Working-Class Hero

The year is only half over, but I’m ready to submit my nomination for the Least Effective Book Blurb of 2001. You’ll find it on the inside flap of Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book about the plight of the working poor. The blurb is from Arlie Russell Hochschild. It begins: “Barbara Ehrenreich is the Thorstein Veblen of the twenty-first century.”

Now, imagine for a moment that you’re the marketing director at Metropolitan Books, Ehrenreich’s publisher. What would you make of this blurb? Here we have a relatively obscure sociologist comparing the author, a relatively obscure journalist, to a significantly obscure turn-of-the-(last-)century economist whom not one in a thousand people outside academia has ever heard of. “The Thorstein Veblen of the twenty-first century”? This is not the sign of a broad marketing strategy.

That was my reaction to it, anyway, which may explain why I’m not in marketing. But who could have known that Ehrenreich, an unrepentant leftist who has spent more than 30 years attacking corporate America, would find an enthusiastic readership in the business world? Money magazine proclaimed the book “wickedly smart.” Business Week was equally friendly, as was The Industry Standard, the in-house organ of the New Economy. As for the dailies, says Ehrenreich’s publicist, “the business pages have been really responsive to this. She’s been covered extremely positively.” In June, Nickel and Dimed ascended to fifth place on the Times’ list of best-selling business books, behind Who Moved My Cheese?

So there is nothing obscure about Nickel and Dimed. Nor is it just a business book. Since May, Ehrenreich has been on Oprah to talk about the book. She has appeared on the Today show. She’s been on NPR … five times. The New York Times has touted it in two reviews that ran in different sections of the same Sunday paper. And it recently appeared on its best-seller list. Ehrenreich’s ten-city promotional tour has been extended to eighteen cities. Her appearances draw hundreds of people.

Why is an author who slams the “corporate overclass” suddenly so popular with the corporate overclass? The usual masochism of the affluent accounts for some of it. The rich like to be told they’re wicked, both because it confirms that they’re powerful and because it makes them feel slightly less guilty. The real secret to Ehrenreich’s book, though, is yuppie voyeurism. Nickel and Dimed is an interesting read. It approaches the working poor like a separate species – and for most of Ehrenreich’s readers, they are.

Ehrenreich did her research by taking low-paying jobs in different parts of the country. She worked as a waitress in Florida, a cleaning lady in Maine, and a Wal-Mart employee in Minnesota. For her full-immersion approach to reporting, she has been compared by many reviewers to George Orwell, whose 1933 Down and Out in Paris and London chronicled the Depression from the vantage of a day laborer.

It’s an obvious comparison, but also a stretch. Against Orwell’s stint in the bowels of a Parisian kitchen, Ehrenreich’s whirl through the service industry comes off as the cushiest sort of economic tourism. Orwell spent more than a year reporting his book, during which he contracted tuberculosis. Ehrenreich was on the road for only a few months, on and off, during which she suffered from “an old mouse-related repetitive stress injury.” When Orwell caught a life-threatening case of pneumonia in Paris, he wound up in a vermin-infested public hospital where sinister doctors with dirty fingernails applied useless medieval treatments like the mustard poultice. When Ehrenreich got a rash on her arms from housework, she called her dermatologist in Key West and got a prescription.

Ehrenreich’s book does have historical precedent, but it’s not Orwell. It’s the illustrated guides to the London underworld so popular with the Victorians. Ehrenreich’s official conclusion: It’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep afloat on $7 an hour. Her implicit conclusion: The poor are different from you and me. They look different. They eat different foods. They live in places middle-class people rarely go. They smoke. They even think differently from the way we do. They distrust collective endeavors. They’re not stupid, but they’re not interested in politics or other abstractions. Above all, they instinctively dislike change, even when change might improve their lives.

In other words, they’re not at all like the people for whom Nickel and Dimed was written. In many ways, the poor are fairly conservative. Ehrenreich is honest enough to admit this, and the passages in which she exhorts her co-workers to rise up, organize, and otherwise fight the power, only to get blankly suspicious stares in return, are among the most amusing in the book. Instead of Orwell, I was reminded of Tolstoy and his beloved serfs. He regarded them as noble children. They regarded him warily – the crackpot count with his modern, probably dangerous ideas about equality.

Books like Ehrenreich’s take a while to penetrate the consciousness of a city like Washington. But sooner or later, her book will. And sooner or later, she will be invited to testify before Congress, probably about the effects of welfare reform and the subsequent growth of the service economy. She will tell compelling stories. She will get sympathetic publicity. And then what will happen?

Probably nothing. The problem with Ehrenreich’s book is that while it identifies a real problem (hardworking people trapped in poverty), and it feeds an increasingly common anxiety (with the economy softening, could this happen to me?), it offers no realistic solutions. Ehrenreich’s prescription seems to be this: Increase union membership and force employers to pay their workers more, perhaps by doubling the minimum wage. These are not serious ideas. They will not be taken seriously by Congress.

Even Ehrenreich seems to know this, which may explain why the book is so light on policy specifics and so heavy on religious fervor. By the final paragraph, Ehrenreich is confidently predicting a revolution from below. “Someday,” she concludes, the poor “are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they’re worth. There’ll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption.” Someday. It’s a day people like Barbara Ehrenreich have been awaiting for a long time. Since at least Tolstoy.

Working-Class Hero