Barbara Ehrenreich and Alissa Quart on Changing the Narrative of Poverty in Media

Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America by Alissa Quart (Photo credit: Millennium Images/Mark Adams)

Twenty years ago, investigative journalist Barbara Ehrenreich set out to test the premise of 1996’s welfare-reform act, which offered two key assurances: that unskilled labor was available to anyone who sought it out, and that such jobs were the key to rising out of poverty. Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America, her 2001 report from the front lines of low-wage feminized labor, was a damning corrective to ivory-tower economists who believed that wealth trickled down and that the working poor simply weren’t pulling hard enough on their bootstraps. Chronicling a dizzying calculus of ugly working conditions, food and housing insecurity, and constant anxiety, the book painted a picture of a country that tells its most vulnerable citizens to try harder even as it sets them up to fail.

Alissa Quart’s Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, published in June 2018, seems like a Dickensian Ghost of Capitalism Future for the world Ehrenreich documented in Nickel and Dimed. Reporting on what would formerly have been called the middle class (Quart renames them the “Middle Precariat”), Squeezed captures the dazed uncertainty of a post-recession generation of would-be parents for whom stagnant wages and ever-rising housing costs make them can’t-be ones. The working poor still can’t make ends meet—but now neither can their counterparts many steps up the income ladder.

Quart and Ehrenreich share a knack for immersive, in-depth reporting, as well as an often-bruised sense of unlikely optimism. (Ehrenreich’s most recent book, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, explores the cultural fear of dying and the geyser of wellness interventions that accompanies Baby Boomers into their six and seventh decades.) So I wasn’t surprised to find out that the two women are the brains behind the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP), an initiative that funds writing on income inequality, unemployment, and other facets of an economic landscape denuded by the very wealthiest. They took some time to talk to me—and each other—about their respective books, the EHRP, and #MeToo.

Income inequality is a key issue now, more than ever, but I think EHRP might be flying under people’s radar because there’s so much else going on right now. Can you talk how the project got started and why it’s so necessary?

Barbara Ehrenreich: In 2009, during the recession, I called the New York Times and said I wanted to do some writing for them about low-income people who were already struggling. All their recession coverage had been, like, “Somebody can’t afford a personal Pilates class because of the recession.” They offered me a four-part series in what was then the Sunday Times op-ed section. This project was going to involve a lot of travel within the United States, [and] I quickly realized that the amount they were paying—less than half what they paid for similar space in the New York Times a couple years before—was not going to even cover my expenses. I had enough savings that I could do it with my own [money], and I thought that was very noble until 10 minutes later, when I said, “What is this? A concession that nobody can write about poverty anymore unless they’re rich?”

I did the series, but at that point, I [realized] there had to be some way to change how poverty is covered. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of writing about these issues over the years, but there are people who know more about poverty, or are experiencing it themselves. And so that became the starting point: We have to go to the experts, the people who are actually struggling with economic hardship, and find ways to get them out there and published. The project started and we stumbled along for a couple of years until Alissa came along and totally revitalized it in many, many ways.

Alissa Quart: I [had been] contacted about a grant opportunity at the EHRP by a really wonderful guy who was working there then named Gary Rivlin, [who] also writes a lot on poverty. He and Barbara had both supported The Last Clinic, a film that I wrote and produced and coconceived of with director Maisie Crow. Making a film is really expensive, and the grant we got from EHRP was a huge part of what made it workable.

Ever since I was a young writer, Barbara was my model for [reporting] that’s witty, lefty, analytical but also well reported, critically minded but with a lot of humor. It was amazing to finally be touching the hem of her athletic wear! [Both laugh] So I started to work for EHRP, and then when Gary went on book leave, he kind of gave me the project. It was a part-time job because we were underfunded, but I produced a lot with very little funding, and then we got grants [from] that.

Barbara, I think of Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch as two books that, if we look back at them, really explain a lot about how we came to this moment that we’re in. What would you say has changed since those books came out?

BE: Well, many things have changed in 20 years that are very important to what I initially saw and wrote about. One is just the proliferation of ways to prey on the poor, the number of credit scams and things like that; another is understanding that the criminal-justice system has become a way of extracting money from the poor.

[Often] poverty journalism is stories of noble, hardworking people who are still in poverty and [we make] the point, again and again, that it’s not something about them that’s wrong. But I wanted to go beyond that to focus on the fact that once you start slipping down economically, it’s very hard to stop because there are more and more traps along the way. I think the harassment and persecution of people, whether they’re newly poor or born poor, it’s been increasing. It’s gotten harder, if you lose your grip in any way in this economy, to get back up.

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It seems like there’s also a lot more mean-spiritedness on the part of people who witness this. Alissa, you mention Linda Tirado in your book, who wrote an essay on her personal experience of poverty and got a wildly vitriolic response online. I don’t know if people really are more heartless or if it’s just more visible.

