Kicking people when they’re down
Lecture, then interview by David Barsamian
(This event was presented by the Lannan Foundation.)
Santa Fe, New Mexico
13 March 2013
The rise in New York’s poverty rate as a result of the ongoing recession has pushed nearly half of the city’s population into the ranks of the poor or near-poor. Ironically, the nation’s largest city is run by a multi-billionaire. Almost on the same day, another report came out saying “Hedge Fund Titans Get Lavish Paydays Stretching to Ten Figures.” People are immiserated and dumped into the streets because of decisions made downtown in the suites. Do we lend a helping hand to the poor? Barely. Let them eat op-eds about values and the virtues of hard work. There’s billions to fund the latest F-whatever fighter jet but scant little for people in distress. The pounding the needy are taking is particulary severe because much of the social safety net has been shredded. Can anyone say compassion and caring?
This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio
Barbara Ehrenreich is a social critic, journalist, and activist. She received a PhD in cell biology from Rockefeller University. By the 1970s, she was involved with the nascent women’s health movement and teaching at the State University of New York, Old Westbury. After publishing an article in Ms. magazine, she became a regular columnist there and with Mother Jones. Numerous books followed including such bestsellers as Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, This Land is Their Land, and Bright-Sided. In 2012 she founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a website designed to place the crisis of poverty and economic insecurity at the center of the national political conversation.
You can listen to Barbara Ehrenreich speak for herself here.
I am so glad to be in Santa Fe. For me Santa Fe is something like Mecca, it’s like a very special, holy place. Because of your minimum wage. That’s what brought me here in 2007, six years ago, the minimum wage campaign. And I know there are people here from it who are here tonight.
But I was looking so much forward to coming here because last week I gave a talk at George Mason University in Virginia and, as usual in these situations, a student in the audience stood up in a Q&A and said that she had learned in her economics class that raising the minimum wage would cause widespread unemployment and economic ruin. I hear this every time I speak on a campus. I think that academic economics departments are dedicated to one proposition only, and that is teaching that the economic status quo is exactly fine, and it’s perfect even for the poor. So I said to this young woman,
Will you come with me to Santa Fe next week? Come and see for yourself.
This is the highest minimum wage city of— I think you’re only outdone by San Francisco. I’m not sure. But I think it’s San Francisco, Santa Fe. That’s it. By comparison with my trip here six years ago for that campaign, I am not seeing boarded-up businesses, I am not seeing a city brought to its knees by the raised minimum wage.
Last time I came here—and right to this theatre, in fact—I spoke entirely about my book Nickel and Dimed. I’m going to talk about that a little bit, look back at that, and also talk about things that I have been learning from much more recent research since the economic downturn.
My starting point for a lot of this, I will tell you, sort of the source of a lot of my motivation, is I get really, really upset whenever I hear someone speak disrespectfully about people in poverty, and maybe especially women in poverty. And I have personal reasons for that reaction. But in the 1990s I was hearing a lot of that kind of disrespect, especially from politicians and pundits. There is something wrong with poor people. That was the theory. And in many quarters it still is. Poor people have low IQs. We’ve had Charles Murray to point that out, as well as people of color having lower IQs, he pointed out. They have character defects. They make bad lifestyle decisions. Poor women are promiscuous, they are lazy, they have too many children, they don’t bother to get married, they eat too many Doritos and drink too much Mountain Dew. That has pretty much been the official theory of poverty in America, which is, if people are poor, they have nobody to blame but themselves.
This works its way into policy all the time. For example, the original welfare reform bill, which was in 1996, the bill that ended welfare as we knew it, ended any kind of entitlement of poor single parents to government aid. This bill provided in it originally $100 million for chastity training for low-income women. That’s the theory. So imagine the scene. Bill Clinton signing into law this provision for chastity training—not, unfortunately, for himself.
And that amount went up. The most recent amount, it was up to $400 million for training poor women to make them more marriageable. Some of us ladies aren’t married. It’s because we haven’t tried. We really need the education. Actually, I’ve tried it a number of times.
It seemed me that the problem had nothing to do with lifestyles or personal choices, or overwhelmingly it has nothing to do with those things. I started my own personal crusade for the living wage just by reading my local newspaper, seeing what wages were being offered in the help- wanted ads—and they very cleverly don’t mention them usually—then turn to the apartment rentals section see what the rents are. The math did not look good to me. That was my starting point.
I agonized and complained about it so much that I finally got a magazine editor to say,
Barbara, what you have to do is go out there and try living on these wages yourself.
