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RIP Barbara Ehrenreich: Exposed Inequality in “Nickel and Dimed,” Opposed Health-Industrial Complex

StorySeptember 06, 2022
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We remember the author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, who has died at the age of 81 after a career exposing inequality and the struggles of regular people in the United States. In a brief interview, Democracy Now! co-host Juan González recalls working with Ehrenreich as part of the Young Lords and says she was instrumental for the movement against the American health-industrial complex. “She’s really one of the towering figures of the radical and progressive movement in America, and it’s a tremendous loss, not only to her family but to all who knew her and benefited from her work,” he says. We also air part of a 2011 interview with Ehrenreich on Democracy Now! upon the re-release of her landmark book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.” “Jobs that don’t pay enough to live on do not cure poverty. They condemn you, in fact, to a life of low-wage labor and extreme insecurity,” she said.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We end today’s show remembering the author, the activist Barbara Ehrenreich, who has died at the age of 81, best known for her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. To research the book, she went undercover as a low-income, nonskilled worker at Walmart; she was a waitress at a restaurant; she worked in a nursing home, in a cleaning service. She later founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Barbara wrote more than 20 books, beginning in 1969 with Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad, a book about antiwar protests she co-wrote with her first husband, John Ehrenreich.

In a moment, we’ll hear Barbara in her own words. But first, Juan, I’m wondering if you can talk about how you knew Barbara Ehrenreich, as someone you worked with, along with other members of the Young Lords, which you helped found in the early ’70s here in New York?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, Amy. I actually met Barbara in 1969. She had just come out of graduate school from her Ph.D. and had joined a group that really became a seminal group in the radical critique of the American healthcare system. It was called the Health/PAC, the Health Policy Advisory Council. And she joined it fresh out of graduate school and joined an extraordinary group of radical and revolutionary doctors and nurses that had gathered in New York City at the time, people like Robb Burlage, Ollie and Charlotte Fein, Ruth Gallanter, Harold Osborn, who was over at Lincoln Hospital at the time. And Health/PAC became sort of the nerve center for providing information to oppressed communities about the healthcare system. Of course, she and her former husband, John Ehrenreich, wrote the book The American Health Empire: Power, Profits, and Politics. And they really are credited with shaping this analysis of the health-industrial complex of the United States and the extraordinary focus on profit in the American healthcare system. She really was a pioneer in that.

And I remember often meeting — I think it was 17 Murray Street, the Health/PAC offices — all the radicals who were involved in some sort of issues around healthcare would meet on a regular basis, and Barbara provided a lot of the research and information that those of us who were organizing our communities didn’t have at the time. A lot of the work we did in healthcare would not have happened without the enormous reservoir of information that she provided to the Black Panther Party, the Republic of New Afrika, the Young Lords and other groups working in the Black and Brown communities. So she was really a giant. And I recommend to people who don’t do that part of Barbara’s history to read an article she wrote about 20 years later. You can find it on the internet. It’s called “Giving Power to the People: The Early Days of Health/PAC.”

And she credits to her experience with Health/PAC with really shaping her entire worldview. And, of course, she went on to do many important and wonderful things. She’s really one of the towering figures of the radical and progressive movement in America, and it’s a tremendous loss, not only to her family but to all who knew her and benefited from her work, that she’s passed away.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Juan, let’s turn to Barbara Ehrenreich in her own words on Democracy Now! It was 2011 as she talked about why she went undercover to work as a low-income, what is known as nonskilled worker to write her classic book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, I took on a challenge that I set myself, which was to see whether I could support myself on the money I could earn in, well, obviously entry-level jobs, which are the, you know, kind of jobs where you go and apply, and they’re not going to ask — you know, they’re not going to ask for a résumé. They’re not going to — they don’t care about anything, except whether you’re a convicted felon or whether you have — you’re actually — you know, it’s legal for you to work in this country. … And all these jobs averaged at the time, in around 2000, about $7 an hour, even including the tips with waitressing, which would be equivalent to about $9 an hour now.

And basically, what I found, that for me, just as one person — I wasn’t trying to support my family with my earnings or anything like that — it just wasn’t doable, because the rents were so out of line with my earnings. And I did try. I mean, I didn’t spend any money except on gas, food and, you know, the bare minimum, which was possible to do because I worked at each city for only a month. You know, so I wasn’t depending — you know, medical care or anything like that was not coming through my jobs.

But I found, you know, a very important thing — well, two very important things. First, at $7 an hour, or $9 an hour in today’s dollars, you’re not considered poor. You know, you don’t show up in the poverty statistics. You’re considered to be fine if you’re one individual earning that much. And the other big lesson here is — which is maybe a hard one to remember at a time of high unemployment — is that jobs are not necessarily a cure for poverty. Jobs that don’t pay enough to live on do not cure poverty. They condemn you, in fact, to a life of low-wage labor and extreme insecurity.

AMY GOODMAN: This figure, Barbara, of the number of Americans on food stamps, almost one in six, almost 15%. The figures from May, people on food stamps were 12% higher than a year earlier, according to the Agriculture Department. One in almost six Americans. And this applies directly to the people that you met, to the jobs that you took — for example, being a Walmart associate. Talk about that and the woman you wrote about and where she is today.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah, I mean, one of the surprises to me — and it’s not a surprise anymore, because a lot more research has been done — is how many Walmart employees depend on some kind of government program to supplement their low wages and pathetically inadequate health insurance, which most people can’t afford anyway. In fact, when you — I noticed that when I went through the orientation for my job at Walmart, and there was a whole table full of new hires sitting around, you know, that they, the Walmart people, asked to see whether anybody here might be eligible for TANF, for example, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, because they’re kind of depending on that government — those government supplements to keep people going. You’re not going to do too well on just your Walmart pay.

And then, at another time as a Walmart associate, I went to seek food aid. I went to a sort of public/private charitable place that what you could get — you could come out with a sack of food. And when the interviewer — the social worker who interviewed me kept getting me mixed up with somebody. You know, I’d tell her that I had a car, and then she’d forget I had a car, and so on. And then she said, “You know, it’s just — we have other — you know, people are always coming from Walmart. You work at Walmart. I get you mixed up.” And that, to me, was a big clue.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Barbara Ehrenreich on Democracy Now! in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of her classic book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. She died on September 2nd at the age of 81. Among her other books, The American Health Empire: Power, Profits, and Politics and Bait and Switch: The Futile Pursuit of the American Dream. Barbara Ehrenreich’s son Ben wrote on Twitter about his mother, “She was never much for thoughts and prayers, but you can honor her memory by loving one another, and by fighting like hell.” To see all of our interviews with Barbara Ehrenreich, you can go to democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a people and culture manager. Go to democracynow.org for more info and apply. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us. Stay safe.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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