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Barbara Ehrenreich at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts.

LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Poverty and poor working conditions are key issues for this presidential election as they affect citizenship, voting, and the economy, essayist Barbara Ehrenreich told a crowd at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts on Monday.

Ehrenreich, a best-selling author and noted columnist on poverty and working issues, gave the talk, "Working for Change: Citizenship and Class in America." The talk was the third this semester in the national speaker series "The Bucknell Forum: The Citizen & Politics in America." 

"Poverty is not a character defect. Poverty is not a lifestyle mistake. Poverty is a shortage of money," Ehrenreich said. "And the main reason for that shortage of money in our society today is inadequate pay."

Basic living expenses
Looking through the classifieds at jobs and rentals many years ago, Ehrenreich realized that the low wages offered for most of the jobs that were listed wouldn't cover even the most basic living expenses. This led to her undertaking "undercover research" as a low-wage worker for her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.

The jobs she took in food service, housekeeping, and retail all paid poorly, offered little opportunity for advancement, and were physically and mentally difficult. "I never used the word 'unskilled' ever to describe anybody's job again," Ehrenreich said. "All jobs take skill, intelligence, concentration, and deserve our respect. That's what I learned."

She also discovered, she said, that the jobs affected the workers' ability to function as citizens, as they were most often not able to take off time from work to vote. And even if they could, she said, many didn't because they felt disenfranchised.

Vicious cycle
"They did not see politicians … speaking to their situation," Ehrenreich said. "And I think there's a reason for that. A lot of politicians think that low-wage people don't vote. So why bother with them? In other words, you get a vicious cycle."

So, she said, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

"Now what does this kind of class polarization do to democracy when we come to vote? Well, of course it utterly undermines the idea of democracy," Ehrenreich said. "When you have a class of people who struggle affording lunch … and you have another class of people who can afford to buy congressmen, you do not have a democracy anymore. You have a plutocracy ruled by the rich."

Failing economy
Another result of low-wage jobs is a failing economy on the brink of recession, she said. A major turning point was the wave of defaults on sub-prime mortgages that started this past summer. The defaults led to depressed consumption, which "precipitated global financial turmoil," she said.

"The chronically poor and a lot of the shaky middle class have become a tripwire for the American economy," Ehrenreich said, adding, "We have to realize that plenty of people have been living in a recession for a long, long time."

Ehrenreich said there are solutions but politicians must be willing to pay for them. She recommended that the government help generate jobs in the "green" industries and in environmental cleanup and offer, among other benefits, a higher minimum wage, universal health insurance, and subsidized housing to help the poor and middle class advance.

Bait and Switch
Ehrenreich is also the author of Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, which relates her research as a white-collar professional looking for a job in 2004, a time when the economy was officially booming, despite the reality for many job-seekers.

She has written 10 non-fiction books, including Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, which was nominated for a National Book Critics' Award in 1989; The American Health Empire: Power, Profits and Politics; and The Mean Season: The Attack on Social Welfare with Frances Fox Piven, Richard Cloward, and Fred Block.

A columnist for Time magazine from 1991 to 1997 and a regular contributor to The Progressive, she also has written for The New York Times, Mother Jones, The Atlantic Monthly, Ms, The New Republic, Z Magazine, In These Times,, and other publications.

Ehrenreich founded United Professionals in 2006 as "a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization for white-collar workers, regardless of profession or employment status."

The Bucknell Forum
"The Bucknell Forum: The Citizen & Politics in America" is a national speakers series focused on major issues in the 2008 presidential election, notably those at the forefront of today's national discourse. It features nationally renowned leaders, scholars, and commentators who will examine these issues from multi-disciplinary perspectives and a diversity of viewpoints and provide a model for civil discourse. The series will run through the inauguration of the next U.S. president in January.

The fall semester focused on the media influence on citizens, politics, and the election. This spring is focusing on the role of individual identity in these issues.

The final speaker this semester, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., will give the talk, "America's Second Black President: Race, Politics & Obama," at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 24, in Trout Auditorium.

Contact: Office of Communications

Posted March 18, 2008