A Guided Tour of Class in America

You turn into a middle-class, suburban housing project on the periphery of Charlottesville, Virginia, and at a row of attached homes, you pull up in front of the one with the yellow “for sale” sign on the tiny patch of grass. Ushered inside, you take in an interior of paint cans, a mop and pail, and cleaning liquids. On the small porch that overlooks a communal backyard, workmen are painting the weathered wood railings a nice, clean white. Later, when they’re gone, we step out for a minute, on a balmy late spring afternoon, and she says, “You know what I need out here? Flowers!” And it’s true, the nearest neighbor’s small porch is a riot of red, orange, and purple blooms, while hanging from her railing are three plant holders with only dirt and the scraps of dead vegetation in them.


Not surprising really. Barbara Ehrenreich, our foremost journalist of, and dissector of class is regularly not here. Practically a household name since she entered the low-wage working class disguised as herself and, in her already classic account, Nickel and Dimed, reported back on just how difficult it is for so many hard-working Americans to get by. Then, a few years later, she repeated the process with the middle class, only to find herself not in the workforce but among the desperately unemployed who had fallen out of an ever meaner corporate world. Her most recent book, Bait and Switch, The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, was the result. Now, she spends much time traveling the country talking to audiences about her — and their — experiences. She has become a blogger, is involved in launching a new group to help organize the middle-class unemployed, and in her spare time she’s even finished a new book.


Now, after four years in Virginia (at least some of the time), she’s about to head north. She gestures at the bookshelves. “There are a lot fewer books this week than last. I’m giving them to the Virginia Organizing Project.” And it’s true, the place is clearly being stripped down for sale. But you have the feeling, looking around, that it was a no-frills life to begin with, as Ehrenreich herself, in her short hair, jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, presents a distinctly no-frills look. (Suddenly, imagining her with an image make-over advisor in Bait and Switch trying to give herself that perfect corporate look of employability seems amusing.)


Her mind is wide-ranging and daring indeed. Some years back, in a book entitled Blood Rites, she even managed to turn traditional ideas about the origins of war on their head. She is a thoroughly no-nonsense national resource.


Looking forward to a trip to the local gym followed by a visit with her two grandchildren (the daughters of her daughter Rosa Brooks, a law professor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times), we sit down at a paper-and-book cluttered dining-room table, which shows no evidence of having held a meal in some time, and — eye on the clock, no fooling around — begin.


Tomdispatch: You were at a graduation ceremony recently where the students were bouncing beach balls in the stands. The college president leaned over and whispered, “This is the problem with having the commencement in the afternoon. Some of these people have been partying for hours.” In response, you wrote: “There are reasons, whether the graduates know them or not, to want to greet one’s entrance into the work world with an excess of Bud.” Could you start by explaining why an excess of Bud might be an appropriate response to leaving college today?


Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, a lot of graduates are simply not going to find jobs appropriate to their credentials. They’re going to be wait staff. They’re going to be call-center operators. Their twenties could be spent like that. I recently got Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute to do some research on this. It’s still tentative, but he found that 17% of people in jobs that do not require college degrees have them. Those are very often people in their twenties who can’t get professional-type employment, or people in their fifties who have been through one too many lay-off and are no longer employable because they’re quote too old. So I was thinking of that, and then I was thinking that for a lot of those who do get jobs, you know, the fun is over. They’re going to be sitting in cubicles and they won’t be able to bounce balls around when they’re in boring meetings with their bosses.


TD: The real earnings of college graduates fell by 5% between 2000 and 2004, so they also have that to look forward to.


Ehrenreich: There still is a real big earnings gap between college and non-college graduates, but it’s begun to shrink. Jared tells me that the reason it was growing so fast in the nineties was not that college graduates were doing so well, but that low-wage people, blue-collar people, were doing so poorly. Their wages were being held down — and that remains true.


TD: In 1989, you published a book about the middle class, or the professional-managerial class as you call them, entitled Fear of Falling. The book was way ahead of its time. If you were titling a work on the subject today you might just call it, Falling.


Ehrenreich: What I was thinking about then was the fear of intergenerational falling, the fear a lot of upper-middle class people have that their children will not get into the same class, because you can’t just bequeath your class status to them. They can’t inherit. They have to go through this whole education thing. Now, it could be Free Fall, though it isn’t quite that bad… yet.


Leave a comment