Raising a Fuss

Indignation has been good to Barbara Ehrenreich. The political essayist and social critic has channeled her anger into 11 nonfiction books and countless essays and columns. Now she has one more reason to thank her ire: This week it was announced that she is the winner of the 2004 Puffin/Nation Prize, which carries a $100,000 cash prize for "exposing truths largely ignored by the media, most notably the day-to-day indignities endured by the nation's working poor."

Ehrenreich's best-selling "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by In America" (Metropolitan) is a record of her life in several states as she tried to survive on a string of minimum-wage jobs. The book chronicles the myriad hardships and indignities she suffered as a waitress, Wal-Mart clerk, nursing-home aid and cleaning woman in her quest to illuminate the lives of the millions of women who re-entered the workforce after welfare reform. Since the book came out, she has authored a string of columns for several outlets--including a twice-weekly temporary stint at The New York Times--focusing her outrage on the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, human-rights abuses and the Bush administration.

Ehrenreich, who is working on a new book about unemployment, due out in September of next year, recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about the Puffin/Nation award and how she went from earning a Ph.D. in biology to being an activist journalist. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What does this award mean to you and what do you plan on doing with the money?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Well it's like a big slap on the back, which is nice coming after a big slap in the face that was the election. There are groups I give money to that are organizing among low-wage workers, and I think they're going to get some of it.

With all of your writing, do you feel like you've ever actually accomplished something tangible or do you worry that you're just howling in the wilderness?

A lot of times you feel like you've put the message in the bottle and thrown it. It's nice to get feedback, though. And I have gotten a lot of feedback in this last year to several things I've written. I've just had one in The Nation, this week, that's gotten quite a lot of response.

One thing that stood out in that Nation piece was your claim that "the closest analogy to America's bureaucratized evangelical movement is Hamas." Are you equating the Christian right with a terrorist group?

That's not equating. It's certainly not saying that they're terrorists. But it is the same style of using social services of various kinds to draw people into an ideologically based movement.

And your argument is that secular liberals could learn a thing or two from this?

The left really used to be very good at these things. We were the ones that used to have all the free clinics and ghetto storefronts and women's health centers. Now it seems like the right-leaning evangelical churches are a little more ambitious. I think it's great that they do social services. What worries me is that they do it in the context of a political outlook which opposes public services.

You write, though, that secular liberals should invoke Jesus.

I will and often do invoke Jesus, because of his social teachings. [John] Kerry was unable to articulate the war or economic issues as moral issues. And he was too compromised on the war; he never came out against it. He hesitated to run with some of the atrocities like Abu Ghraib--I guess for fear of offending somebody. I think a lot of Americans were waiting for somebody to say "this is disgusting."

You have a Ph.D. in biology. How did you get into this line of work?

It wasn't a career decision. I left graduate school and said, "I don't want to be a scientist; I want to be socially relevant." So I went to work for a group that was advocating for better health care for low-income New Yorkers. I ended up doing a lot of writing of our newsletter and investigative pieces. And I loved it. It was quite a while, though, before I began to think of that as a possible source of income. And it's not a source of great income being a freelance writer.

Would you call yourself a journalist? Or are you more of an activist?

I call myself a journalist and a writer and an activist, too.

Should journalism be an activist endeavor, though? Shouldn't it be objective?

A lot of the writing I do is opinion-based essay writing. So it's not by nature, quote, "objective," like being a reporter. "Nickel and Dimed" was an exception because that was all reporting, except for the last chapter where I reflect on it. That was a new thing for me, and I enjoyed it, frankly, as a form of writing. But no, I have never seen a conflict. Activism often inspires me to write about a topic. But once I get into the process of researching and putting it together, then I'm curious. I want to get the facts. I want to see what the truth is, and maybe I'll even revise my opinion.

Would you do immersion journalism again?

If it's appropriate. It doesn't just fascinate me as an approach, but if it's the best way to get certain kinds of information.... I think if you're writing a book about the working poor, as David Shipler did, then you do what a normal reporter does, and you interview and so on. Mine was more personal. It was a little bit more like a reality show. Can this woman survive on the wages she makes out there in the job market? You do find out different things by doing the immersion journalism method. Important things.

George Plimpton famously did it, if comically. What did you find out?

Just how hard the work was. I mean, if I asked anybody if their job was hard in an interview, they would say "Yeah, I'm tired at the end of the day." It's another thing for me to do it and find that, as strong as I am, my legs are rubbery at the end of the day. Also, the humiliations inflicted on low-wage workers, the constant suspicion that you're stealing or taking drugs. I think a lot of people in those jobs might not mention it because they're so used to it. But for me coming from the privileged life of a freelancer--that is, nobody looking over my shoulder--it stung. And I had to be there to feel that kind of resentment and shame that I hadn't really felt since junior high school.

And you've said in response to this award that it's too easy for the poor to blend in. How would you propose they change that?

Raise a fuss. Constantly, I'm hearing stories about the person who goes to the pharmacy with her prescriptions from the clinic and, of course, can't afford it. So she just walks quietly away. I think a dozen people should be going with her and marching back to the clinic and saying, "This won't do." People need to do things together and in dramatic ways that make their situation visible.

Wal-Mart is in the news a lot lately. It's in legal hot water for sexual discrimination and for not paying overtime. You spent three weeks working at a Wal-Mart for your book. Are you following what's going on?

Well, I guess I should because I am actually one of the plaintiffs in the sex-discrimination suit.

Because it's a class-action suit?

Yes, I've been told that by the lawyers. I don't know how much I stand to get: $1.29, I don't know. I wasn't aware of sex discrimination in my brief time at Wal-Mart. Since then I've read that being put in ladies' wear is kind of a dead end in terms of management. You're not likely to ever rise from that. So possibly that was a case of sex discrimination. I thought it was just because I was fashionably dressed.

You were a guest columnist at The New York Times recently. How did that go?

Well it was scary. I'm not used to doing two columns a week. [Laughs.] But then once I got into it, I was having a good time. Although I was pretty glad to get back to normal life, too. And I think they have their own happy stable. You really are tethered when you have two columns a week.