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A self-proclaimed "myth buster by trade," Barbara Ehrenreich has covered an extensive range of topics as a journalist and political activist, and is unafraid to dive into intellectual waters that others deem too murky. Now, Had I Known gathers the articles and excerpts from a long-ranging career that most highlight Ehrenreich's brilliance, social consciousness, and wry wit.
From Ehrenreich's award-winning article "Welcome to Cancerland," published shortly after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, to her groundbreaking undercover investigative journalism in Nickel and Dimed, to her exploration of death and mortality in the New York Times bestseller, Natural Causes, Barbara Ehrenreich has been writing radical, thought-provoking, and worldview-altering pieces for over four decades. Her reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review, among others, while her essays, op-eds and feature articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper's Magazine, the New York Times Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, and many more. Had I Known pulls from the vast and varied collection of one of our country's most incisive thinkers to create one must-have volume.
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Back in the fat years—two or three decades ago, when the “mainstream” media were booming—I was able to earn a living as a freelance writer. My income was meager, and I had to hustle to get it, turning out about four articles—essays, reported pieces, reviews—a month at $1 or $2 a word. One of the things I wanted to write about, in part for obvious personal reasons, was poverty and inequality, but I’d do just about anything—like, I cringe to say, “The Heartbreak Diet” for a major fashion magazine—to pay the bills.
It wasn’t easy to interest glossy magazines in poverty in the 1980s and ’90s. I once spent two hours over an expensive lunch—paid for, of course, by a major publication—trying to pitch to a clearly indifferent editor who finally conceded, over decaf espresso and crème brûlée, “OK, do your thing on poverty. But can you make it upscale?” (Yes, I found a way to do this.) Then there was the editor of a quite liberal magazine who responded to my pitch for a story involving blue-collar men by asking, “Hmm, but can they talk?” (Actually, my husband was one of them.)
I finally got lucky at Harper’s, where fabled editor Lewis Lapham gave me an assignment that turned into a book, which in turn became a best seller, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Thanks to the royalties and subsequent speaking fees, at last I could begin to undertake projects without concern for the pay, just because they seemed important to me. This was the writing life I had always dreamed of—adventurous, obsessively fascinating, and sufficiently remunerative that I could help support less affluent members of my family.
In the years that followed, I wrote about America’s shifting class contours, the criminalization of poverty, sexual harassment, the racial wealth gap, as well as any other subject that attracted me—from the automation of war to Americans’ apparent belief that they can live forever if only they eat the right combination of veggies and nuts. I paid my bills and, better yet, I was having fun.
Meanwhile, though I didn’t see it at first, the world of journalism as I had known it was beginning to crumble around me. Squeezed to generate more profits for billionaire newspaper owners and new media conglomerates, newsrooms laid off reporters, who often went on to swell the crowds of hungry freelancers. Once-generous magazines shrank or slashed their freelance budgets; there were no more free lunches.
True, the internet was filled with a multiplicity of new outlets to write for, but paying writers or other “content providers” turned out not to be part of their business plan. I saw my own fees at one major news outlet drop to one-third of their value between 2004 and 2009. I heard from younger journalists who were scrambling for adjunct jobs or doing piecework in “corporate communications.” But I determined to carry on writing about the subjects that gripped me, especially poverty and inequality, even if I had to finance my efforts entirely on my own. And I felt noble for doing so.
Then, as the kids say today, I “checked my privilege.” I realized that there was something wrong with an arrangement whereby a relatively affluent person, such as I had become, could afford to write about minimum-wage jobs, squirrels as an urban food source, or the penalties for sleeping in parks, while the people who were actually experiencing these sorts of things, or were in danger of experiencing them, could not.
In the last few years, I’ve gotten to know a number of people who are at least as qualified writers as I am, especially when it comes to the subject of poverty, but who’ve been held back by their own poverty. There’s Darryl Wellington, for example, a local columnist (and poet) in Santa Fe who has, at times, had to supplement his tiny income by selling his plasma—a fallback that can have serious health consequences. Or Joe Williams, who, after losing an editorial job, was reduced to writing for $50 a piece for online political sites while mowing lawns and working in a sporting goods store for $10 an hour to pay for a room in a friend’s house. Linda Tirado was blogging about her job as a cook at IHOP when she managed to snag a contract for a powerful book titled Hand to Mouth (for which I wrote the preface). Now she is working on a “multimedia mentoring project” to help other working-class journalists get published.
