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Barbara Ehrenreich, You Don't Know What It REALLY Means To Be Poor


First, let me give myself some cover here. Maybe even a little.

I think the world of Barbara Ehrenreich as a writer. I could literally not put "Nickel and Dimed" down. That's her esteemed book in which she cut herself off from her professional contacts, and her financial infrastructure to find out what it was like to live in underclass working-class America. She took a series of shitty jobs, and wrote about that life.

And this coming Tuesday, Barbara will come back at us again with the paperback version of "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."

Yet despite the vivid prose that rises from these tomes, and the earnestness in which she adapted various identities to get close to these issues, there is an inauthenticity in this role playing. At least that's the way I see it.

I'm sorry. To adapt the role of an undereducated, displaced woman in our downsized and Wal-Marted socioeconomy is not the same thing as actually living it.

Even when Barbara was living in small towns and working thankless jobs for her "Nickel and Dimed" research, she always had an out. She could have bailed. Sure her publisher and her agent would have been pissed, but she would not have been the first author to do so. Trust that from someone else who has done this.

True, she didn't bail, and she lived within the scant means of her adopted life, but that didn't mean she had to. For she always had an escape.

The thing is, when you REALLY are working-class poor, or life events/choices keep you from attaining the "American" dream, then you don't have an escape.

Maybe you are working two jobs to feed, clothe and house three kids. This is your real life, one that you will not escape except if Providence shines down on your chosen lottery numbers tonight.

Maybe you are raising a family, your wife is taking care of her ill, uninsured mother, and you are working a second job that you are too embarassed to let your friends know that you have.

Maybe that knock is from the manager of your apartment complex or trailer park. Have the rent by Monday or sorry, hon, but we'll have to start eviction proceedings.

Maybe you hear that shrug from your brother, who tells you over the phone no, times have just gotten tough for him too, and sorry, he can't spot you $300 this month.

Maybe you are wondering when the roaches will stop coming back, and your apartment manager will finally call the exterminator.

Maybe you have pawned jewelry to cover your rent check, but your kid cut himself and you cannot make it out of the house and to the bank on time. That is, if you have a checking account.

Maybe you are wondering what those three guys in suits are doing in your factory or shopowner's office, and you pray they are customers and not execs from HQ ordering your plant manager to slim down by eliminating your third shift. Or maybe they are Realtors who want to buy the shop, knock it down and build condos.

What do all these experiences equate to? The terror of existence near or below the poverty line in 21st Century America. A terror fueled by persistent fear, and stoked by a lack of hope or even an understanding of what hope is.

Barbara Ehrenreich, you have a superb journalist's and documentarian's understanding of the lives these people lead. You tell their stories well.

But until you actually live this life, Barbara, you cannot really understand this life in your gut. Because deep down - just like the 23 year-old Peace Corps worker in an impoverished African village who lives on a tiny budget but whose parents own a four-bedroom in Chicago's northern suburbs - you've had to know that you could always escape.

Knowing that you could always escape must preclude the daily humiliations and indignities of an economically challenged and devalued existence from inhabiting one's very essence.

Until you actually live the fear, you can't really know it.

I would like to see one of those people write a book. In their own words.