Writer and self-styled “raging socialist” Barbara Ehrenreich said Wednesday night she was in New Haven as a “criminal.”
“The sentencing is tomorrow,” she told the Yale Political Union. “I’m here to spend what could be my last night of freedom with you.”
Ehrenreich appeared as the keynote speaker at the YPU’s first debate of the semester, “Resolved, the minimum wage should be raised to $15.” But she began her speech in favor of the resolution by discussing her Dec. 10 arrest for disturbing the peace while demonstrating with Yale students and unionized workers in favor of child-care benefits for hospital employees.
“What is the economy for, if it does not allow people to live in some measure of freedom and security?” Ehrenreich, a contributing editor of Harper’s magazine, asked.
The author of 12 non-fiction books, Ehrenreich received a Sydney Hillman Award for Journalism after a chapter from her 2002 “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America,” a national best-seller, appeared in Harper’s. The book details the hardships Ehrenreich experienced while working as a waitress, a cleaning woman and an employee of Wal-Mart from 1998-2000.
The book has also been a source of public outcry. After being selected as summer reading for incoming freshmen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Nickel and Dimed” was attacked in July 2003 by Republican legislators in North Carolina who objected to the book’s “liberal bias.”
Ehrenreich answered challenges of arrogance and insensitivity to “the people who are paying the bills” by asserting that the working poor are in fact the primary “philanthropists” in American society.
“We are building up a huge karmic debt to the workers of this country, and of the world, who are putting all their energy into our economy,” she said. “It is time to end this involuntary philanthropy of the working poor, and to end the very notion of the ‘working poor.’ That should be an oxymoron.”
Ehrenreich argued that the costs of raising the minimum wage would be more than offset by the economic stimulus the working poor could provide the economy with enough money for utilities and relative luxuries. She cited Henry Ford’s philosophy of paying his employees enough to afford his cars as a solution to what she called “a crisis of consumption.”
“Many Wal-Mart employees I worked with couldn’t afford Wal-Mart’s clothes, not even clothes on the discount rack,” she said. “The problem is that most companies don’t treat their workers as assets; they treat them as renewable resources.”
Following Ehrenreich’s speech, the YPU gave her a standing ovation, and some members of the audience said they admired her dedication to the topic.
“I admire the fact that she went beyond the theoretical and really worked to survive at low pay,” Erica Franklin ’05 said.
Liselle Regis ’05 said Ehrenreich’s years among the working poor were a credit to her wisdom.
“She didn’t just sit and write based on her theories,” Regis said. “She went in headfirst and worked alongside the people she wants to help.”
But some audience members said they were less swayed by Ehrenreich’s words.
“She was a good speaker, of course, but she was rash at times, and looked over a lot of key points,” Anthony Zimmer ’07 said.
Others were critical of what they considered a lack of solutions offered in the keynote speech.
“[Ehrenreich] talked a lot about compassion for the poor — but not about how we’re going to raise the money to help them,” Gaby Orochena ’07 said.
Ehrenreich has also written for TIME Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Ms., Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New Republic, and The Progressive.
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