I had meant somebody should do it. I did not mean myself as a journalist. But journalists need what jobs they can get and what assignments they can get. So I had to leave home, I had to find the cheapest accommodations possible. And I was not trying to find the lowest-wage jobs I could; I was not trying to find minimum-wage jobs. My rule for myself was I had to find the best-paying jobs I could, consistent with not using my actual résumé or educational experience or anything. I could have cheated very easily, though, because I never did see a help-wanted ad for a political essayist. In particular, I never saw a help- wanted ad for a sarcastic feminist political essayist.
The jobs I ended up getting, like waitress and hotel housekeeper. That’s where I fit in in the labor market. That’s what I found. It had been a while since I had worked in any of these kinds of jobs, since I was a teenager. And one of the first things that struck me about being in the low-wage work force—and this has not changed, not at all, since 2000—is the constant suspicion that if you’re willing to work for those wages, you probably have some sort of criminal tendencies. There’s something wrong with you.
First, the drug test. Anybody here ever take a drug test to get a job? Oh. How did you do? We’ll talk about that later. Then there’s the personality test. Most of the questions I thought, being kind of a smart aleck, were pretty easy. Here’s an example. And I wrote this one down, so it’s word for word. You get this in your application process,
In the last year I have stolen [check dollar amount below] worth of goods from my employers.
You see that and you really want to be a smart aleck and say,
Do you have a calculator I could use?
Then there was this question, which pops up on many companies’ tests for their low-wage workers,
Agree or disagree: It is easier to work when you’re a little bit high.
You don’t want to overthink that one. It would be so easy to get philosophical there, but don’t do it. That’s the preparation.
Then you enter into a job paying—at the time I was doing this, I averaged $7 an hour. These were hard jobs, all the jobs I had. They were physically hard jobs. And I would have to say that’s one argument for doing this sort of journalism, which is called immersion journalism, where you actually put your body into it. That is that if you ask people, “Is your job physically hard?” they will say “Yeah,” but most people don’t complain a lot. It was another thing to do it myself. I’m strong, I’m fit, but there were many jobs where after a shift my legs would feel like rubber. I had to find that out.
A more important thing I picked up about how hard these jobs were is something that was completely surprising to me. I’m educated, I’ve written a lot of books. These jobs were mentally challenging. Every one of them I had a hard time learning. It’s a humbling kind of discovery.
I’ll just mention one example of that, which was at Wal-Mart. I was assigned to ladies’ wear. I thought, Oh, great, I’ll be giving fashion advice to the women of Minnesota. No. The main thing was picking up garments from the floor or things that had been hidden— for some mysterious reason that I don’t know what consumers are thinking—in the wrong department. Somebody has to find everything and put it in its exact right place. In other words, I had to memorize the exact location of hundreds of different items, which would then be rotated every few days for no other purpose than to convince me I have Alzheimer’s disease. Why Wal-Mart wanted to do that I don’t know, but that was the plan. A very important lesson for me here. I never used the word unskilled to describe anybody’s job. Every person’s job takes intelligence and skill and concentration and deserves our complete respect.
Some of these jobs were also a lot harder than they needed to be because of absurd management rules, like no talking to your fellow employees. You can guess why that is. No drinking water, even in a sweaty job. And then there’s a whole bathroom break situation. In some of those jobs the bathroom breaks were so rare I looked back on the drug test with nostalgia. They don’t tell you that could be the last time. There is an academic book that’s been written about bathroom breaks in the U.S. work force. The title tells it all. It’s called Void Where Prohibited.
Another interesting thing. In all these jobs they suspect you of stealing. Your purse could be searched at any point, because you might be stealing, I don’t know, ketchup packets from the restaurant or something. However, in most of these jobs it’s management that’s stealing. Wage theft is a huge problem in America. I could see it going on, but I didn’t even have a term for it when I was doing these jobs. One form it can take is, Wal-Mart just changes the computers so it doesn’t look like you’ve worked so many hours. Another thing is that they can tell you to come in a half an hour before the clock starts ticking for your pay and you start working. And they’re not paying you for that. To me this is really something, the amount of this. I pressed the experts on this to come up with an estimate of the amount that is stolen from low- wage workers in America in the form of wage theft. The number they came up with for me was $106 billion a year. One hundred six billion is on the order of magnitude of some of our larger social programs—bigger, I think, than Unemployment Insurance.
I had a lot of trouble making ends meet. I had no idea how out of whack wages and rents were going to be. Obviously, I was looking at the cheapest places to stay, which included trailer parks and, very often, these places called residential motels, which you can get into without one month’s rent deposit. You pay by the week. I learned a very important thing in these living situations: It’s expensive to be poor. If you don’t have that one month’s rent and security deposit up front, which could be more than $1,000, a lot of capital, then you’re stuck with outrageous weekly payments. In this one residential motel I ended up at it was $250 a week to stay in an absolute dump that smelled like rodent droppings. And it had no fridge or microwave, meaning that everything I bought to eat had to come from a convenience store, and occasionally, as a treat, fast food. I’m not complaining about the cuisine. It’s just right away that’s a lot more expensive than being able to go to a grocery store.
