Barbara Ehrenreich lived in a cabin behind her tenants’ trailer and worked as a waitress. She cleaned the houses of the wealthy, aided the elderly in a nursing home and worked as a clerk in Wal-Mart, while getting paid about $7 an hour.
She writes about these experiences and others in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America.
Ehrenreich, who has her doctorate in biology, has published 15 books on similar subjects.On Wednesday, she lectured in front of students and faculty in Cooper Hall Auditorium as part of a tour for her latest book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.
In Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich addressed having a college education may not make one exempt from a life of near-poverty.
For several months she posed as an average middle-class worker looking for a job in white-collar America. The book outlines the anxiety of unemployed college graduates and the disposable workers they become.
She spent most of the lecture speaking on her most noted book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, which takes another look at working life. She posed as a woman with no college diploma and hunted for jobs that paid poverty-level wages.
She experienced firsthand how mentally and physically challenging minimum-wage jobs were and was shocked at the lack of respect she experienced.
In various places, she was unable to converse with co-workers, get a drink of water, or take bathroom breaks. She even met some women whose only solution to the problem was by wearing an adult diaper to work.
During these experiences, she found herself barely able to make ends meet.
According to her calculations, a mother with one child is practically bankrupt before she even has a chance to buy groceries and once rent, utilities and childcare are factored in.
She found the official poverty level of 13 percent to be untrue. Through her calculations, she found about 25 percent of Americans are living in poverty.
As her lecture wound down, she called for the audience to be active for economic justice.
“Poverty does not exist in a vacuum.” Ehrenreich said. “The flipside of poverty is the huge buildup of wealth at the top. We are now the most polarized of all the industrial societies. The gap between the rich and the poor is greater here than in any other industrialized society.”
Graduate student Susan Schoburt also championed that view.
“I am very excited to see young people here, because I feel that (they) need to be informed (about) what the truth is and not just believe what you see on television or what you’re parents say,” Schoburt said. “Open your eyes and your ears and do something about this problem, because it’s a serious problem and its going to effect all of us.”
Ehrenreich left the audience with the message that regardless of ones social status or education, America’s workers can easily become vulnerable to poverty. While that may be a shock to some, it is a motivation to most to try and stop this injustice.
At the end of the lecture there was time for questions and comments, as well as a few words from faculty union President Roy Weatherford and other union members.
“I know it seems like a hopeless task to take the world on all by yourself,” Weatherford said. “But you’re not all by yourself.”