In the moment, I didn’t press her for thoughts on the burgeoning epidemic. We were there to discuss her upcoming anthology “Had I Known,” a selection of her journalism and essays stretching back four decades.
But Wednesday I called again. And our original interview, she said, seemed like something from "another world.” But in reality, the strange and frightening world we suddenly find ourselves living in is one Ehrenreich has warned about for decades.
Ehrenreich is a scientist by training — she has a PhD in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University — but she came to journalism by way of left-wing activism. Today, at 78, the daughter of Montana copper miner turned white-collar executive has written about everything from income inequality to the tyranny of positive thinking in the United States.
In the 1970s, Ehrenreich and her first husband, psychologist John Ehrenreich, coined the term “professional-managerial class” to describe the growth of college-educated workers as group distinct from the traditional working and small-business owner social classes. In the 1980s, she published “Fear of Falling,” a book that described how the middle class responded to increasing inequality by trying to preserve its relative privilege in increasingly solipsistic ways.
The book that turned her into household name was 2001’s best-selling “Nickel and Dimed,” about her time working undercover as a waitress, hotel housekeeper and Walmart clerk. It revealed a working-class world of physical and financial agony, all but invisible to the rest of America.
“I look for pain,” Ehrenreich told me about her life’s work. “I try to see where it’s coming from and what’s causing it."
Now, the coronavirus epidemic is bringing all her research into play. “For 20 or 30 years now, the right has been trying to shrink government," she told me in our follow-up Wednesday. "And the part of government they’ve tried to shrink is the part that we would normally think of as helping people.”
“We have no system of response, no way of coping," she said. “The social infrastructure, the medical infrastructure is revealed as practically nonexistent.”
“We are beginning to understand how much we need a government, and a government that actually does things to help people. We don’t have one.”
The impacts are, as always, hitting the poor first and hardest. “Suppose your job is to clean houses, and people don’t want you to come into their house,” she says. “People will have no income at all.”
But it’s not just the poorest; the pandemic will reveal the long-standing financial weakness of the middle class. “Anybody who thinks they are out of danger … they’re fooling themselves."
The problem is that for decades, we’ve been told that our lives and well-being are fully within our control — as I am forever pointing out, “stay healthy” is actual personal-finance advice. But the structures permitting us to do that are eroded and inadequate. The Trump administration all but dismantled the federal pandemic planning team, but we can’t fully blame President Trump for the nation’s possibly lethal shortage of ventilators: That’s due to 20 years of disinvestment by the health-care-industrial complex.
I think about a line from “The Naked Truth About Fitness,” a little-known Ehrenreich essay from 1990 that’s included in the new anthology. “By confusing health and virtue, we’ve gotten testier, less tolerant and ultimately less capable of confronting the sources of disease that do not lie within our individual control,” she wrote. Her scathing take feels all but prophetic now.
And what, I ask, does Ehrenreich think our response to the coronavirus says about our ability to handle the challenge of climate change? She laughs. “You know what it means.”
She’s concerned that our dog-eat-dog society has atrophied our ability to undertake sustained collaborative action. But that doesn’t mean giving up. Ehrenreich cites communally organized self-help efforts, such as Occupy Sandy, which helped out victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when the official aid services seemed nowhere to be found. She herself founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (I am on the organization’s advisory board), which administers grants for journalists to report on poverty. In the current crisis, Ehrenreich is flagging similar unofficial initiatives. But is she really that convinced this sort of effort can truly substitute for government action?
“There are no guarantees that what we will do will work," she says, fiercely humane but wisely skeptical. “But I think we have to be ready to start.”