BE: Well, there’s a longstanding contempt for the poor and the working class [that comes] from educated, professional, middle-class people. And it is infused with a lot of righteousness. What got Linda in trouble is that she admitted that she smokes cigarettes. I come from working-class culture, where cigarette smoke [is] just the smell of human habitation. But whenever I’ve talked about the need to raise the minimum wage and [other] issues, someone in a middle-class or upper-middle-class audience is going to stand up to ask, “But why don’t these people take care of themselves? Why do they smoke cigarettes?” Once you can find a sin on the part of the poor, then you can righteously abandon them.

AQ: I would extend this to basically anything [that] goes wrong with anyone in the working class. Like if somebody is ill, it must be their fault. [There’s] a tendency to blame the vulnerable in America for their situation, to [say] that they’ve had it coming. But [that’s] a way to insulate the blamer from any downfall themselves: If there’s a clear causation, then they’ll never become that poor or that unstable.

But I feel like things are changing a little bit because of the precarious middle class. I’ve been thinking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election, where part of the credit is being given to the middle class and the working class who, in that instance, formed a coalition. I think the hope is that if people stop looking up aspirationally and start to see their own precarity—if they can identify with one another across class—then there will be less of that blaming going on. I hope that’s something my book will accomplish and what EHRP will accomplish.

There’s also a gendered quality to some of the blaming of poor women. I went with one of my subjects, who was on food stamps, to get food. And it was a Trader Joe’s, and people’s eyes were raised, you know? One of our EHRP contributors, Stephanie Land, wrote about food-stamp shaming.

In reading both Squeezed and Natural Causes, I was struck by the fact that the topics are really different, but in a lot of ways you’re both writing about the effect on our culture of individual self-focus and the belief that collectivism is a weakness rather than a strength. Why is that such a crucial thing to address right now?

AQ: Barbara started this organization, and she mentors a lot of working-class women as writers. And I think that’s part of the thesis of Natural Causes. [When] you’re part of a movement, you have a chosen family as well as your real family, and a tradition that you pass down, right? And the narcissism of not doing that is part of what makes people so paranoid and morbid. I mean, most of us are afraid of death—except probably Barbara [laughs]. But a thing that helps is to say, “I’m trying to create this organization, and I’m trying to make a better world,” and not just tend to yourself.

Similarly, with the people I write about, it’s when they are able to get out of the [cycle] of self-blame and are able to see economic insecurity as a systemic problem [that] they feel better and start pushing for different kinds of change. But if they’re in this sort of vortex—if you start accusing yourself, like, “Why am I not able to get that extra assignment?”—it’s defeating and fatiguing. It takes away your energy that could be spent fighting more collectively.

BE: Certainly, the issues I took on in Natural Causes are related to this individualism and narcissism. Because the difficult thing about facing death is [realizing] there’s not going to be me anymore, no self called Barbara. It’s all over; there’s no continuation. But I see the world going on quite well without me; other people are doing the same kind of work that I do or work that I recognize as very important. My death is incidental in the—if I may be a little bombastic here—in the eons-long struggle for social justice. In the book I quote the old Wobbly song “Joe Hill,” which says that, you know, whenever there’s a struggle—a labor struggle, a struggle for justice—Joe Hill is still there, he’s still alive.

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You’ve both been among the vocal group that’s noted the potential for #MeToo to draw attention to harassment and assault in low-income, majority-female service jobs. Do you think that’s working? And how can people who don’t necessarily identify as activists do more to help?

BE: Well, what I found at the time of the Weinstein revelations is that every working-class woman I encountered would say, “Yes. It’s not just actresses. It’s us.” And we have built on that, at least in our writing and the radio shows we’ve done.

AQ: I’m glad #TimesUp [has created] a legal fund, and I would love to follow up in a year and see if it has gone to lower-income women, because that’s really important. In our New York Review of Books piece about #MeToo we ended with a call for more spaces, virtual and physical, where women can not be near men if they don’t want to be, and [where they] don’t have to pay $3,000 at The Wing, or Wellesley, or whatever. So what people who are middle class or wealthy [can] do is help create those spaces.

You two are a good counterpoint to the longstanding narrative that portrays intergenerational feminism as a struggle. What work goes into to making that happen?

BE: There has to be some giving up of ego on both sides, and we’ve been willing to listen. The stereotype is terrible, though: the bitchy older woman who can’t relinquish power and the bratty younger woman who isn’t willing to learn anything from the older woman’s experience, etc. We’ve seen that cartoon enough.

AQ: Barbara hasn’t micromanaged me at all. I’ve been encouraging Barbara to shine when she has a new book, and, you know, to get her Twitter up and running. She’s a Twitter star now! The EHRP started that: A young person working for us, who’s really good at social media, [built] up her account, and then Barbara ran with it and turned it into this amazing outlet. So I think that’s an example.

BE: Of course, I discovered by taking a little survey on some kind of media platform that I actually have a taste [for] the millennial. [Laughs]

AQ: That’s not wrong, Barbara! I mean, you’re very essayistic and attitudinal, and you don’t care. You’re not “unbiased” and all those things that, you know, reporters were supposed to be in the past. And in a way, this is more like a Barbara Ehrenreich world, in terms of journalistic style, today than it was then. And that’s true for me, too. People aren’t saying, “Why aren’t you telling every side of the story, Alissa?” They’re happy to have someone with a voice.

by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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