There are many thousands of people like these—gifted journalists who want to address serious social issues but cannot afford to do so in a media environment that thrives by refusing to pay, or pay anywhere near adequately, its “content providers.” Some were born into poverty and have stories to tell about coping with low-wage jobs, evictions, or life as a foster child. Others inhabit the once-proud urban “creative class,” which now finds itself priced out of its traditional neighborhoods, like Park Slope or LA’s Echo Park, scrambling for health insurance and child care, sleeping on other people’s couches. They want to write—or do photography or make documentaries. They have a lot to say, but it’s beginning to make more sense to apply for work as a cashier or a fry cook.
This is the real face of journalism today: not million-dollar-a-year anchorpersons, but low-wage workers and downwardly spiraling professionals who can’t muster up expenses to even start on the articles, photo essays, and videos they want to do, much less find an outlet to cover the costs of doing them. You can’t, as I learned from Darryl Wellington, hop on a plane to cover a police shooting in your hometown if you don’t have a credit card.
This impoverishment of journalists impoverishes journalism. We come to find less and less in the media about the people who work from paycheck to paycheck, as if 80 percent of the population had quietly emigrated while the other 20 percent wasn’t looking. Media outlets traditionally neglected stories about the downtrodden because they don’t sit well on the same page with advertisements for diamonds and luxury homes. And now there are fewer journalists on hand at major publications to arouse the conscience of editors and other gatekeepers. Coverage of poverty accounts for less than 1 percent of American news, or, as former Times columnist Bob Herbert has put it: “We don’t have coverage of poverty in this country. If there is a story about poor people in the New York Times or in the Washington Post, that’s the exception that proves the rule. We do not cover poverty. We do not cover the poor.”
As for commentary about poverty—a disproportionate share of which issues from very well-paid, established columnists like David Brooks of the New York Times and George Will of the Washington Post—all too often, it tends to reflect the historical biases of economic elites, that the poor are different than “we” are, less educated, intelligent, self-disciplined, and more inclined to make “bad lifestyle choices.” If the pundits sometimes sound like Republican presidential candidates, this is not because there is a political conspiracy afoot. It’s just what happens when the people who get to opine about inequality are drawn almost entirely from the top of the income distribution.
It hurts the poor and the economically precarious when they can’t see themselves reflected in the collective mirror that is the media. They begin to feel that they are indeed different and somehow unworthy, compared to the “mainstream.” But it also potentially hurts the rich.
In a highly polarized society like our own, the wealthy have a special stake in keeping honest journalism about class and inequality alive. Burying an aching social problem does not solve it. The rich and their philanthropies need to step up and support struggling journalists and the slender projects that try to keep them going. As Nick Hanauer, a self-proclaimed member of the 0.01 percent, warned other members of his class in 2018: “If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us.”
At an age when most people retire—or are pushed out of the workforce into low-paid work as home health aides, valet parkers, or babysitters—I am fortunate enough to be able to keep on writing about the things that inflame my curiosity or fill me with moral outrage. But mostly I try, through a nonprofit I helped create, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, to launch struggling journalists who otherwise might never be heard from on account of their poverty or skin color, gender or sexual orientation, youth or age. It’s a great joy to me to work with people like Darryl, Joe, Linda, and so many others, and to see them begin to thrive. In the spirit of torch-passing, I dedicate this book to them.
HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS
Nickel-and-Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Harper’s Magazine, 1999
At the beginning of June 1998 I leave behind everything that normally soothes the ego and sustains the body—home, career, companion, reputation, ATM card—for a plunge into the low-wage workforce. There, I become another, occupationally much diminished “Barbara Ehrenreich”—depicted on job-application forms as a divorced homemaker whose sole work experience consists of housekeeping in a few private homes. I am terrified, at the beginning, of being unmasked for what I am: a middle-class journalist setting out to explore the world that welfare mothers are entering, at the rate of approximately 50,000 a month, as welfare reform kicks in. Happily, though, my fears turn out to be entirely unwarranted: during a month of poverty and toil, my name goes unnoticed and for the most part unuttered. In this parallel universe where my father never got out of the mines and I never got through college, I am “baby,” “honey,” “blondie,” and, most commonly, “girl.”
