Writer and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich died on September 1 at the age of 81. An award-winning essayist and columnist (and a PhD in biology), she also wrote more than 20 books, including Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, the book for which Ehrenreich is probably most famous. In 1998, during lunch with an editor, the talk turned to poverty. This was at the time when "workfare" had been introduced with the goal to "end welfare as we know it" and Ehrenreich wondered how well those being forced off welfare and into work were going to do on the kinds of low-wage jobs available for them, Her editor challenged her to find out for herself.
Nickel and Dimed tells that story. Ehrenreich set herself some ground rules for an experiment about surviving in the low-wage workforce. She would have a month in each location, taking the highest paying, low-wage job she was offered and the cheapest housing she could find. Ehrenreich waited tables in Key West, Florida, cleaned houses and served meals in a nursing home in Portland, Maine, and worked at a Walmart in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Already in her late 50s at the time of her experiment, she acknowledged that her lifetime of privilege (healthcare, gym membership, white-collar jobs) made it possible for her to do the physically demanding jobs available. Many of the women she worked with (and they were mostly women) were physically worn from a lifetime of this kind of work, often unable to take a sick day because it meant not getting paid, or relying on over-the-counter pain medication to get through a shift. In the end, Ehrenreich found that even with her good health, privilege, and the cash safety-net she had to start each month, she would not have been able to survive without working two jobs, something she likely would not have been able to maintain for long before being stopped by injury or exhaustion.
Ehrenreich founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project in 2012, as a way to support journalists writing from poor and working-class perspectives and to bring those often unheard stories to the mainstream. Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America by Alissa Quart and Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive by Stephanie Land both were published through the support of EHRP.
In the twentieth anniversary edition of Nickel and Dimed, sociologist Matthew Desmond (author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City) describes Ehrenreich's work as "fierce witnessing" and noted our collective unwillingness to see the struggles of those around us. Nickel and Dimed is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was published two decades ago. As Ehrenreich commented in 2018, “Many people praised me for my bravery for having done this, to which I could only say: Millions of people do this kind of work every day for their entire lives — haven’t you noticed them?”