We just lost one of the world’s best writers on inequality and social class — and on being alive in America today. Barbara Ehrenreich, best known for his “classic of social justice literature”, Nickel and Dimeddied Thursday at the age of 81.
Ehrenreich grew up in a working class, “strong unionfamily, with working-class roots. (His father was a copper miner, who later earned a doctorate and became an executive; his mother was a housewife.)
She has written more than 20 books on the human condition and subjected her experience – often her own – to forensic scrutiny. She probed the familiar to make it strange and tied what she found to a policy to make things better.
Ehrenreich said once “seeing real prejudice for blue-collar, working-class people” of her place within the professional middle class had a strong impact on her.
Storytelling related to political change
The political effect of timely and powerful storytelling linked to political change is significant – as was shown last week during the Jobs and Skills Summit.
A range of voices from Australian business leaders, trade unions and civil society dominated the summit. But the room was quietest around noon on the second day, when familiar names were rare.
Five very personal contributions on discrimination and community attitudes silenced the great hall. Not because the speakers were famous; they were not. And not because they presented killer data or made a fortune. They hadn’t.
Instead, they each told some of their own stories of their journey through the thickets of discrimination and marginalization, describing the challenges they faced, as well as the people and experiences that changed their lives. journey.
Chances are, these are the stories summit attendees will remember the most. Stories of confronting inequality and finding kindness, opportunity and courage – and their opposites – in life-changing times.
Witnessing class and power
As Ehrenreich’s body of work demonstrates, witnessing the human experience through the lens of class and power is a powerful teacher.
The lessons it delivers are more robust than buckets of data or the best Powerpoint presentation. It can illuminate precisely what is going on in a society – and what could make a difference. It can cut through willful ignorance, as well as the self-protective and rationalizing layers of the helping, professional and political classes (which manage poverty and class divisions).
It was a fact well known to Ehrenreich, who studied in class and knew the power of history – and especially of experience. Through her many books, articles, and speeches, she has told stories of health care, women’s lives, war, collective joy, poverty, and the failures of individualism.
She analyzed the world of care, globalization, social reproduction and work. She shed a constant and powerful light on the details of life and society.
Very early on, she cut her teeth analyzing male medical management of childbirth and women’s health – in particular, his own first birth in a public hospital among low-income Americans. (Where her labor was induced because it was late in the evening and the doctor wanted to go home.) Later, she says it made her a feminist.
Denounce poverty, iniquity, hypocrisy
Erhenreich’s most famous book, a bestseller, was Nickel and Dimed: We (don’t) get by in low-wage America (2001), which recounts her own prolonged experience of working in a range of low-paying jobs as a waitress, cleaner, and saleswoman.
She exposed the daily pain and onerous management of living on the SMIC and in working poverty: her juggling of rent, food, health and transport – and the extraordinary subservience, control and indignity it imposes. And she wrote it in a way that put her own struggles on the page, creating compulsive reading. She was the Lee Childs of sociological literature.
His account helped push for a rise in the minimum wage in the United States. This led to thousands of other contributions she has made to understanding working poverty and the lives of working and middle class people in the 21st century.
It inspired spin-offs from journalists replicating Ehrenreich’s experience, including Polly Toynbee of the UK (Hard work: life in low-wage Britain2003) and Australian Elizabeth Wynahusen (Dirt Cheap: Life on the wrong side of the job market2003).
And – in part – this led to Helen Masterman-Smith’s and mine’s account of the lived experience of poverty, Living on low pay: the dark side of prosperous Australia (2008), which featured low-paid workers sharing their experiences in their own words.
Erhenreich’s writings about the 2009 recession led her to create the Economic Hardship Report Draft, which collects and publishes accounts of poverty in the United States. It is a project that is all too relevant for one of the most unequal societies on our planet.
Ehrenreich also chronicled the collapse of Central American white and pink collar jobs in nursing, teaching and other professions, with their deterioration into unlimited demands, long hours and low salaries.
She excoriated the wellness movement in her 2018 book Natural causeswho singled out the ways in which we are encouraged to love our illnesses and take personal responsibility for their outcomes, claiming that we are masters of our bodily worlds – while living in a society where millions have faced the pandemic without a ounce of paid sick leave and where the health care system is the poster child for punitive and murderous inequality.
In smile or dieEhrenreich deftly challenged America’s passion for Positive thought, which elevates individual will above collective responsibility. She argued it was one of the reasons for the economic collapse of 2008. “Nobody could see that something bad was happening.”
She entered the fray
Ehrenreich did not choose the easy stories. At the time of her death, she was working on a book on narcissism. And she did not take refuge in the calm of the printed page; she engaged in the disaster area that was American policy for much of her life. Ehrenreich has been actively involved in a range of organizations (as a founder, advisor or board member), from the National Action League for Abortion Rights to Progressive Media Project. She regularly entered the fray, while making her analytical contributions at the same time.
“Jobs that don’t pay enough to live on don’t cure poverty,” she once said. said. “They condemn you, in effect, to a life of low-wage work and extreme insecurity.”
Barbara would have been an eager presence at last week’s Jobs and Skills Summit, on the lookout for the class and gender story under the data, the fault lines of inequality and their causes. She would have been aware of the hypocrisy of talk instead of action and, more importantly, of the possibility of change and the pathways to it.
Most likely, however, she would have been found in front of Parliament, outside, with the small crowd of illegally gathered unemployed people who were refused permits to assemble and banned from attending the summit.
She may have listened to their stories – told to a single SBS camera – about what drove them to be on Jobseeker (family responsibilities, health issues, workplace discrimination) and the consequences of being on it (empty fridges, missed medical care, transportation difficulties).
As she put it in a late interview with the New Yorker:
The idea is not that we will win in our lifetime, and that is our measure, but that we will die trying.
May the world continue to see and publish wonderful women like Barbara Ehrenreich. Women who put their eloquence, creativity, courage and spirit to work – to illuminate, inform and change our world.
Barbara Pocock is Emeritus Professor at the University of South Australia, University of South Australia.
This article first appeared on The conversation.