My first task is to find a place to live. I figure that if I can earn $7 an hour—which, from the want ads, seems doable—I can afford to spend $500 on rent, or maybe, with severe economies, $600. In the Key West area, where I live, this pretty much confines me to flophouses and trailer homes—like the one, a pleasing fifteen-minute drive from town, that has no air-conditioning, no screens, no fans, no television, and, by way of diversion, only the challenge of evading the landlord’s Doberman pinscher. The big problem with this place, though, is the rent, which at $675 a month is well beyond my reach. All right, Key West is expensive. But so is New York City, or the Bay Area, or Jackson Hole, or Telluride, or Boston, or any other place where tourists and the wealthy compete for living space with the people who clean their toilets and fry their hash browns.1 Still, it is a shock to realize that “trailer trash” has become, for me, a demographic category to aspire to.
So I decide to make the common trade-off between affordability and convenience, and go for a $500-a-month efficiency thirty miles up a two-lane highway from the employment opportunities of Key West, meaning forty-five minutes if there’s no road construction and I don’t get caught behind some sun-dazed Canadian tourists. I hate the drive, along a roadside studded with white crosses commemorating the more effective head-on collisions, but it’s a sweet little place—a cabin, more or less, set in the swampy back yard of the converted mobile home where my landlord, an affable TV repairman, lives with his bartender girlfriend. Anthropologically speaking, a bustling trailer park would be preferable, but here I have a gleaming white floor and a firm mattress, and the few resident bugs are easily vanquished.
Besides, I am not doing this for the anthropology. My aim is nothing so mistily subjective as to “experience poverty” or find out how it “really feels” to be a long-term low-wage worker. I’ve had enough unchosen encounters with poverty and the world of low-wage work to know it’s not a place you want to visit for touristic purposes; it just smells too much like fear. And with all my real-life assets—bank account, IRA, health insurance, multiroom home—waiting indulgently in the background, I am, of course, thoroughly insulated from the terrors that afflict the genuinely poor.
No, this is a purely objective, scientific sort of mission. The humanitarian rationale for welfare reform—as opposed to the more punitive and stringy impulses that may actually have motivated it—is that work will lift poor women out of poverty while simultaneously inflating their self-esteem and hence their future value in the labor market. Thus, whatever the hassles involved in finding child care, transportation, etc., the transition from welfare to work will end happily, in greater prosperity for all. Now there are many problems with this comforting prediction, such as the fact that the economy will inevitably undergo a downturn, eliminating many jobs. Even without a downturn, the influx of a million former welfare recipients into the low-wage labor market could depress wages by as much as 11.9 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington, DC.
But is it really possible to make a living on the kinds of jobs currently available to unskilled people? Mathematically, the answer is no, as can be shown by taking $6 to $7 an hour, perhaps subtracting a dollar or two an hour for child care, multiplying by 160 hours a month, and comparing the result to the prevailing rents. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, for example, in 1998 it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy estimates that the odds against a typical welfare recipient’s landing a job at such a “living wage” are about 97 to 1. If these numbers are right, low-wage work is not a solution to poverty and possibly not even to homelessness.
