Unveiling working-class struggles

The author of “Nickel and Dimed” lived the life of the working poor.
Wednesday, June 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:56 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Barbara Ehrenreich put aside her status as an acclaimed essayist featured in such diverse publications as Time magazine and The Guardian. She put aside her Ph.D. in biology from Rockefeller University. She put aside everything except for a car, a laptop and $1,300 to immerse herself in the lives of the working poor.

Going on the road to get low-paying jobs and attempting to survive based solely on the income was something Ehrenreich said she never would have considered for herself. That is until Lewis Lapham, her editor at Harper’s Magazine, cornered her into taking the assignment.

“I hadn’t been looking to do this type of work,” Ehrenreich said. “It seemed too labor intensive, and I had a million other projects.”

Even after she began, Ehrenreich said she was still struggling to see the value of the story she was living.

“It didn’t seem like it was going to be all that interesting when I was working on it,” Ehrenreich said. “I thought, ‘Who’s going to want to read about me trying to do this work and make ends meet?’ ”

It wasn’t until Ehrenreich had the epiphany that her work needed to be focused around human emotions, as well as the purely economic aspects, that she became attached to the project.

“I think there was a turning point in the second week I was doing it when I realized that how I was feeling about something was important, too,” Ehrenreich said. “It was something I had to write down.”

The results of her work experiences began as an essay published in Harper’s. Ehrenreich eventually expanded the project into a book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” which was selected Tuesday for One Read 2004 sponsored by the Daniel Boone Regional Library.

The community is encouraged to read “Nickel and Dimed” and, beginning in September, participate in discussion groups and other events centered around the book.

Marjorie Sable, associate dean of MU’s College of Human Environmental Sciences, said she called Ehrenreich about coming to speak at the university for the annual Margaret Mangel Lecture to be held next April. Nothing has been confirmed, but Ehrenreich said she has been to Columbia to speak before and said it would be nice to return.

Sable said bringing Ehrenreich to speak will allow the people who have read the book — it’s suggested summer reading for MU and Stephens

College freshmen — to learn her perspectives, ask her questions and find out how the issues apply to work in Columbia.

Part of Ehrenreich’s book details her struggle at making ends meet financially.

“I had thought I could make it on $7 an hour, but rents were too high,” Ehrenreich said. “All I wanted really was one room with a fridge and a microwave. That was often an impossible dream.”

In addition to financial struggles, Ehrenreich said the mental and physical challenges of working in the “unskilled” labor positions allowed her to add a human aspect to her story.

“Minimally, I’d like people to be moved by the book, to see all the people around them — waiting on them, cleaning up after them — and be more aware of all these people as human beings, people like themselves,” Ehrenreich said. “I’d like people to see working-class people.”

Ehrenreich said she is also working on two books, one of which is a historical book about festivities. Ehrenreich said she can’t reveal too much about the other book except to say that, like “Nickel and Dimed,” it is an undercover project that deals with the economy.

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