For nearly a half-century, self-proclaimed “myth-buster by trade” Barbara Ehrenreich has written provocative investigative articles and bestselling books on hot-button issues including health care, politics, poverty, and race. Her most popular book, Nickel and Dimed, is considered a modern classic. Her new book Had I Known: Collected Essays is a compilation of her seminal shorter pieces, many of which are still relevant today, decades after they were first published.
Straddling the space between journalist and activist, Ehrenreich confronts the indignities in low-wage work, the bright-siding of breast cancer, and the criminalization of poverty. More importantly, she prophetically condemns our broken social, medical, and economic infrastructure, which the COVID-19 pandemic has blown wide open.
Ehrenreich’s life’s work contains powerful lessons for building a stronger country post-coronavirus.
Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, in 1941. Her copper miner father attended night school, then won a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University, moving the family to Pittsburgh and propelling them into the middle class. She studied theoretical physics at Reed College, then went on to earn a Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University. Having undergone a political and personal transformation when her first child was born in 1970, Ehrenreich started advocating for better health care for women and co-authored, with Deirdre English, the “underground bestseller” Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers in 1973. She began writing full time a couple of years later.
Ehrenreich’s life’s work contains powerful lessons for building a stronger country post-coronavirus—an America where all people, not just the wealthy, can live with dignity.
Here are several we in the United States would benefit from:
• Enhanced workers’ rights—In her 1999 essay “Nickel and Dimed,” which became the 2001 bestselling book of the same name, Ehrenreich went undercover as a waitress, nursing-home aide, housekeeper, and Walmart worker to report on the indignities low-wage workers faced. Though the economy was strong, Ehrenreich found herself having to juggle two jobs to barely scrape by. Because she and her co-workers weren’t unionized, they had no recourse when they were exploited, and turnover was high. Little has changed at companies that employ a nonunion workforce. Amazon assistant manager Chris Smalls was recently fired for leading a walkout demanding hazard pay and protective gear after workers at his Staten Island, New York, facility tested positive for COVID-19. Unions, a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave, paid family leave, hazard pay, and safer work conditions are vital.
• Affordable housing—Ehrenreich’s co-workers in Nickel and Dimed had to share rooms, live with their parents, or inhabit their cars because housing was too expensive. Today, more American households are renting than at any point in 50 years, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau housing data—and rents are still too high. A new report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University reveals that one in four renters spent more than 50% of their income on housing in 2018. Furthermore, there were 6 million more cost-burdened renters in 2018 than in 2001. Though the problem is prevalent among lower-income Americans, it’s growing among middle-income Americans as housing costs rise. The pandemic has exacerbated the crisis as layoffs skyrocket and many Americans are unable to pay their rent. As cities ban evictions and politicians scramble to stem housing insecurity, it becomes clear that Americans need more affordable housing, which can be achieved through rent control, inclusionary zoning ordinances, and targeted subsidies.
• Universal health care—In her 2001 essay “Welcome to Cancerland,” Ehrenreich writes about her battle with breast cancer. She criticizes the positive thinking and pink-ribbon culture of the breast cancer movement, which ignores the environmental causes of cancer and insults those who die despite having a good attitude. The essay inspired her 2018 bestseller Natural Causes, which exposes the health care industrial complex whose endless screenings targeting older people are often unnecessary and sometimes even harmful. She excavates the latest biomedical research to illustrate that our immune systems can turn on us at any moment and that we’re not in charge of our bodies. COVID-19 has proven that everyone can get sick, but not everyone can get health care. More than 27 million Americans are uninsured—and urgent care clinics can legally deny them treatment. The answer is universal health care: guaranteed medical services for everyone.
• A stronger social safety net—Ehrenreich’s co-workers in Nickel and Dimed were one paycheck away from financial disaster. Today 78% of workers live paycheck to paycheck, which has proven calamitous as the pandemic has spread. About 10 million people filed unemployment claims for the first time in the past two weeks. While low to middle-income workers are eligible for enhanced unemployment benefits because of the $2 trillion stimulus package, the package does little to address the plight of undocumented workers or new college graduates. A stronger social safety net should be in place when the next catastrophe occurs.
• Community over individualism—Ehrenreich recently tweeted, “Is coronavirus incompatible with capitalism?” expanding on it in a Vice interview by saying, “A threat like this, people need to come together.” The pandemic has proven just how harmful our culture of rugged individualism can be—in stores across the country, people have hoarded toilet paper, leaving the elderly without this essential item. In New York, where some folks have not been socially distancing, the virus has spread. Californians and Washingtonians, on the other hand, have taken their civic responsibility to stay home more seriously, leading to a flattening of the curve of infections.
• A stronger federal government—Ehrenreich has said that the best way people can come together in a pandemic is through government. Columbia Business School Professor Fanyin Zheng has a similar view, writing in Fortune magazine that “in the face of epidemics, there is no substitute for centralized, federal-level actions when designing effective policies.” But in our decentralized system, it’s every state for itself, with governors pleading for the ventilators they desperately need. This approach fails “in settings of extreme scarcity where the goal is to save as many lives as possible,” Zheng argues, and advocates for a strong federal government to implement optimal policies.
• Science over junk science—In her book Bright-Sided, Ehrenreich exposes the downside to Americans’ penchant for positive thinking, and calls for science and facts over “positive psychology” and “the science of positive thinking.” President Trump’s response to the pandemic exemplifies junk science. He dismissed pandemic worry in January, resulting in the virus spreading. He then claimed that hydroxychloroquine was approved to treat coronavirus. While the drug, which is used to treat lupus and prevent malaria, has shown evidence of blocking coronavirus from entering cells, there’s no solid proof yet that it’s an effective treatment. And Trump’s reckless promotion of it led to an Arizona man dying after taking a form of chloroquine.
• Diverse journalists—In the introduction to Had I Known: Collected Essays, Ehrenreich bemoans the bleak state of journalism as news conglomerates lay off reporters who join the ranks of hungry freelancers. She also sheds light on how absurd it is that affluent writers cover poverty because low-income writers don’t have the resources to do so. In response, she founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which helps marginalized writers get published in mainstream outlets and subsidizes their fees so that they’re making $1 per word. Among the writers EHRP supported early in her career was Stephanie Land, who went on to pen the bestseller Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will To Survive. Land also wrote the recent New York Times essay, “Pay Your House Cleaner Anyway,” reminding us to be generous toward hourly workers during the pandemic.
While these ideas have long been part of the mantra of the left, the pandemic has brought them to the center. Now that bus drivers, food service workers, and trash collectors are grouped with doctors and nurses as “essential workers,” we must acknowledge that every human being is essential. As Americans hover over an abyss, we’re forced to reevaluate what we require to live dignified lives during the pandemic and afterward.
This is an opportunity to create a better United States, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s work can help us do that.
Florina Rodov is a former public school teacher who has written for The Atlantic, CNN, Shondaland, and others. She’s working on two books.