Barbara Ehrenreich Made Socialist Ideas Sound Like Common Sense

Barbara Ehrenreich was driven by both her undying anger at the profound injustices of life under capitalism and a fervent hope that the world doesn’t have to be this way.

Barbara Ehrenreich photographed in New York City on January 10, 2007. (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In 2009, as a deep recession triggered an epidemic of layoffs and foreclosures, the New York Times asked Barbara Ehrenreich to write a series of articles about poverty in the United States. She visited Los Angeles, where I introduced her to community, tenants’ rights, and union organizers. She also traveled to Detroit, Dallas, Baltimore, Saint Louis, Racine, Wisconsin, Wilmington, Delaware, and New York, talking with low-income people as well as with poverty researchers and activists. When she got back to her home in Virginia, she emailed me, “I’m ready to look over my notes and see where I’ve gotten to. It’s a bit overwhelming, but I’m feeling my anger level rising, so I better figure something out.”

What she figured out was that the composition of poverty was changing. In four remarkable articles ( “Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?,” “The Recession’s Racial Divide,” “Too Poor to Make the News,” and “A Homespun Safety Net”), she described two groups of Americans enduring hardship and destitution: the downwardly mobile middle class and those who had been poor before the economic downturn and for whom conditions had gotten even worse. But she also noted a burgeoning movement among the poor and their allies to challenge America’s indifference to poverty, low wages, and a bare-bones safety net.

Her reporting reflected her two unrelenting outlooks on life: outrage and hope. It was a tightrope that Ehrenreich — who died of a stroke on Thursday at eighty-one at a hospice facility in Alexandria, Virginia — walked during most of her life.

Turning the Radical Into the Commonsense

The headline on the New York Times’ obituary called Ehrenreich an “Explorer of Prosperity’s Dark Side.” It is true that, like many other muckraking reporters and radical reformers, Ehrenreich exposed the dark (and human) side of the United States’ inequality, injustice, and needless suffering. But she wasn’t just a social critic lobbing rhetorical grenades from the sidelines. She was also an activist who converted her hot anger into action.

Ehrenreich was on the front lines of the progressive crusades of her lifetime: labor, feminism, anti-war, civil rights, and democratic socialism. She fought injustice with her prolific writing, many speeches, and deep involvement in these movements. She dared to envision a better world — in the short term and the long term.

Ehrenreich wrote twenty-three books, some of them collections of her essays, columns, and investigative reports for publications like the New York Times, Time, and Harper’s. She is best known for her 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, about the working poor.

Barbara Ehrenreich speaks at the National Organization for Women conference on July 15, 2009. (National Organization for Women / Flickr)

Her wit, biting sarcasm, caustic irreverence, and underlying idealism made it easy for mainstream readers to accept, or at least take seriously, Ehrenreich’s leftist views on the economy, unions, women’s rights, big business, and politics. She made radical ideas sound like common sense.

She inherited her parents’ working-class pride and suspicion of powerful elites.

Ehrenreich was born Barbara Alexander on August 26, 1941, to Isabelle Oxley and Ben Howes Alexander in Butte, Montana, which she described as then being “a bustling, brawling, blue-collar mining town.”

Her mother, a homemaker, came from a mining family. As an alternate delegate to the Democratic Party convention in 1964, she joined the protest by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that tried to unseat that state’s segregated delegation.

Her father, a third-generation copper miner, eventually escaped that grueling occupation by attending the Montana State School of Mines (later called Montana Technological University) and then Carnegie Mellon University, rising to become a senior executive at the Gillette Corporation. As her father pursued his education and career, the family moved frequently, from Montana to Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and finally Los Angeles. Her parents later divorced.

In an interview with C-SPAN, she described her parents as “strong union people.” They had two strong rules, she recalled: “Never cross a picket line and never vote Republican.”

“As a little girl,” she told the New York Times:

I would go to school and have to decide if my parents were the evil people they were talking about, part of the Red Menace we read about in the Weekly Reader, just because my mother was a liberal Democrat who would always talk about racial injustice.

In her 1990 collection of essays, The Worst Years of Our Lives, she described her father, who had Alzheimer’s disease but whose political memory remained sharp. During the mental assessment performed by a neurologist, he was asked the name of the president of the United States. As Ehrenreich recalled, “His blue eyes would widen incredulously, surprised at the neurologist’s ignorance, then he would snort in majestic indignation, ‘Reagan, that dumb son of a bitch.’”

