane, have you ever heard of Katha Pollitt? You know, we have a tradition of fierce debaters on our side. As for the general notion, John and David Brooks there, that women are gentler and more—less aggressive than men, I have one response to anybody who makes that argument, which is, let’s step outside and settle this in the street.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: Surviving in Low-Wage America. Her most recent book is Bait and Switched: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. She was speaking at Cooper Union in New York on the 20th anniversary of FAIR, the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

And that does it for our broadcast. With the late-breaking news of President Ford’s death at the age of 93, we changed our show, and we will bring you an excerpt of the speech by Angela Davis in the coming days.

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