With the rent, the expenses, I ultimately realized, this is not possible. I would have to, I don’t know, find a lot of roommates or something. And I had advantages, like not having children with me. I tried to get my children to come with me, but… How will you do this sort of thing? Suppose I was a single parent with one child trying to do the same thing. You can do the math here. In New Mexico the minimum wage for the state is $7.50 an hour, which is ahead of the federal amount. But a living wage calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for this state for one adult and one child is $17.78 an hour. Way off. In Santa Fe, due to a heroic, exemplary struggle, you have a minimum wage that begins to somewhat more closely approach what people might need to live on, $10.50 an hour. But sad news here. A living wage for Santa Fe, according to MIT, would be $19.82 an hour. That’s for a bare-bones existence. There’s no Internet in there, there’s no movies, there’s no vacations.
Sometimes affluent people say to me,
Why don’t these people just learn how to manage their finances a little bit better?
There’s a growing movement to provide financial literacy training for poor people. What bothers me so much about this is that if you’re trying to live on his $7, $8, $9 an hour, there’s only one financial plan for you, and it’s called Just Say No. Don’t buy it, don’t eat it, don’t drink it, don’t smoke it, don’t fix it if it breaks, don’t go to a doctor in the first place. I just found out recently, due to some recent research who is funding financial literacy education in our public schools. The banks. Wells Fargo, Capital One. The same banks that brought us the mortgage crisis in the middle of the ‘00s. The banks that have depended on the gullibility and ignorance and trust of consumers all along.
We have a lot of full-time workers in this country who don’t make enough to live on, if you’re talking about living indoors, that is, homeless people who are full-time workers. I met them. I’m sure you know some of them. Even more disturbing to me in some way, hungry workers. That’s sort of an image of one in the early ‘00s before the economic downturn. What I described in the book Nickel and Dimed, in case any of you have been forced to read it in school or something, is out of date, because those were the good old days. Everything you read in there you have to correct and say, Ah, what would this be like today, when it’s so much harder to find these jobs and when in many ways wages and conditions have deteriorated?
What happened in the last four years or so of downturn? The number of people in poverty grew to 15.5% of Americans. A large part of this increase—I can’t tell you how much, I wish I knew—is not people who are poor necessarily in the long term or people whose parents were also poor, but people who have higher educations, who have degrees, people who were lawyers, IT experts, college graduates of all kinds. These are not the kinds of people that that stereotype I talked about at the beginning can apply to. These are not the people who have the bad lifestyles, so-called. They got poor because they didn’t have money. In fact, that’s become a sort of a major kind of theoretical breakthrough of mine: The cause of poverty may not be character failings, may not even be lack of education, may not be bad habits. The real, real core of poverty is a shortage of money. That’s it. It’s a theoretical breakthrough. I’m trying to push it.
Generally when we talk about doing something about poverty, we talk about things that need to be done: affordable housing, subsidized child care, all those sorts of things. We talk about budget programs. This afternoon I went to a fascinating meeting put together by Homewise, the housing organization in Santa Fe, to talk about just these kinds of things. How do we build programs and make them work effectively to help people move up? The sad truth in this country now, though, is instead of helping the down and out, we have a society that seems to persecute the poor, so that if you start sliding downhill, you’re likely to accelerate all the way into destitution, or even further. There’s another step, and that’s incarceration. This is something that has accelerated and increased since the middle of the ‘00s. I’ll tell you why I think that is, this sort of persecution of the poor.
Both government and corporations play a role in this. First of all, a number of employers openly discriminate against hiring unemployed people. It’s funny to say that. They don’t want to hire unemployed people. They want to hire people who already have jobs. Why is that? Because the same stereotypes that apply to the poor apply to the unemployed. They must be losers, so don’t hire them. In fact, there are states now that have been trying to pass laws so that you can’t have help-wanted ads that say, for example,
No unemployed candidates will be considered at all.
More and more employers—and I’ve seen numbers that go up to 70%—now do a credit check on people who apply for a job. It’s nothing to do with your ability to perform the job. Right there the people who most desperately need employment are weeded out. And if you’ve been relying on credit cards to get through these things, the poor face higher interest rates. They don’t get regular credit cards, they get subprime credit cards. I won’t even talk about payday lenders, because they’re such astronomical amounts of interest. And if you think you can get rid of any of these bills by filing for bankruptcy, I was shocked to find that the average cost of filing for bankruptcy in America is $2,000. Where are you going to get the $2,000 just to become bankrupt? Do we need a special program for that? Bankruptcy assistance?