It may seem excessive to put this proposition to an experimental test. As certain family members keep unhelpfully reminding me, the viability of low-wage work could be tested, after a fashion, without ever leaving my study. I could just pay myself $7 an hour for eight hours a day, charge myself for room and board, and total up the numbers after a month. Why leave the people and work that I love? But I am an experimental scientist by training. In that business, you don’t just sit at a desk and theorize; you plunge into the everyday chaos of nature, where surprises lurk in the most mundane measurements. Maybe, when I got into it, I would discover some hidden economies in the world of the low-wage worker. After all, if 30 percent of the workforce toils for less than $8 an hour, according to the EPI, they may have found some tricks as yet unknown to me. Maybe—who knows?—I would even be able to detect in myself the bracing psychological effects of getting out of the house, as promised by the welfare wonks at places like the Heritage Foundation. Or, on the other hand, maybe there would be unexpected costs—physical, mental, or financial—to throw off all my calculations. Ideally, I should do this with two small children in tow, that being the welfare average, but mine are grown and no one is willing to lend me theirs for a month-long vacation in penury. So this is not the perfect experiment, just a test of the best possible case: an unencumbered woman, smart and even strong, attempting to live more or less off the land.
On the morning of my first full day of job searching, I take a red pen to the want ads, which are auspiciously numerous. Everyone in Key West’s booming “hospitality industry” seems to be looking for someone like me—trainable, flexible, and with suitably humble expectations as to pay. I know I possess certain traits that might be advantageous—I’m white and, I like to think, well-spoken and poised—but I decide on two rules: One, I cannot use any skills derived from my education or usual work—not that there are a lot of want ads for satirical essayists anyway. Two, I have to take the best-paid job that is offered me and of course do my best to hold it; no Marxist rants or sneaking off to read novels in the ladies’ room. In addition, I rule out various occupations for one reason or another: Hotel front-desk clerk, for example, which to my surprise is regarded as unskilled and pays around $7 an hour, gets eliminated because it involves standing in one spot for eight hours a day. Waitressing is similarly something I’d like to avoid, because I remember it leaving me bone tired when I was eighteen, and I’m decades of varicosities and back pain beyond that now. Telemarketing, one of the first refuges of the suddenly indigent, can be dismissed on grounds of personality. This leaves certain supermarket jobs, such as deli clerk, or housekeeping in Key West’s thousands of hotel and guest rooms. Housekeeping is especially appealing, for reasons both atavistic and practical: it’s what my mother did before I came along, and it can’t be too different from what I’ve been doing part-time, in my own home, all my life.
So I put on what I take to be a respectable-looking outfit of ironed Bermuda shorts and scooped-neck T-shirt and set out for a tour of the local hotels and supermarkets. Best Western, Econo Lodge, and HoJo’s all let me fill out application forms, and these are, to my relief, interested in little more than whether I am a legal resident of the United States and have committed any felonies. My next stop is Winn-Dixie, the supermarket, which turns out to have a particularly onerous application process, featuring a fifteen-minute “interview” by computer since, apparently, no human on the premises is deemed capable of representing the corporate point of view. I am conducted to a large room decorated with posters illustrating how to look “professional” (it helps to be white and, if female, permed) and warning of the slick promises that union organizers might try to tempt me with. The interview is multiple choice: Do I have anything, such as child-care problems, that might make it hard for me to get to work on time? Do I think safety on the job is the responsibility of management? Then, popping up cunningly out of the blue: How many dollars’ worth of stolen goods have I purchased in the last year? Would I turn in a fellow employee if I caught him stealing? Finally, “Are you an honest person?”
Apparently, I ace the interview, because I am told that all I have to do is show up in some doctor’s office tomorrow for a urine test. This seems to be a fairly general rule: if you want to stack Cheerio boxes or vacuum hotel rooms in chemically fascist America, you have to be willing to squat down and pee in front of some health worker (who has no doubt had to do the same thing herself.) The wages Winn-Dixie is offering—$6 and a couple of dimes to start with—are not enough, I decide, to compensate for this indignity.2
I lunch at Wendy’s, where $4.99 gets you unlimited refills at the Mexican part of the Super-bar, a comforting surfeit of refried beans and “cheese sauce.” A teenage employee, seeing me studying the want ads, kindly offers me an application form, which I fill out, though here, too, the pay is just $6 and change an hour. Then it’s off for a round of the locally owned inns and guesthouses. At “The Palms,” let’s call it, a bouncy manager actually takes me around to see the rooms and meet the existing housekeepers, who, I note with satisfaction, look pretty much like me—faded ex-hippie types in shorts with long hair pulled back in braids. Mostly, though, no one speaks to me or even looks at me except to proffer an application form. At my last stop, a palatial B & B, I wait twenty minutes to meet “Max,” only to be told that there are no jobs now but there should be one soon, since “nobody lasts more than a couple weeks.” (Because none of the people I talked to knew I was a reporter, I have changed their names to protect their privacy and, in some cases perhaps, their jobs.)
