Barbara Ehrenreich, writer who explored American inequality, dies at 81

Barbara Ehrenreich, an author and essayist who set apart the myths of the American Dream with books that included a direct struggle to live on minimum wage in “Nickel and Dimed” and a bootstrapped rebuke of optimism in “Bright- Sided,” died Sept. 1 at a hospice in Alexandria, Va. She was 81.

His daughter Rosa Brooks, who confirmed the death, said her mother had suffered a stroke. Ms Ehrenreich was in poor health after going public with a breast cancer diagnosis, but wrote in 2018 that she refused to ‘accept a medicalized life’ and had stopped most doctor visits and other care.

In more than 20 books, Ms. Ehrenreich explored a range of topics that echoed her varied background as a feminist political activist and scientist with a doctorate in cellular immunology. She returned again and again, however, to cast a critical eye on the chronic inequalities of American society — from health care to housing to gender roles — and the collective folklore that hails the country as a land of unlimited opportunities.

His groundbreaking project began with a question to an editor, Lewis Lapham of Harper’s Magazine, about how people can get by on minimum wage. This led her to find out for herself. Beginning in 1998, she did a modern take on writer Upton Sinclair’s telltale time in Chicago’s meatpacking yards. She worked incognito in jobs across the country at the bottom of the pay scale: waitress, hotel maid, housekeeper, Walmart employee, for an average of about $7 an hour.

She lived paycheck to paycheck – sometimes under, sometimes behind – in trailer parks and seedy residential motels.

“In every job, in every place I’ve lived, work has absorbed all my energy and much of my intellect,” she wrote in 2001 in “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America”. “I wasn’t kidding. Even though I suspected from the start that the mathematics of wages and rents were working against me, I tried hard to pull it off.

The book has helped fuel the debate about sustainable wages and the gaping income gaps in the United States between people with jobs that provide retirement investments and health care and others trying to stay afloat with a hourly pay and possibly no benefits.

Although Ms. Ehrenreich primarily framed the book as a plea for help for working poor, her portrayals of her colleagues were sympathetic and at times uplifting. Some readers saw the book as a look at the early stages of immigrant success stories.

“Jobs aren’t necessarily a cure for poverty,” she said in a 2011 interview. “Jobs that don’t pay enough to live on don’t cure poverty. They condemn you, in effect, to a life of low-wage work and extreme insecurity.

Barbara Alexander was born on August 26, 1941 in Butte, Montana, then a center of copper mining. Her father worked in a mine while attending the Montana School of Mines. Ms Ehrenreich described her mother as a New Deal liberal who would ‘always talk about racial injustice’ but had an unstable side that scared her as a child.

The family moved to Pittsburgh while Ms. Ehrenreich’s father earned a doctorate in metallurgy from Carnegie Mellon University. He then became director of research at Gillette in Massachusetts.

She called her parents “dogmatic atheists” who passed on their opinions to her. “It’s the absence of God that brings this great moral responsibility upon us,” she told The New Yorker.

Ms. Ehrenreich graduated in 1963 from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, with a degree in chemistry. She earned a doctorate in cellular immunology in 1968 from Rockefeller University in New York, where she met her first husband, John Ehrenreich.

In the early 1970s, she served as an assistant professor of health sciences at the State University of New York at Old Westbury and began lecturing at feminist and women’s health events. A common theme was her anger at what she called substandard conditions at a New York public clinic in 1970 when she gave birth to her daughter, Rosa.

His writing career was also already underway. Her first book, “Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad” in 1969, was co-authored with her husband. Their next book in 1970, “The American Health Empire: Power, Profits and Politics”, was a prescient look at the influence of the pharmaceutical industry. Together they coined the term “professional-managerial class”, which is still used in academic studies.

Ms. Ehrenreich left academia in 1974 to write full-time. His gaze has remained fixed on those who are being left behind by the American economy or simply hanging on. “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class” (1989) and “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream” (2005) dug into what she called the security facade of the middle class.

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Some of his strongest criticisms of American culture have been leveled in his 2009 best-selling “Bright-Sided”. She demonstrated that the country’s emphasis on “positive” thinking and self-image masks the risks that can lead to economic crises and exacerbate social injustice.

“My mind has been full of dark, angry thoughts, many of which have to do with the lack of paid sick leave,” she told The New Yorker. “We are proving so vulnerable in the United States. Not only because we have no safety net, or very little, but because we have no emergency preparedness, no social infrastructure.

Her marriages to Ehrenreich and Gary Stevenson ended in divorce. In addition to her two children, Brooks, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and Ben Ehrenreich, a journalist and author, survivors include a brother; a sister; and three grandchildren, the family said.

In 2018, her book “Natural Causes” brought together many themes from her past work – American culture, health care failures and corporate influence – in a critique of what she called an obsession with ignore the inevitability of death. The body was in a constant fight to keep us alive. And one day he will lose, she reminded readers after her own breast cancer diagnosis.

“Every death can now be understood as a suicide,” she wrote. “We persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly premature age to a sort of bio-moral autopsy: Did they smoke? Drink excessively? Eating too much fat and not enough fiber? In other words, can she be blamed for her own death?