In her new book, Barbara Ehrenreich does for laid-off middle managers, financial planners, and systems analysts what she did for maids, waitresses, and Wal-Mart "associates" in her already-classic Nickel and Dimed (2001). Bait and Switch challenges the national faith in upward mobility as Nickel and Dimed should have shamed the national conscience—and might have if better-off Americans didn't count on the "philanthropy" of the working poor: the low prices they bestow on the rest of us through their willingness to work for so little.
"Working Classes" (May 2, 2001)
An exchange between James Fallows and Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.
Conservatives wont to tie the lot of the working poor to their choices should read Bait and Switch. In The New York Times David Brooks recently saw a silver lining in the New Orleans catastrophe: now that their old lives have been destroyed, the city's African-Americans can break the bad habits that made them poor. Jonathan Swift, where are you? Bad habits don't make people poor. Bad—or no—paychecks do. It isn't Brooke Astor's virtue that has stopped her from stealing a car. Anyway, the worst habit the "poor" have is resignation to injustice. Brooks would never link the condition of downwardly mobile middle-class Americans to "bad" habits, yet the same market forces that capsize them seal the poverty of the poor. Bait and Switch is a subversive book because it exposes a systemic wrong, the using-up and discarding of human beings; and a disturbing one because you could be among them.
To report from the front lines of disappointment, Ehrenreich used her maiden name, prepared a semi-true resumé, and emerged as "Barbara Anderson," a public-relations pro and "event planner." She set aside $5,000 in expense money, and gave herself a year to find a job in "corporate America." She assumed "this project" would be "a piece of cake"—physically easier than working as a maid or a waitress and emotionally safer. "I imagined I would be immune from the constant subservience and obedience demanded of low-wage blue collar workers, that I would be far freer to be, and express, myself," she writes. "As it turns out, I was wrong on all counts."