Three days go by like this and, to my chagrin, no one out of the approximately twenty places I’ve applied calls me for an interview. I had been vain enough to worry about coming across as too educated for the jobs I sought, but no one even seems interested in finding out how overqualified I am. Only later will I realize that the want ads are not a reliable measure of the actual jobs available at any particular time. They are, as I should have guessed from Max’s comment, the employers’ insurance policy against the relentless turnover of the low-wage workforce. Most of the big hotels run ads almost continually, just to build a supply of applicants to replace the current workers as they drift away or are fired, so finding a job is just a matter of being at the right place at the right time and flexible enough to take whatever is being offered that day. This finally happens to me at one of the big discount hotel chains, where I go, as usual, for housekeeping and am sent, instead, to try out as a waitress at the attached “family restaurant,” a dismal spot with a counter and about thirty tables that looks out on a parking garage and features such tempting fare as “Pollish [sic] sausage and BBQ sauce” on 95-degree days. Phillip, the dapper young West Indian who introduces himself as the manager, interviews me with about as much enthusiasm as if he were a clerk processing me for Medicare, the principal questions being what shifts can I work and when can I start. I mutter something about being woefully out of practice as a waitress, but he’s already on to the uniform: I’m to show up tomorrow wearing black slacks and black shoes; he’ll provide the rust-colored polo shirt with HEARTHSIDE embroidered on it, though I might want to wear my own shirt to get to work, ha ha. At the word “tomorrow,” something between fear and indignation rises in my chest. I want to say, “Thank you for your time, sir, but this is just an experiment, you know, not my actual life.”
So begins my career at the Hearthside, I shall call it, one small profit center within a global discount hotel chain, where for two weeks I work from 2:00 till 10:00 P.M. for $2.43 an hour plus tips.3 In some futile bid for gentility, the management has barred employees from using the front door, so my first day I enter through the kitchen, where a red-faced man with shoulder-length blond hair is throwing frozen steaks against the wall and yelling, “Fuck this shit!” “That’s just Jack,” explains Gail, the wiry middle-aged waitress who is assigned to train me. “He’s on the rag again”—a condition occasioned, in this instance, by the fact that the cook on the morning shift had forgotten to thaw out the steaks. For the next eight hours, I run after the agile Gail, absorbing bits of instruction along with fragments of personal tragedy. All food must be trayed, and the reason she’s so tired today is that she woke up in a cold sweat thinking of her boyfriend, who killed himself recently in an upstate prison. No refills on lemonade. And the reason he was in prison is that a few DUIs caught up with him, that’s all, could have happened to anyone. Carry the creamers to the table in a monkey bowl, never in your hand. And after he was gone she spent several months living in her truck, peeing in a plastic pee bottle and reading by candlelight at night, but you can’t live in a truck in the summer, since you need to have the windows down, which means anything can get in, from mosquitoes on up.
At least Gail puts to rest any fears I had of appearing overqualified. From the first day on, I find that of all the things I have left behind, such as home and identity, what I miss the most is competence. Not that I have ever felt utterly competent in the writing business, in which one day’s success augurs nothing at all for the next. But in my writing life, I at least have some notion of procedure: do the research, make the outline, rough out a draft, etc. As a server, though, I am beset by requests like bees: more iced tea here, ketchup over there, a to-go box for table fourteen, and where are the high chairs, anyway? Of the twenty-seven tables, up to six are usually mine at any time, though on slow afternoons or if Gail is off, I sometimes have the whole place to myself. There is the touch-screen computer-ordering system to master, which is, I suppose, meant to minimize server-cook contact, but in practice requires constant verbal fine-tuning: “That’s gravy on the mashed, OK? None on the meatloaf,” and so forth—while the cook scowls as if I were inventing these refinements just to torment him. Plus, something I had forgotten in the years since I was eighteen: about a third of a server’s job is “side work” that’s invisible to customers—sweeping, scrubbing, slicing, refilling, and restocking. If it isn’t all done, every little bit of it, you’re going to face the 6:00 P.M. dinner rush defenseless and probably go down in flames. I screw up dozens of times at the beginning, sustained in my shame entirely by Gail’s support—“It’s OK, baby, everyone does that sometime”—because, to my total surprise and despite the scientific detachment I am doing my best to maintain, I care.