Here’s the most sinister thing to me, though. This is research I’ve done and reporting I’ve done, but also because I work now with a group called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which I am proud to say I launched. We get starving journalists, who are pretty easy to find, to do really good research on these sorts of issues. The most sinister thing, it seems to me, is the ways in which government contributes its own harassment of the poor.
Ten million people are charged each year in this country with misdemeanors. Many of these are very minor misdemeanors—I’ll mention some of them—but they still lead to fines and even jail time. Seventy-five percent of the people charged with misdemeanors—this is kind of interesting—are indigent, and the average fine for a misdemeanor is in the range of $200 to $500. Let me give you some examples of what the things are that you can do. You’re already poor, right, you’ve got a low-wage job. In New York it is illegal to put your feet up on a subway seat that is empty. The whole subway car can be empty, it can be 3:00 in the morning. You’re returning from your dishwashing job. You put your feet up, and a cop comes in. You are not warned, you are not reprimanded, you do not receive a citation. You are arrested. You’re right then taken off the subway train into a police station. Next thing is you’re going to be charged, you’re going to have court costs. Because now the defendant is charged with all the court costs, or increasingly with the court costs.
In Washington, D.C., you can be arrested, not just warned or given a citation, for driving with an expired license. So you can see how this grows. The example I like to give is, if you’re driving with a broken headlight, it costs $150, maybe, to get a new one put in. You don’t have $150. You’ve got to get to work or from work or whatever. You get stopped for that. You get fined $200. If you had that money, you would have fixed the headlight, right? So you can’t pay that. Then the court is going to issue a summons at some point, because you haven’t paid that kind of cost. The summons is going to be turned over to a collection agent, which may not bother even getting your correct address. Most people who are issued summonses don’t show up and say they never got the summons. That’s now called “failure to appear.” Now you’re in real trouble. There’s a warrant out for your arrest, and the likelihood is you have no idea about that.
Another thing that is in the public-sector realm is that a growing number of cities have taken to ticketing and sometimes handcuffing children found on the streets during school hours. In Los Angeles the fine for truancy is $250. In Dallas it can be as high as $500. Crushing amounts for people who don’t have much money. In New Mexico, when there is a second conviction for a child’s truancy, a parent may face a fine of not more than $500 or imprisonment for up to six months. We want children to go to school, right? But in L.A. some community groups studied the situation because actually people were getting afraid to send their children to school in case they were a little bit late and got caught in the street and these fines started piling up on the family. So the community organizations found out that 80% of the so-called truants were simply late for school because a city bus was too full and whizzed right by their school-bus stop so they couldn’t get to school on time. I know sometimes it sounds good, Let’s really get those kids in school, let’s make the parents responsible. This has become an additional way of criminalizing the poor. It is not the kids in Beverly Hills whose families are getting tickets for this.
This sort of police harassment has increased since the recession started, as far as anybody can tell me, because it looks like it’s a way for municipalities and counties to raise their revenues. They’re really pressed for revenues, so they said, Let’s have more infractions, let’s have higher fines, let’s charge our court costs. What happens if you don’t pay a fine? Well, you may go to jail. There’s a case I found pretty fascinating about a South Carolina woman who was trying to make a living post losing her business in the recession by selling plasma, her own blood, and also scrap metal. She was charged in January 2012 with having a “messy” yard. Who knew that was a crime? Fined $480. Of course she didn’t have $480. So she was jailed for six days, until there was a community protest to get her out.
At least in this case she was not charged room and board for her jail time. I really want to know more about this. I have no national numbers. I just know it’s increasingly frequent to be charged room and board for your jail time just as like for your court costs. I want the money to do the kind of investigative work—not me, I’ll get other people, smarter people to do it—to find out, just how frequent is that now? Why are people in jail in the first place, usually? You might say they’ve done something wrong. But also because they are too poor to have private representation in court or anything else. They’re poor. So you jail them. And they come out and you say,
That will be $60 a day for your stay here.
It’s very easy to get in deep trouble. The story that I find most amazing comes from Michigan in ‘09. It’s of a woman—I should mention, this is actually a white woman, if it sounds like this is all racial profiling. It is not always. A homeless woman, a full-time worker, was arrested as a homeless person. When they got her, they found she had an even worse thing on her record than being homeless, and that is, her 16-year-old son was in jail and she was not keeping up with his room-and-board charges. So she was jailed because of that. So you have two family members caught in this situation. Fortunately, the ACLU intervened in her case.
One of the things that’s proliferated since the economic downturn is laws that forbid, outlaw essentially, homelessness. A good example, a particularly evil one, would be from Sarasota, Florida, which passed an ordinance that it is illegal there to be asleep outdoors and
when awakened, state that he or she has no other place to live.
