Author urges new perspective on poverty
Author Barbara Ehrenreich has a theory.
“(Poverty) is not a character failing or a wrong-headed lifestyle,” Ehrenreich said to a full house at Bowdoin College’s Pickard Theater on Friday. “My theory: Poverty is a shortage of money. And that shortage of money is caused by a lack of adequate pay or, of course, a lack of any job at all.”
For her 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” Ehrenreich spent time in three U.S. cities trying to make a living by working low-wage jobs, including a Maine stint in South Portland cleaning houses.
On Friday, Ehrenreich discussed what she thinks about poverty today and how, she said, honest discussion of poverty is woefully inadequate.
¦ COMMUNITY DISCUSSIONS of author Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” will continue on the Bowdoin College campus and in Brunswick through Sunday, as part of the Brunswick-Bowdoin Community Read.
For a full schedule of upcoming discussion groups in Brunswick and at Bowdoin College, visit library.bowdoin.edu/communityread.
“(Poverty) was not mentioned in (President Obama’s) State of the Union speech,” Ehrenreich said. “Not once.”
In Brunswick, discussion of that topic will continue through this week. Friday marked the first day of a community discussions of Ehrenreich’s book, which is the subject of a community read sponsored by Bowdoin College, the town of Brunswick and Curtis Memorial Library.
While more than 15 percent of the population is living in poverty by federal measures, Ehrenreich said, more like 30 percent is struggling to get by.
“This is not some obscure group,” Ehrenreich said.
But the topic of poverty is obscured by ways of thinking that Ehrenreich said can make poverty less of a cause for sympathy and more a cause for criticism.
“One of the ways that many people have kind of evaded the discomfort of thinking of poverty is that they’ve convinced themselves that there is nothing wrong with the way we do business in America and nothing wrong with the system but rather something wrong with the poor,” she said.
That was a lesson from one of the first things that Ehrenreich said struck her about low-wage jobs: the drug test.
“When you apply for near minimum wage jobs, you are suspected of having criminal tendencies,” Ehrenreich said.
The theory that poverty is caused by a character flaw, Ehrenreich said, carries with it a social program of limiting government assistance to the poor.
“There is not a big safety net. There is not something to catch you when you start slipping, and it’s not a surprise because if poverty is a result of bad habits and bad lifestyles, we wouldn’t want to encourage it by giving money or services to poor people,” Ehrenreich said, explaining her interpretation of one approach to poverty in America.
Ehrenreich said her experience in low-wage jobs gave her a new appreciation for what is commonly known as “unskilled” labor.
Ehrenreich, who holds a Ph.D. in cell biology, said her time working in the women’s clothing section of a Minnesota Walmart was a “humbling” mental challenge.
“I had to know where 100s of different items went and then, for reasons I don’t know, Walmart had a policy of rotating items every three days,” Ehrenreich said. “ It was a very big lesson for me: I do not use the word ‘unskilled’ to describe anyone’s job.”
That thought resonated with Bowdoin College junior Ricardo Zarate Jr., who is a co-leader of the Occupy Bowdoin group, which is affiliated with the national Occupy Wall Street movement.
Zarate, wearing a shirt reading “Bowdoin is guilty of Nickel and Diming” in black marker, said Friday that he is working on a campaign to spur students to discuss the hourly pay of non-administrative campus staff at Bowdoin and at similar schools that are part of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC).
That fight, Zarate said, has a personal side as well. The California native on a full scholarship to the college said he calls Brunswick home 365 days a year since his family’s home went into foreclosure.
“It’s Bowdoin or nothing,” Zarate said.
Zarate said he’s received some criticism from fellow students for railing against the nation’s top 1 percent of wealth holders while receiving a full scholarship from the elite college.
In his advocacy, Zarate said he doesn’t tell his personal story. But firsthand experience shouldn’t be necessary to advocate for the poor, he said.
“ Even if someone didn’t live through that, everyone should have compassion,” Zarate said.
Zarate said he has emailed Bowdoin College President Barry Mills seeking an appointment to discuss the issue on campus and called for higher wages for campus employees in a recent letter to the editor published on the college newspaper’s blog, Orient Express.
“Now is the time to consider whether Bowdoin could afford to pay its support staff a more appropriate ‘ living wage,’” Zarate wrote in that letter, co-authored by senior Jessica Everett.
Scott Hood, spokesman for the college, said that Mills holds regular office hours at which students can bring up “anything that is on his or her mind.”
“We welcome conversations about this issue,” Hood wrote in an email to The Times Record.
Hood said an examination of pay based solely on hourly wages would not give a complete picture of the college’s compensation.
“Any examination of a ‘livable wage’ at Bowdoin College has to consider total compensation, including health care, retirement, meals and other benefits provided by the college, not just the competitive hourly rates paid to Bowdoin employees,” Hood wrote.
College employees working more than 30 hours a week qualify for full benefits at the college and those working more than 20 hours a week qualify for partial benefits, according to Zarate’s letter.
Nationally, Ehrenreich said she gives credit to Occupy activists for enabling a broader discussion about economic justice in America.
“You do have to give credit to Occupy for having changed the discussion,” Ehrenreich said. “We can talk about class and the 99 percent and the 1 percent and that’s a big step forward and it’s not over.”
More action is what Christine DeTroy hopes comes out of the talk. DeTroy, who owns her own house cleaning business and who has protested with the Brunswick- based Occupy movement, said she hopes Ehrenreich’s talk and subsequent community discussions about her book lead to more discussion and action related to poverty.
“ I don’t know what the audience goes away with,” DeTroy said Friday. “Do they grab another book and read it? How do they get involved?”
That was the question that Ehrenreich posed to Zarate during questions and answers Friday.
“ Do you have a student labor alliance?” Ehrenreich said. “ You need to get students together to do that.”
Robbie Benson, an Occupy Bowdoin co-leader, said Friday that the group would likely focus on the issue of “living wages” through the spring.
Off campus, DeTroy said she has taken stands for lowwage earners.
At chain fast-food stores, DeTroy said, she’s often had to ask where she can find the tip jar for employees.
“So often I hear that management told (employees) that they aren’t allowed to put up a tip jar,” DeTroy said. “It would help those at these menial wage jobs to have a tip jar.”
That message of openly offering a helping hand to others is what DeTroy hopes comes out of Friday’s talk.
In the long run, Ehrenreich’s list of hopes for helping America’s poor is extensive, including allowing low-wage workers to join unions, loosening laws against acts like “loitering” that she said effectively ban homelessness, and stopping the use of credit scores as a gauge for responsibility.
“Stop kicking people when they’re down,” Ehrenreich said. “This is not about being a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, or a member of a certain faith. This is about morality — morality as a society and as individuals.”