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No Help Wanted

Barbara Ehrenreich says
Barbara Ehrenreich says "Bait and Switch" was inspired by letters from people who have done everything right and still can't find stable jobs. (By Jay Paul For The Washington Post)

The upside?

"It is a kind of reporting that people respond to," says Lapham. "It's the same thing an embedded journalist does in Iraq."

"Nickel and Dimed" has sold more than a million hardcover and paperback copies combined, according to its publisher; the paperback edition has spent 92 weeks on the New York Times's bestseller list. Considering the usually modest sales of conventionally reported books about poor people, it seems reasonable to conclude that you need some kind of stunt to get the public's attention.

Small wonder Ehrenreich wanted to try it again.

But she decided to go white collar this time.

Transitionland

The decreasing economic security of the American middle class has been the subject of considerable journalistic attention. "Over the last 25 years," as the Los Angeles Times summed up the situation in one lengthy 2004 report, "economic risk has been steadily shifted from the broad shoulders of business and government" and placed on the backs of individual employees.

This development can be spun positively or negatively, depending on your point of view. Considered as a whole, the Times noted, the transformed economy has performed well. At the same time, "a broad array of protections that families once depended on to shield them from economic turmoil -- among them "stable jobs, widely available health coverage, guaranteed pensions" -- have been either sharply reduced or eliminated.

Leah Gray knows all this firsthand. An unemployed marketing specialist Ehrenreich met while working on "Bait and Switch" -- she's one of the few subjects who agreed to have her real name used -- Gray said in a telephone interview that she'd gotten used to hearing things like "Leah, this is really difficult, you did a superb job and you're really well liked, but . . . " as she was being let go.

"I've never been a woe-is-me kind of person," she said. But she has no health insurance. She cried when she had to cash in her 401(k) plan. And she has sometimes gotten too depressed to look for work.

"Bait and Switch" was inspired, in part, by letters Ehrenreich received from people in situations like Gray's. We've done everything right, the message was -- gotten an education, worked hard -- and we still can't find stable jobs. Why not write about us ?

So she decided to investigate what she calls "this tremendous churning in and out of the corporate world." She wanted to know how it feels to be scrambling for work because you've been downsized, outsourced or restructured out of your white-collar job. The plan was to portray herself as a PR professional, an area where she had plausible skills, and go looking for a job with health insurance and a salary of maybe $50,000 a year.

She figured it would be easier than scrubbing toilets.


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