In other words, if you’re sleeping in the park and a police officer comes over and shakes you awake and you say,
Oh, you know, I just didn’t feel like staying in my penthouse condo tonight, I really needed a change,
fine, that’s legal. But if you’re awakened and you say,
I’ve got nowhere to go,
that is a crime. Think about that. There are no laws, of course, that require cities to provide food, shelter, or restrooms for their indigent citizens. Restrooms, a big issue. Public urination is a crime almost everywhere. But is anyone going to help you to do it unpublicly if you don’t have the money or the skin color or whatever it takes to walk into a restaurant and just use the facilities?
I think the worst part of this is that in some cities, such as Orlando, it is even illegal to help the poor. There are laws forbidding the sharing of food with indigent people in public places. There’s a great group, Food Not Bombs—you might have heard of them—that like to get in those parks and serve vegan food to homeless people. And I don’t hold the vegan part against them. That’s great. Very sweet, nice, middle-class people have spent time in jail for that crime. As far as I’m concerned, that is like outlawing Christianity or outlawing ethics or something.
And how do they define indigent? I don’t know the definition exactly in Orlando, but Las Vegas had a great definition of indigent. And that was that “an indigent person is someone whom a reasonable person would consider to be eligible for public assistance or able to apply for public assistance.” That could have been me in my everyday work outfit at home as a free-lance writer. But the depth of prejudice there is incomprehensible.
So we have a pattern in this country. We have been defunding services that might help the poor while ramping up various forms of harassment of the poor, including law enforcement. So you starve school budgets, for example, you cut all the fun things, like art and drama and everything, then make truancy illegal. You cut public transportation budgets, then make lateness to school illegal. You shut down public housing and then make it a crime to be homeless. And at a time of high unemployment in most parts of this country, you make it more and more difficult for people who are unemployed who need jobs to find them.
It’s clear, the kinds of things we need to do in this country. We need affordable housing, we need to raise the minimum wage everywhere. In Santa Fe you have to go out there and be the missionaries around the country—that they can raise the minimum wage and have a better, stronger community. You can cut executive compensation at the top of the corporate hierarchy, if you just want to keep things in line. It’s amazing how some of the same economic conservatives who will say,
No, we cannot raise the minimum wage,
when you say,
How about controlling executive compensation?
No, don’t do that either.
Why not? Why not bring that down?
We’ve got health reform, or we should shortly have it, in New Mexico. The question will be whether it is actually implemented so the people can sign up for expanded Medicaid. What about some sick days for this country? Nearly half of America’s private-sector workers have no guaranteed sick days and can face firing for staying home with a sick child.
I could go on and on and on with the things that need to be done. I’ll mention this since there are college students in the audience. This isn’t working, our higher education business. It isn’t working anymore. You have no guarantee of a job when you get out. What you have is a guarantee of a huge debt. An awful lot of poor students are trying to get through college now while working full- time, which is not possible. No one should have to go through this. No one should graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. In fact, I’m for an immediate debt jubilee for all those student loans.
I’m not pushing a positive agenda here. We all know what it is. My sort of short-term demand is much more modest. Could we just stop the meanness? Could we stop the relentless persecution of people who are already having hard time? Could we stop the wage theft by employers? Could we stop treating low-wage workers as criminals? Give them some rights in the workplace so they can even organize into unions, if they want to. Stop penalizing people for their credit scores. Since when is a credit score a measure of a person’s worth, which is how we act about that today? Could we stop harassing the homeless and the indigent. In a sense, to be homeless, to be indigent in America, you have entered the ranks of a population very little different from undocumented workers. It’s like you’re not a citizen anymore. It’s like you have no rights at all here. In other words, could we stop kicking people when they’re down? That’s my program. Not my whole one, but…
I don’t think this is about whether you’re a liberal or a conservative or what your religious orientation is or anything. I think these are moral issues. How we treat the people who are in need is a moral issue. I want to quote someone who is here tonight. She is one of the people who was one of the original activists behind raising the minimum wage in Santa Fe. I remember reading her quoted in The New York Times in 2006. This really meant a lot to me. She said,
What really got the other side
— and she’s talking about the opponents of raising the minimum wage—
was when we said, “It’s just immoral to pay people $5.15 on hour. They can’t live on that.”
When we said that, it made some of these business people furious. So we kept saying it over and over again.
Forget the so-called economic argument. This is a moral argument. When I speak to religious audiences, and I sometimes do, if you’re looking for some kind of biblical backup, you’re not going to find a lot on abortion in the Bible, you’re not going to find anything on gay marriage in the Bible, you’re not going to find a word about stem cell research in the Bible. But you will find 3,000 references to the moral claim that people who are hurting, chiefly because of poverty, have on the rest of us. I think it is time to start acting on that moral imperative and maybe even get to the point where we move on from stop kicking people when they’re down to the point where we’re actually constantly reaching out a hand.