Ehrenreich graduated from Reed College in 1963 with a degree in physical chemistry and earned a PhD in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University in 1968. She quickly abandoned a career in science for writing and activism. In 1969 she and her first husband, John Ehrenreich, a clinical psychologist whom she met in the anti-war movement, wrote Long March, Short Spring, an account of the student rebellion against the Vietnam War. Ehrenreich used her science background in her early works about health care, becoming a major critic of corporate-oriented health care and of doctors’ and hospitals’ mistreatment of women.

In 1969 she went to work for a small nonprofit organization, the Health Policy Advisory Center, which advocated for better health care for low-income people. Ehrenreich wrote investigative pieces for the organization’s monthly newsletter, some of which were incorporated into her coauthored book The American Health Empire: Power, Profits, and Politics (1971).

The birth of her first child Rosa, in a public clinic in New York in 1970, changed Ehrenreich’s self-awareness. “I was the only white patient at the clinic,” she explained to the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, in 1987,

and I found out this was the health care women got. They induced my labor because it was late in the evening and the doctor wanted to go home. I was enraged. The experience made me a feminist. . . . The prenatal care I received at a hospital clinic showed me that PhDs were not immune from the vilest forms of sexism.

In the early 1970s, Ehrenreich’s expertise in health care issues merged with her feminism. Her 1972 pamphlet (coauthored with Deirdre English), Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, became a manifesto of the burgeoning women’s health movement. She followed this with Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness (1977) and For Her Own Good: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women (1989), which helped popularize the idea that the health care system controls women’s choices by mystifying the alleged expertise of (mostly male) physicians. In 1971 she became an assistant professor of health sciences at the State University of New York, Old Westbury, but quit after three years to devote herself to full-time writing and activism.

In 1980 Ehrenreich shared the National Magazine Award with colleagues at Mother Jones for excellence in reporting, for the cover story “The Corporate Crime of the Century,” about “what happens after the U.S. government forces a dangerous drug, pesticide or other product off the domestic market, then the manufacturer sells that same product, frequently with the direct support of the State Department, throughout the rest of the world.” Between 1994 and 1998, Ehrenreich was a regular columnist for Time magazine. After that came her best-known work: Nickel and Dimed.

Not Getting By

In 1998 she began her most ambitious and best-known writing project by taking a series of low-wage jobs to explore how Americans at the bottom of the economy cope with persistent poverty. The idea emerged at an expensive lunch at an American nouveau restaurant with Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, who encouraged her to go “undercover” to challenge the stereotypes about the poor.

The project took her to Key West, Florida, where she waited tables; to Portland, Maine, where she toiled as a dietary aide in a nursing home and a maid for a cleaning service; and to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she worked as a clerk for Walmart.

Ehrenreich set certain rules for herself: no relying on her education or writing skills to land a job, take the highest-paid job offered her, and find the cheapest accommodations she could. Her goal was not only to experience poverty but also to do the math: as a low-wage worker, could she actually make ends meet?

You might think that unskilled jobs would be a snap for someone who holds a Ph.D. and whose normal line of work requires learning entirely new things every couple of weeks. Not so. The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly “unskilled.”

She earned about half a living wage, and she could not imagine supporting children or paying for medical expenses on the $7 an hour or so she earned.

Her 1999 Harpers article about those experiences earned her a Sidney Hillman Award and became a chapter in her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, published in 2001. She observed:

What surprised and offended me most about the low-wage workplace was the extent to which one is required to surrender one’s basic civil rights and self-respect. I learned this at the very beginning of my stint as a waitress, when I was warned that my purse could be searched by management at any time. I wasn’t carrying stolen salt shakers or anything else of a compromising nature, but still, there’s something about the prospect of a purse search that makes a woman feel a few buttons short of fully dressed.

The book quickly struck a nerve. Five years earlier President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress had enacted so-called welfare reform, restricting family assistance for women and children, and pushing many former welfare recipients into the labor market. After a few years, many economists and politicians celebrated the plan as a huge success, pointing to a dramatic decline in the relief rolls.

But others noted that although the number of people on welfare had shrunk, welfare reform had not done much to reduce the poverty rate, because so many of them ended up in dead-end low-wage jobs, usually without health insurance — leaving them worse off than before.

Nickel and Dimed spent more than a hundred weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and sold more than 1.5 million copies. Many colleges assigned the book in classes.

A small but vocal group raised objections to the book. In July 2003, for example, conservatives in North Carolina purchased a full-page ad in the Raleigh News & Observer complaining that students at the University of North Carolina were required to read “a classic Marxist rant” that “mounts an all-out assault on Christians, conservatives and capitalism.” But other faculty, students, and politicians used the book to lobby for an increase in the minimum wage.