- “Barbara Ehrenreich has committed her life to writing in defense of women, immigrants, people of color, people in the LGBTQ+ community, people who are homeless, minimum-wage workers, and those who can’t even aspire to that luxury. Often prescient, her essays in this latest collection span several decades, explaining how we got to where we are today. A brave and brilliant thinker, she is most remarkable for reminding us how to be human in savage times. HAD I KNOWN is a dazzling tribute to Ehrenreich’s unwavering commitment to that cause, her mastery of craft, and an expansive and exceptional career centering on the art of the essay.”—PEN Awards
- "The strange and frightening world we suddenly find ourselves living in is one Ehrenreich has warned about for decades...Her scathing take feels all but prophetic now."—The Washington Post
- "Ehrenreich's work is appealing for its fiery focus on social injustice... striking for [its] foresight...[and] a reminder that Ehrenreich's writing is just plain fun to read, thanks to her acerbic wit and spirited grumpiness."—GQ
- "[HAD I KNOWN is] a one-stop shop for fans of Ehrenreich's gimlet eye and informed outrage...A rewarding, illuminating tour de force."—Booklist
- "[Ehrenreich's] significant research is conveyed in a wry, taut polemical style...[She] chillingly foresaw the devastation of labor and the middle class...and the increased cruelty of law enforcement toward the vulnerable...With such relevance to fractured late-capitalist America, Ehrenreich's work warrants renewed attention."—Kirkus Reviews
- this argumentative and passionate collection...challenges the status quo throughout, while also including a healthy dose of self-questioning. She is wittily satirical at times...and bitterly Swiftian at others. Gripping."—Publishers Weekly
PREVIOUS PRAISE FOR BARBARA EHRENREICH"Ehrenreich's sharp and fearless take on mortality privileges joy over juice fasts and argues that, regardless of how many hours we spend in the gym, death wins out. An incisive, clear-eyed polemic, Natural Causes relaxes into the realization that the grim reaper is considerably less grim than a life spent in terror of a fate that awaits us all."—Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Evicted
- "Throughout the text, [Ehrenreich] employs the erudition that earned her degree, the social consciousness that has long informed her writing, and the compassion that endears her to her many fans...A powerful text that floods the mind with illumination-and with agonizing questions."—Kirkus (starred review)
- "The factor that makes each of [Barbara's] books so completely unique in American intellectual life is her persistent sensitivity to matters of social class. She can always see through the smokescreen, the cloud of fibs we generate to make ourselves feel better about a world where the work of the many subsidizes the opulent lifestyles of the few. That, plus the fact that she writes damned well. Better than almost anyone out there, in fact."—Salon
- "Barbara Ehrenreich is a singular voice of sanity amid our national obsession with wellness and longevity. She is deeply well-informed about contemporary medical practices and their shortcomings, but she wears her learning lightly. Natural Causes is a delightful as well as an enlightening read. No one who cares about living (or dying) well can afford to miss it."—Jackson Lears, PhD, Editor in Chief of the Raritan Quarterly Review
- "[Ehrenreich] resolutely avoids rhetoric in that 'blubbery vein'--which is why her book is such a rare feat...She struggles to make sense of the epiphany without recourse to the 'verbal hand-wavings about mystery and transcendence' that go with the territory... Ehrenreich has no interest in conversion...She wants, and inspires, open minds."—The Atlantic
- "Ehrenreich has always been an intellectual and a journalistic badass... [She] ultimately arrives at a truce with the idea of God. You'll admire her journey."—Entertainment Weekly
- On Sale
- Mar 23, 2021
- Page Count
- 400 pages