August 14, 2002
Instead of just following the debate on welfare reform Barbara Ehrenreich decided to live it, leaving her life as a writer to work a variety of low-income jobs, seeing first-hand what it takes to get by in America.
She wrote about the experiences in the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. She will speak about them at Calvin College on October 2 at 7 p.m. in a talk called "Nickel and Dimed: Gender and Class in America." The talk is free and open to the public and is the third in the Nokomis Lecture Series (sponsored by the West Michigan Women's Studies Council), following talks during the 2001-2002 school year by Margaret Cho and Lani Guinier.
In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich describes her experiences working full-time and year-round for poverty-level wages. She was motivated by the debates over welfare reform which, to her mind, left unanswered the question of how people could survive on wages of six or seven dollars per hour.
Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, Ehrenreich worked at a variety of low-income jobs. As she says: "I tried to support myself on the wages I could earn as an entry-level worker. I waited tables, I cleaned the toilets of the rich, I fed Alzheimers patients in a nursing home, I sorted stock at Wal-Mart. All these were difficult, exhausting jobs and it made me understand what a serious mistake our nation made with welfare reform."
Indeed, one of her first "discoveries" was that one job is not enough if you intend to live indoors. You need at least two.
The math just doesn't work, she says, noting that the average woman coming off welfare earns about $7 an hour: about $280 a week before taxes.
"You can't support children on that, or even one person," she says.
Ehrenreich is a prolific author and a frequent contributor to Time, Harper's Magazine, The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Times Magazine. Interestingly she has a Ph.D. in biology and first began her writing career with articles for professional scientific journals. That background, she once said in an interview, "gives me a way of seeing the world, an analytical strength." She added: "A lot of my analogies and metaphors come from science."
Ehrenreich's talk, to be held in Calvin's Fine Arts Center auditorium, is sponsored by the West Michigan Women's Studies Council which was formed in 2001 to inform the West Michigan community of gender issues and to collaborate with other groups to enhance the lives of women. The Council consists of members from six local colleges including Aquinas, Calvin, Davenport, Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley and Hope.