She studied to be a scientist but ended up an outspoken journalist, activist and best-selling author. Barbara Ehrenreich writes about poverty in America and the growing divide between the haves and have-nots as well as health care issues, the welfare system, women's rights and the cult of positive thinking that surrounds some cancer patients. From "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" to "Brightsided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America," she is not shy about expressing her opinions. She created the Economic Reporting Project for out-of-work professional journalists.
How do you see the economic gap between the poor and rich today?
You know, the first time I wrote about the rising gap between the poor and the rich and the shrinkage of the middle class was in 1984. It was in The New York Times magazine. One common response I got was, "That's crazy. That's not happening. That can't be."
For a long time — the post-World War II period — our country had been becoming more equal. I would say one big change since then is that at least it's acknowledged. It's been put on the table and I have to give the Occupy movement some credit for that too. Basically, that 1 percent of the population controls so much wealth and has political power. We know that now and that is the first step toward doing something.
Other than rhetoric and ideology, do you see any real difference between the Republicans and Democrats once in power?
Oh, that's a painful question. Yes, I see a difference [but] sometimes you have to have pretty sharp vision to see [it]. Historically, since the New Deal, Democrats have been more committed to using government as a force that will help people who are at the bottom or the working class. The Republicans don't have that vision of government having an intermediary role like that at all.
You can see the difference in the extremes of the parties, but when either are in power it seems less obvious. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and Bill Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act.
I think it is very notable that neither candidate ever says the word "poverty." The most expansive they will get is to talk about the middle class. It's very frustrating. I think we need third parties, fourth parties, many parties that can push on these issues because both major parties are still dominated by [campaign] contributions. You know they have a completely out-of-balance influence from the very wealthy.
Since you wrote "Nickel and Dimed," the bottom fell out of the housing market, pushing more people into poverty and into the welfare system.
I've been interested in listening to people who never imagined that they would need that kind of assistance. They would say, "I thought that was for people who didn't try to work." Then when they got into trouble and had to get into that system themselves they found it is not easy to navigate. In fact, it's pretty difficult to navigate. It's set up in many ways to discourage people from seeking benefits. That has not been so true of food stamps. Food stamps did expand in recent years to meet the growing need and growing number of people in poverty.
Do you think you got your very realistic, practical views of life from your family?
My family was upwardly mobile, starting in the blue-collar working class and getting into the suburban middle class. I think it's impressive that never at any point did my mother and father say, "We did it, anybody can do it." It was impressed on me as a child that it was very hard. Many people had obstacles that we didn't have and we had some big advantages, like my father — he would have been the first to say it — he was very brilliant. We understood as we rose into the middle class that so much of our family was still working in factories or mines.
Some people believe there is a poverty mentality.
That idea — that there is a poverty mentality, that there is something wrong with people if they are hard up or down and out, they aren't trying hard enough or they have bad habits or a bad lifestyle — that is a very comforting thing for affluent people. Then affluent people think, "Ah see, I'm ahead but that's because I'm good. I have good habits."
Rather than thinking what's wrong with the system that it doesn't pay people enough to live on for full-time work, for example, or it doesn't provide enough jobs.
You have a doctorate in cellular immunology. As a scientist, you were annoyed by all the positive thinking that assaulted you when you were diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was kind of an expectation that you would be cheerful, positive and optimistic about your particular condition. Beyond that with breast cancer, the idea was that you would actually become a better person for going through this ordeal [laughing]. All that really made me mad.
Hey I'm a grown-up and I'm facing the most serious disease I've ever had. It's not a good thing. There is nothing redeeming that I can see about it and the main thing I want to do is take it seriously, the issue of what is causing this disease.
Why do we have an epidemic of a disease we don't understand and have not yet come to understand completely? I guess my scientist hormones were aroused because we've got to know what's happening, what's causing it and we don't. Also, just my sense of dignity. I did not want to be given by some well-meaning person a pink breast cancer teddy bear.
How has your work changed you?
I don't know what there would be if you take away the work [laughing]. You know, other than that there is pretty much family. This is what I do, writing and research and it's motivated, I would say, by two big things.
One is anger. I am angry about injustice as I see it in the world, whether it's the treatment of women or the treatment of people because of skin color, whatever. I am also motivated by curiosity. What is going on here and how can I understand this better?
Are you currently working on a book?
Yes, I am, and it has elements of a memoir. It goes into a lot of science and goes into a lot about religion and that is what I'm working on, in addition to a bunch of other shorter projects.