It’s hard to be funny and discuss these issues in the same breath, but you remind me of Howard Zinn, who combined a great sense of humor while talking about very serious matters. I’d like you to talk about what’s happened to the Democratic Party over the decades in relation to issues of class and poverty. And I’m reminded of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union address on economic justice, he had a whole list of things that he said that America must do and guarantee; for example, “the right to a useful and remunerative job; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food clothing, and recreation; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and to enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; the right to a good education.” He said all of these rights spell security.
I really cannot comment a lot on our elected officials or our Democratic Party. I would just point out that it was good to hear Obama talking recently about raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour until you realize that when he was running for reelection he was saying $9.50. If he keeps going down at that the rate we’ll be—the national is, what, 7.25 an hour?
But still, let’s say Congress passes it. At $9 or 9.50, if you are working full-time, you are in poverty.
No question about that.
You have a background with democratic socialists, and you kind of didn’t answer my question on the Democratic Party, where the plight of the poor was once a concern.
I don’t look at it so much politically. It’s in the early 1960s this culture of poverty idea took hold, which is what I was talking about, is terrible stereotypes about the poor, that there’s something wrong with them that has to be fixed, not that there’s something wrong with wages, that there’s a lack of housing, and so on. That’s what I think has to be turned around. There are obvious things everybody is probably thinking of right now, like campaign finance, the obvious dependence of elected officials on great wealth, which I don’t know the solution to unless we prevent all advertising for candidates, which might not be a bad idea.
How has the decline in the union movement affected wages and poverty?
It’s a disaster. The unions have been pushing for raising the minimum wage. That’s a good thing. I fault them for spending the last five or so years without making a huge effort to organize the unemployed. So many people have lost their jobs in this country, in waves. I’ve met with mill workers in Maine and foundry workers in Indiana. When you lose your job, you lose your union membership. No. That’s exactly where the union should be in fighting for you harder than ever. I am quite critical of our major unions.
And I’ll say something which may get me in a lot of trouble back in D.C., but I think they have to sell off their real estate. Anyone who has visited Washington, D.C., and has seen the beautiful buildings that the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO, etc., even the SEIU occupy, I think all that has to go. It’s probably worth hundreds of millions, billions of dollars. All that has to be turned into grass-roots organizing. That’s the only thing to do with that.
Union membership is now at an almost 100-year low. And there have been concerted attacks, well documented in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, to take away collective bargaining. Talk about their endorsement of Keystone XL, the pipeline project that would bring tar-sands oil to the Guld Coast.
They didn’t come right out and endorse the Keystone pipeline. They just said, There’s a lot of good stuff about pipelines, right? I found very shocking about that in the statement from the AFL-CIO that at the same time they’re saying we the unions have to be sort of a nexus of democratic forces in this country—and they included civil rights, women, etc.—they suddenly dropped the environmental movement? What was with that? I have to say, I spent a lot of time back in union organizing drives, walking picket lines. And right now I always try to remind workers, they have the option of forming their own associations. You do not have to be part of any sort of national or international labor union to be organized. Like the American Airlines flight attendants. They’re not part of the AFL-CIO. They have their own association. The clerical workers at the University of California, at least in Berkeley, have their own association. That’s another way we have to think of that people can go.
The economist Richard Wolff on this stage talked about the systemic and structural problems of capitalism that need to be addressed rather than this or that particular problem. What do you think about that?
I tend to think smaller in my actual work. I agree with Richard Wolff, obviously. But we have to break things down into a size we can deal with. In Santa Fe six, seven years ago, when the living wage movement started, they could have said, “We have to smash capitalism. That’s what’s wrong here, some people getting rich off of other people.” That would be true at some level. But they also carved out an attack. If you want to call that reformism, then we have a fight, David. And I was hoping we would have a fight.
New Mexico is a state with a large number of people in poverty. Many of them are Native Americans. Four of the five poorest counties in the U.S. are on Indian land where there’s a tremendous amount of poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, crime.
Did I mention the Economic Hardship Reporting Project?
This is my project. We’re trying to get starving journalists to write about economic hardship. We had a very good piece a few months ago, which we got out in a variety of media about what’s happening on Native American reservations in North Dakota. That’s the big oil-boom state. The frackers come in and everybody gets a job. However, at the same time, the place they’re in becomes unlivable because of giant trucks going around, there’s actually no housing. Our reporter lived in a rental car in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Everything just went to hell. That sort of shows another side. You can have economic development, so-called, that is also social collapse.
I was reminded of a Yeats couplet when you were talking about meanness and kind of the hardening of the emotional arteries in the body politic. He said, “We had fed the heart on fantasies, The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” How do we stop that meanness?