As late as 2010, Nickel and Dimed still made the American Library Association’s annual list of the top-ten most frequently challenged books — books that some Americans sought to keep off library shelves and school reading lists.

For many Americans, including my own students, Nickel and Dimed was an eye-opening revelation. Affluent students got to experience, vicariously through Ehrenreich’s perspective and the stories of her fellow workers, the harsh realities of working for poverty wages and living on a daily financial and emotional precipice. For low-income students, the book helped them understand that their own families’ suffering was not the result of personal failure but a societal one.

Nickel and Dimed was not an organizing handbook, but its deeply humanizing portrayal of injustice inspired many readers — including some of my students — to become activists and even to pursue careers as organizers.

In many ways, Nickel and Dimed resembled two earlier depictions of poverty amid affluence that stirred the nation’s conscience: Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962) and Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (1991). What made Nickel and Dimed different, however, was Ehrenreich’s first-person immersion in the world of the working poor and its description of hard-working, skilled, and resourceful people who earned their poverty on the job. She refused to see them as helpless victims. She gave them a voice to express their frustrations and to expose society’s injustice.

Nickel and Dimed helped alter the nation’s understanding of inequality and poverty. More and more Americans came to recognize that most poor adults, even many homeless people, collected paychecks, not welfare checks. By 2001, polls revealed that a vast majority of Americans wanted to raise the federal minimum wage. Local campaigns for living-wage laws and growing protests against Walmart (the nation’s largest employer of low-wage workers) also reflected the changing tide of public opinion that Nickel and Dimed helped shape, along with campaigns to raise wages among janitors, fast-food workers, and hotel employees. The shrinking middle class and the proliferation of poverty-wage jobs accounts for the finding of a recent Gallup poll that 71 percent of Americans support unions — the highest level since 1965. It also helps explain the current upsurge of union organizing — among Amazon warehouse workers, Starbucks baristas, minor league baseball players, and other low-wage employees.

“Many people praised me for my bravery for having done this — to which I could only say: millions of people do this kind of work every day for their entire lives — haven’t you noticed them?” she said in a 2018 speech accepting the Erasmus Prize for her investigative reporting.

To make sure they were noticed, in 2012 she founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which supports independent journalists to write about the lives of the poor, especially those in rural areas.

Putting Her Ideas to Good Use

Ehrenreich’s economic reporting did not focus exclusively on the poor. In 2008, she published This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation about the widening gap between the nation’s rich and everyone else. Three years later, the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted across the country. Even after the occupations ended, its slogan — the 1 percent and the 99 percent — captured the country’s imagination and helped fuel a new wave of activism.

Like many middle-class Americans radicalized by the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements, Ehrenreich sought to find ways for well-educated leftists to challenge America’s class and race system even as they worked — as teachers, social workers, planners, lawyers, administrators of nonprofit organizations, foundation staffers, and journalists — within the system. In a 1977 article for Radical America, she and John Ehrenreich coined the phrase “professional-managerial class” (PMC) to describe the growing number of “salaried mental workers” torn between the working class and the corporate elite. How, they wondered, could the PMC’s expertise be employed in the service of movements designed to dismantle systems of oppression?

She wasn’t into guilt-tripping or admonishing people to give up their privilege. Instead, she encouraged people to use their talents and positions to support movements led by poor and working-class people.

But within a decade, even many well-educated Americans were experiencing financial insecurities of their own. In her 1989 book, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, she examined the anxieties and self-doubt of the professional middle class about sliding down the income ladder. After writing Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, (2005), about the white-collar workforce, she launched an organization, with help from the Service Employees International Union, called United Professionals to lobby for better benefits for white-collar employees, as well as legislation related to age discrimination, layoffs, and underemployment.

In a 2020 interview with In These Times, Ehrenreich discussed how the professional-managerial class had undergone a profound transformation.

“We have seen vast swaths of the professional managerial class dumped down to the level of the working class,” she said:

This is the big lesson of Occupy. There were homeless blue collar workers with graduate students who knew they were going nowhere or who had PhDs even and were going nowhere. So there’s been a huge demotion for traditional PMC professions such as college teaching, which is over 70 percent adjunct now.

Ehrenreich’s books reflected her wide-ranging interests, include writings about men’s lack of commitment to emotional relationships (The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment, 1987), the origins of war and humanity’s attraction to violence (Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, 1997), the exploitation of women workers around the world by multinational corporations (Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, 2004), the human impulse for communal celebration (Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, 2007), and her experiences as a precocious teenager (Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything, 2014).

