Ehrenreich on Poverty in the US

Before my first year of college, the required reading for all incoming first-years was Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. I have since become a fan of Ehrenreich (particularly her pamphlet Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers that she co-authored with Deirdre English), but at the time I felt Nickel and Dimed smacked of Ehrenreich’s class privilege and chafed at her method of data collection (to live and work temporarily in jobs as a member of the working poor in order to obtain first class knowledge).

When she gave a talk at my liberal New England school, she was lambasted by many of my fellow students for what we felt was her too shallow analysis and the blythe way she maintained her class privilege while trying to understand the lives of the working poor. Although I still feel that Nickel and Dimed fell flat, I’ve since come to realize that a lot of my initial reactions to it probably stemmed from my as yet unexamined experiences as someone who grew up working class/lower middle class and was now butting up against the realities of social class differences at the elite private institution I was attending.

Ehrenreich has hit the nail on the head this time with her recent article in the New York Times, “A Homespun Safety Net,” ferreting out the ways in which the government has implemented classism and class bias into our federal programs and laws. Apparently we still believe that Horatio Alger wrote the gospel truth:

It’s no secret that the temporary assistance program was designed to repel potential applicants, and at this it has been stunningly successful. The theory is that government assistance encourages a debilitating “culture of poverty,” marked by laziness, promiscuity and addiction, and curable only by a swift cessation of benefits.

Some other highlights from this article:

Nationally, according to Kaaryn Gustafson, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut Law School, “applying for welfare is a lot like being booked by the police.” There may be a mug shot, fingerprinting and long interrogations as to one’s children’s paternity. The ostensible goal is to prevent welfare fraud, but the psychological impact is to turn poverty itself into a kind of crime.

And again:

With no jobs to be found, Kristen was required to work as a volunteer at a community agency. (God forbid anyone should use government money to stay home with her children!) In exchange for $475 a month plus food stamps, the family submits to various forms of “monitoring” to keep them on the straight and narrow. One result is that Kristen lives in constant terror of doing something that would cause the program to report her to Child Protective Services. She worries that the state will remove her children “automatically” if program workers discover that her 5-year-old son shares a bedroom with his sisters. No one, of course, is offering to subsidize a larger apartment in the name of child “protection.”

HT to Education and Class.


5 responses to “Ehrenreich on Poverty in the US

  1. Required reading? I was excited to read Nickle and Dimed when I first saw it on the bookstore shelf many years ago but quickly found her scheme to be so hopelessly flawed that her good points would be ignored by those she wished to influence.

    Thanks for the heads up on the article.

  2. Happy you found me and the article!

    There is required reading for all incoming first-years at my college. The book changes year to year. Usually, they hit the nail on the head, recent books have included Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, My Year of Meats by Ruth L. Ozeki, and Caucasia by Danzy Senna. This year’s reading is a good but older one – The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.

    Which is to say I’m still surprised that Nickel and Dimed was chosen for our year.

    • That’s a tough question as I liked all of those books.

      I’d say it’s a pretty close race between Caucasia and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Both incredibly good and informative reads that cover topics like race, class, sexuality, immigration/refugee status, and medicine. Caucasia is a work of fiction based roughly on the author’s life whereas The Spirit Catches You is a non-fiction ethnography based work.

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