It’s not meanness in us each individually. I think very few of us have an impulse, when we see a panhandler, to hit the person or call the police. But it becomes systematic. When your municipality is so starved for finances that they think that’s actually a good way to make money, by laying fines and fees on top of the poorest people, then it becomes organized. And then we can do something. A lot of that is within reach of city ordinances, of people. You want children handcuffed on the streets for being late to school? You’ve got a choice. You can vote on that, you can go to city council on that. But it means looking at all those places where the gears are turning in that kind of direction and intervening.
I’m sure glad that that truancy thing wasn’t in force when I was going to junior high school and high school, because I was playing hooky most of the time, and my immigrant parents would have probably landed in debtor’s prison, if it had existed at that time.
Debtor’s prison does now exist.
Or de jure, whatever. I tried to sketch out the way that can happen. If you miss a court summons, you have debt. And it could be a private-sector debt. It could be that you didn’t pay your rent and your landlord decides to take you to court over that. You don’t show up because you don’t get the summons or you had to work at that time or you have no vehicle or whatever, then you are a criminal.
In recent weeks the stock market has hit record highs, but people aren’t doing as well as Wall Street. One of the characteristics of the ongoing great recession is long- term, chronic unemployment. That’s defined by the Labor Department as 27 weeks or more of people being out of work. It turns out that many of them are older. And it’s hard for them to find a job.
I’m thinking now of the white-collar, professional, managerial job market. When I investigated for my book Bait and Switch—that was really hard. You think Nickel and Dimed was hard? This was really hard. Because all the advice is, on your résumé include no experience that goes back more than 10 years, because that will give your age away. There are no jobs after a certain age. I think one of the scariest times of life for people, no matter how educated or successful they might have been at some point, is when you become too old to be employable again. Say you’re 52 and you want to go back into practicing your white-collar profession, but you’re too young to qualify for Social Security or Medicare. That’s a very scary little period in there, when you become unemployable and you don’t qualify for those limited benefits.
What does it say about the economic system when there’s obviously so much work to be done, so much infrastructure that needs to be built and repaired and restored on one side, and on the other side you have all of these people out of work that are looking for work but the system can’t bring them together?
You’re indicting capitalism again. Is there any shortage of things to do in this country? And it’s not just physical infrastructure. It’s also what you could call human or social infrastructure. The baby boomers more and more are going to need home health care aides, just to give you one example. We’re not all going to be in nursing homes. We’re going to need that kind of service. Right now home health care aides are treated terribly: they’re paid near the minimum wage everywhere. They have no more rights than the average domestic worker. We’re not putting the need together with the ability to do something about that. We have so many children who need tutoring, they need help with school, they need smaller classrooms, and then we have all these unemployed teachers. An economy like that has to be changed.
You write that there was no decision to become a writer; “that was something I just started doing.” You have a background in science, a Ph.D. in cell biology. How did you become a writer?
I never thought about it as a profession. When I decided to become “socially relevant”—that was the old term—and went to work with a little group of young activists around 1970 on improving health care for low-income people in New York City, I actually had no thought of any kind of career. I got my Ph.D. in cell biology. I threw that over, or just got tired of the bench. And then in my first little movement job, I found myself doing a lot of writing. And I liked it, and I liked doing investigations, too, because that seemed to come straight from science.
And in Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch you foreground the first-person narrative. You’re the actor there interacting in these different situations. Very different from rather distant political analysis and essays.
It was strange, very strange.
You’ve said that something that prepared you for writing was the amount of reading that you used to do.
Sometimes students ask me, “How can I become a writer?” And not just students. Writing seems very glamorous. It is glamorous. It’s wonderful. There’s just no pay. I’ll say back to a young person, “What do you read?” “I don’t really read very much.” I’m sorry, that’s the ticket. The first step is to learn the language, how the language is used. Learn the beauty in the language, learn the language as a tool. For me that was not an effort. I love to read. You can’t stop me. I’ve actually had people tell me that Nickel and Dimed was the first book they’ve finished. I don’t know how to feel about that. On the one hand, I’m really proud; on the other hand, terrible, just terrible.
A friend told me Nickel and Dimed was the most depressing book she could never put down.
It’s not depressing.
One thing that characterizes your writing is fluency and terseness. There’s much in little. There’s not this endless verbosity and run-on sentences that begin in Tampa and end in Tucson. Did your science background give you that sense of precision?
I wouldn’t be surprised. A great way to learn to write: Write some science. Anybody ever done that kind of writing? All passive voice. But as a discipline, it’s good, because you just absolutely have to focus on what you’re trying to say. What I’ve said when I’ve taught essay writing classes is, Don’t worry about saying things in lovely ways, what adjectives and adverbs you’re going to use. The first thing is to have something to say. That’s where the struggle is. I don’t find writing sentences down too difficult, probably from those years and years of reading. But the struggle, the agony, the waking up in the middle of the night, thinking, What exactly do I have to say, what needs to be said that hasn’t been said, and how can I make that clear?
