“I'd like to begin with a quote from the President,” Barbara Ehrenreich began her Oct. 30 lecture at UCSD's Price Center Ballroom. “Or should I say our ‘quote, President, unquote.'”
That jab drew the first of many laughter-applause rounds from the packed house, and when the diminutive author threw in the kicker, it was obvious she had most of the crowd in her unabashedly liberal corner. After she read one of the President's typically cryptic, grammatically questionable sound bytes, Ehrenrich quipped: “You've got to love a man who isn't afraid to stand up to the English-only movement.”
Titled “Comments on a Culture Out of Whack,” Ehrenreich's talk couldn't have come at a better time for many of the student and community activists in attendance that evening. And her target couldn't have been clearer. Since the arguably dubious installation of the George W. Bush Administration two years ago, wages have consistently dropped for blue-collar and the working-class poor, while the upper echelon of society has consistently raised its own standard of living-at the expense of the lower class.
How did Ehrenreich know this? She's lived it. Her book, Nickel and Dimed: Surviving in Low Wage America, was her living research of just how hard it is to survive making an average of $7 an hour in America.
Working as a maid, a waitress and an “associate” at Wal-Mart in Minnesota (“No one is a worker or employee anymore in America; you're an ‘associate' or a ‘team member'-as if you're going to be lunching with the board of directors and taking meetings with the CEO!”), she found that one of the biggest obstacles was affordable housing:
“I lived in what is the most common fallback for wage slaves: residential hotels.... Mine cost $250 per week-which was more than I was earning. But what I constantly hear about people on welfare... is that they can't manage money. Hey, try managing $1,200 a month-there's nothing there to manage [after paying for housing].”
Ehrenreich said what her experience taught her was directly contrary to the “hard work ethic” she had always assumed was part of the American dream. “I learned that the people around me stayed poor not because they didn't have a strong work ethic; they did,” she said. “The problem was that employers often don't have a pay ethic to go with it.”
Ehrenreich was also struck by the hypocrisy of the new American workplace, a place where the “associates” at the bottom were “expected to be perfect, straight arrows, while at the top, apparently it was ‘anything goes.'” She cited as an example a Wal-Mart training video showing what happens to an employee who steals a few hundred bucks from the company till (“the guy goes to prison for four years”). The video reminded Ehrenreich of a recent news story:
“Meanwhile at Tyco Corporation, an executive under investigation for stealing $600 million was offered several million dollars as a severance package. The moral of this is: if you're going to steal, steal a lot.”
For Ehrenreich, it all pointed to one fact: that America, more so than ever before, is becoming an economically and morally polarized society. Her solution? Organize.
“I'm sure Bush would suggest we ‘Bomb Poverty' or something like that.... But what we need to do is let employees organize, allow affordable housing-right now the largest public-housing projects are the penitentiaries-fight for universal health and child care and stop allowing so-called ‘welfare reform' to eliminate the caretaker role in our society. We used to have an old saying in the activist movement: Every mother is a working mother!”
After her lecture, people of different ages, class and ethnic backgrounds lined up to ask questions-or to pump their own activist agendas. One was Jessica Lopez, a recent UCSD graduate, who said that presence of middle- to upper-class whites in the audience gave her reason for hope.
“I am encouraged,” said Lopez, “that all these people, who may not be of the same background, seem to care about minorities and what's happening to the working poor.”
But Kelly Kuterbach, a 28-year-old SDSU student, said that while Ehrenreich's lecture inspired her, the lack of her peers in attendance did not. “I told lots of students-and faculty even,” said Kuterbach, pausing to smile at Ehrenreich as the author made her way to a line of about 50 people waiting for her book-signing. “So I'm kinda disappointed there weren't more young people here.”
During the Q&A portion of the evening, Ehrenreich acknowledged that one obstacle to organizing people today is the sheer amount of effort required “just to be a good citizen. You have to be able to absorb and process a lot of information for yourself.”
This fact came home to a man signing up at the Democratic Socialist of America table in the lobby after the lecture. “What kind of modem do you have?” asked Herb Shore, who was manning the DSA table. The man shrugged, oblivious to the meaning of the question. “Because it's quite a large PDF file,” Shore said. “I just want to make sure you really want the information before we recommend you download it.”