In 2000 Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer and wrote an essay for Harper’s, “Welcome to Cancerland,” about the “breast cancer cult,” which, she claimed, “serves as an accomplice in global poisoning — normalizing cancer, prettying it up, even presenting it, perversely, as a positive and enviable experience.” It earned her a second National Magazine Award.

Her experience with breast cancer also led to her critique of the “think positive” movement in popular psychology, religion, and health, explored in her 2009 book, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. For me and many other readers, this book was a reminder that progressive change happens when people honestly assess the opportunities and pitfalls, including the power of opposition forces, rather than get ensnared by what Ehrenreich called “reckless optimism.”

“We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles,” Ehrenreich wrote, “both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.”

Far from being paralyzing, this outlook provided Ehrenreich with the fortitude to fight for a better world. For many years she served as honorary cochair of Democratic Socialists of America. In her books, columns, and speeches, she always directed her readers and audiences to grassroots community organizations, unions, and women’s groups that were fighting for social justice. She was arrested at a rally in support of Yale’s blue-collar workers, joined picket lines with hotel workers and janitors, distributed leaflets for living-wage campaigns, and protested in favor of women’s reproductive rights. On her website, Ehrenreich posted articles by activists describing their organizing campaigns.

“If we are serious about collective survival in the face of our multiple crises, we have to build organizations, including explicitly socialist ones, that can mobilize this talent, develop leadership and advance local struggles,” Ehrenreich wrote in the Nation in March 2009 with Bill Fletcher Jr. “And we have to be serious, because the capitalist elites who have run things so far have forfeited all trust or even respect, and we — progressives of all stripes — are now the only grown-ups around.”

In 2016 and 2020 she endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns. She explained, “He’s the candidate that most represents me. He’s a democratic socialist.” But when Sanders didn’t win the Democratic Party’s nomination, she publicly supported Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

Biden and almost every Democrat have now embraced Sanders’s and Ehrenreich’s calls to raise the federal minimum wage — which has remained at $7.25 since 2009 — to $15 an hour. In January Biden issued an executive order for federal workers and employees of federal contractors to receive a $15 minimum wage, but due to opposition from every Republican and Senator Joe Manchin, he hasn’t be able to get Congress to adopt an across-the-board increase. Two polls last year, by Pew Research Center and by Hart Research Associates, found that 62 percent of Americans, and the same number among voters in swing Congressional districts, support raising the minimum wage to $15.

In December 2016, a month after Donald Trump won the presidency, Ehrenreich expressed concern that his opposition to abortion could eventually put women’s reproductive rights in serious jeopardy.

“We’re basically going to be left with some big cities where one can go for an abortion,” she said in what has turned out to be a prophetic statement.

In a 2020 interview with the New Yorker, she described her persistent outrage at the nation’s indifference to working-class Americans.

“We turn out to be so vulnerable in the United States,” she observed. “Not only because we have no safety net, or very little of one, but because we have no emergency preparedness, no social infrastructure.”

Although she abandoned a formal career in academia, she was a high-profile public intellectual whose work had a major influence on both academics and policy makers. No academic during the past half century — with the exception of William Julius Wilson and Frances Fox Piven — had as much impact as Ehrenreich on public opinion and public policy about poverty.

In addition to her two National Magazine Awards and her Sidney Hillman and Erasmus awards, Ehrenreich garnered the Freedom From Want Medal from the Roosevelt Institute, which rewards work that embodies FDR’s Four Freedoms, and the Puffin/Nation Prize to Creative Citizenship awarded jointly by the Puffin Foundation and the Nation Institute to an American who challenges the status quo “through distinctive, courageous, imaginative, socially responsible work of significance.” I included her in my book The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (2012).

She taught at Brandeis University and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. She received honorary degrees from Reed College, the State University of New York at Old Westbury, the College of Wooster in Ohio, John Jay College, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

Ehrenreich married John Ehrenreich in 1966. They had two children and were divorced in 1982. She married Gary Stevenson, an organizer with the Teamsters union, in 1983; they divorced in 1993.

Her daughter, Rosa Brooks, is a law professor at Georgetown University, served as senior adviser to the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, was a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and is the author of several books about politics, human rights, and foreign policy. Just as her mother had taken several low-wage jobs as research for Nickel and Dimed, Brooks became a sworn armed reserve police officer with the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department to write Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City (2021). Son Ben Ehrenreich is a journalist, essayist, and novelist who has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Nation, LA Weekly, and Village Voice and is author of The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine (2016) and Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time (2020).

In announcing his mother’s death, Ben Ehrenreich tweeted: “She was never much for thoughts and prayers, but you can honor her memory by loving one another, and by fighting like hell.”