And you invest it with passion and energy.
Can’t help that. It’s just infects everything.
It may be growing up in Butte, Montana, which you say was still a “bustling, brawling, blue-collar mining town.” Your father was a miner, other men in your family were either miners or railroad workers. And today, Butte, you note, is, sadly,” an underpopulated, woefully polluted EPA Superfund site thanks to the mining companies.”
It’s a story like so many others. The mining companies come in or the lumber companies or whatever it is, and they make their money and they go off. When the Anaconda company left Butte, Montana, to go get their copper from Chile, they didn’t bother pumping out the mines. They let the mines flood. They let all the toxic chemical wastes flood the city. Neighborhoods are buried under water that is so toxic that birds have been seen accidentally going into it and disappearing.
What was your take on the Occupy movement?
I loved it. Anybody here from Occupy Santa Fe? Congratulations. Thank you. I think actually that was a turning point in which we began to understand, a lot of us, that criminalization of poverty, that it is illegal to be homeless, that it is illegal to do things outdoors in public that biologically you have to do and there is no provision for. It was a turning point for me. I remember going to Zuccotti Park in New York City to visit. I’m too old to stay overnight. That’s my excuse, anyway. Zuccotti Park is pretty small. So I go there and I’m enjoying it and so much is going on. And then I started thinking, Where do you pee? There was one Starbucks about three blocks away which would let people use their bathrooms, and there was like a block-long line outside for that. There are no public facilities. A lot of things I think were brought home to a lot of us who are not homeless through the Occupy encampments. And I think in that way it was sort of a brilliant tactic, although it’s not a tactic that was easy to continue.
Occupy to some extent did inject the 1% versus 99%, and income inequality and wealth inequality into the political discourse. But except for a recent revival after the superstorm Sandy hit the New York-New Jersey area, where Occupy people helped people in distress, get them out of their homes and feed them, the movement pretty much seems to have dissipated.
I don’t think it’s as visible. But one of the things that Occupy people are working on, maybe also here in Santa Fe, but I think nationally—which I mentioned in my talk is abolishing debt. And I’m not talking about for the big banks. We have to look at this trillion dollars now in student loan debt. I don’t know what the number is on medical debt, but medical debt, as Elizabeth Warren pointed out before she became a senator, is the number one cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. I think that the Occupy demand is worth pushing for: Abolish these debts and let people live.
There was the Occupy slogan, “We got sold out, they got bailed out.” It kind of encapsulated the politics of the era. You’ve said that we’ve got to move the discussion from what can we do for the poor to what do we have to stop doing to the poor? Can you talk more about that?
Well, I think the liberal idea is a good one, how do we put these things together—housing and good jobs and education—and make all that work for people. I’m completely down with that. But at the same time, we have to not look away from the huge levels of incarceration in this country, the insanity, for example, of the war on drugs, which has resulted in the incarceration of so many African American men, and these other forms of the criminalization of poverty that are going on.
Michelle Alexander, again, from this stage spoke eloquently about that.
Her book, The New Jim Crow, is great.
What’s coming up for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project?
We have some very hot things in the works. Right now, today, go to cnn.com and you will see something we got Susan Faludi, the well-known feminist, to write about Sheryl Sandberg’s intervention in feminism. Sheryl Sandberg, the Yahoo executive who has written a book called Lean In about how women can get ahead in the corporate hierarchy. Unfortunately, that book came out at the same time as the female CEO of Yahoo stopped the possibility of working from home—very, very important for parents of both sexes, but particularly women—while she built her own nursery next to her office at the Yahoo building. I’m not really interested in women making it up the corporate ladder if they don’t have concern for their women employees.
Your views on women in combat?
Fine. I’ve been saying this for a long time. My favorite of my own books is called Blood Rites.
It’s a terrific book.
Nobody ever mentions it because it’s scholarly, my own form of scholarly. The point is that ever since the introduction of action-at-a-distance weapons, like bows and arrows, upper-body strength has not been the determining thing in ability to the fight. That’s nonsense. The other thing is, when you’re using action-at-a-distance weapons—and our most common one for the past few hundred years has been guns—you don’t want to be in some kind of testosterone rage when you’re taking aim. Rage and the total sort of testosterone story of war—silly. Unless you’re fighting hand to hand in wrestling or something.
And any guy here who questions that and thinks that women aren’t capable of being really aggressive, I’ll meet you outside.
I’m not going to top that. So that’s a perfect place to stop. Thank you Barbara.
(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)
For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone (800) 444-1977