My new book is called LIVING WITH A WILD GOD: AN UNBELIEVER'S SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH ABOUT EVERYTHING. I also have another life in which I do my best to promote better cutting-edge journalism about poverty and economic hardship. My official website is

I am here with Victoria today to take your questions today about anything - except I don't know where your car keys are. AMA!

Well, I do have to go, this is one of my rare breaks on my book tour that I get to do laundry. But this has been a pleasure to hear from you all. I thank everybody who has asked a question, and maybe I'll see some of you on the rest of my book tour in Seattle, Portland, or the Bay Area.

Comments: 269 • Responses: 32  • Date: 

abrakadamnit104 karma

Hi Barbara! I read your book Nickel and Dimed for my freshman year in college. It was a very insightful read.

What was your best experience while writing the book? What was the worst? Have you kept in contact with any of the people you worked with?

BarbaraEhrenreich106 karma

Hm. Well, my best job (if I put it that way): there were things I really liked about waitressing, which I'd done in real life, and even about the nursing home job, because they involve direct service for other people. The jobs that were the most hateful were Wal-Mart and the job as a housecleaner, as a maid with a housekeeping service, because physically it was the most demanding and really it was the kind of job that created injuries in very young women, which I found appalling (like early 20's women already had knee, back, etc problems) and the other thing that was painful to me was we were cleaning usually quite rich people's homes, and the women I was working with on my team for the day often weren't getting enough to eat. It made me really, really angry. Of course the people whose houses we were cleaning wouldn't offer us anything. We weren't allowed to eat or even drink water while we were in a house. I once broke that rule when a homeowner did offer me a glass of water seeing how drenched in sweat I was. Mostly the homeowners were either not home, or completely indifferent to us, as if we were invisible.

OswegoWriter38 karma

Hello! I read Nickel and Dimed when it first came out, and it really inspired me to work on behalf of the homeless and the impoverished. My question is this: you undertook the project beginning in 1998, when the economy was creating many high-paying full-time jobs and unemployment was ~4.5%. Today the unemployment rate is 6.7%, many jobs that are created are part-time service jobs, and animosity to unions and labour is high. How do you think you would have fared if you'd written Nickel and Dimed in today's job market?

And if I can be impertinent enough to ask a second question: what do you make of the Princeton/Northwestern study that suggests the US is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy?

BarbaraEhrenreich79 karma

Oh, I couldn't have done it. I couldn't have done it for one big reason: that it's harder to get even the kind of jobs I worked in for Nickel & Dimed. At the time that I was doing the work, around 2000, there was a so-called labor shortage. All sorts of big companies, like big box stores, etc. had signs saying NOW HIRING or HELP WANTED so I could walk in off the street, ask for an application form, and sometimes get a job (not every time, and I had to be a little aggressive sometimes). But it's just not the same.

Yeah. I mean, with the Supreme Court decision that corporations and wealthy individuals can give as much money as they want to a political candidate, we might as well just say that we are selling these political offices to the highest bidders. It's beyond sad. At least you understand what is going on.

phoenix_green35 karma

I see there being this gray area of people who aren't really the working poor but who because of debt (student loans, car payments, etc) still live closely to how the working poor do. Many don't even realize these people exist despite dealing with them every day. The world assumes if you make above minimum wage you can't complain. Do you think that's fair? And do you think things can be done for this group? How?

BarbaraEhrenreich71 karma

Well the interesting thing to me about the Occupy movement in 2011 was that it brought together so many people who are college educated, but impoverished by their student loans. And people who were or are unemployed or low-paid in their lines of work that don't require college education. So you had blue collar workers and someone with a master's degree all making common cause because they are a common cause, so I think we have to recapture that spirit.

And yes, we should have empathy for them, I think. Our social classes are not absolutely rigid. What the great recession produced was a group called the Nouveau Poor, people who had not been poor and who had no expectation of being poor and so we have people who were of the old poor, who were poor all their lives, in the same food pantries with people who have higher educations and maybe a middle class background, and now need help with things like food.

AndyWarwheels31 karma

How many tacos can you eat in one sitting?

BarbaraEhrenreich47 karma

I'm afraid I'll never be a professional taco eating contestant. Probably, depending on the size of the tacos and how good they are? I've had tacos from trucks in Los Angeles that I could destroy quite a few of. But the tacos at Chipotles they don't work for me. Maybe 2.

Internet_Validation26 karma

Thank you so much for doing an AMA! I’ve been a fan of yours since reading Nickel and Dimed shortly after it came out, but the biggest impact your work had on me was when I read Bright-Sided after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my late 20s. It was perfect timing—I hadn’t been able to articulate what irritated me so much about people telling me to think positively or that they were praying for me. As an atheist and a sarcastic and cynical person, I wanted to address that I thought most people were coming from a good place, but that I found their comments obnoxious. By making trite statements, people get to feel like they’ve done something good, without addressing the shitty reality of what cancer treatment is like. Your book coalesced all those feelings for me, and I can’t thank you enough.

My question is: in what direction you’d like to see future cancer research and fundraising move? I struggled with cancer guilt about having been diagnosed with a cancer with high awareness and comparatively better funding, even though it came with all the infuriating pinkwashing.

BarbaraEhrenreich40 karma

The big emphasis of some of the groups that I find very helpful, like Breast Cancer Action (BCA), is that we need to be finding out what causes breast cancer. And here it is, this epidemic, and we don't know what's causing it, which is very strange. We need to be supporting groups that are looking at where it's starting. There are indications that there are environmental causes, but this isn't pinned down. I would like to see a lot less emphasis, frankly, on so-called "awareness." I think we are aware of breast cancer. We are now facing a great deal of uncertainty as to whether the standard means of finding it, Mammograms, are even useful, that's been challenged. I don't want to see another pink ribbon in my life.

riverfaerie23 karma

So, it is National Library Week. In your opinion, how do libraries best help the poor, the underserved, and struggling persons? Are libraries important to you? Why?

BarbaraEhrenreich59 karma

Libraries are desperately important. One or two little exceptions of time in my life, I have not had a job that's allowed me to use a library (I've not been an academic). I've been very dependent on public libraries. And I am desperately concerned about the conditions of our libraries. I was in the Cambridge Library last night, in Cambridge, Mass., where I gave a talk and signed books, and the librarian was telling me how funds had been cut so much for the library that they were way understaffed and she has ended up doing manual labor in the library because they don't have enough staff. She said "whatever it takes," because it is very important. And they are even more important for poorer people because it may be their only way to have access to computers. I've known homeless people who spend enormous amounts of time using public library computers. If you want to apply for anything, from the Affordable Care Act to a job, you have to use a computer and you hope the library is open.

osmuconarora22 karma

Hi Barbara, "Smile or Die " has been very useful in countering the ridiculous claims made by my colleagues who are Psychiatrists. Any plans to write more on Modern Calvinistic Positivism and perhaps the world of work (industrial psychology) ?

BarbaraEhrenreich25 karma

Well, thank you very much. Smile or Die is the british title of my book Bright Sided. I'm not working on that directly, but there are lots of people who are and new books come out all the time. I have a group of friends I made while working on that, because it was very hard to find anybody who would be critical of the positive thinking movement when I started on that book (and that seemed very crazy, to look at the dark side of positive thinking!) but I found various people along the way - psychologists, journalists - and we stick together, we remain in contact, and we exchange things we write and encourage each other.

kcdotz19 karma

Hi Barbara your books seem very interesting, definitely thinking about picking one up. Currently 27 years old living with family, saving at my job, but with a crippling fear of moving out due to what I've seen in the economy and debt. what advice can you give someone like me to get out there and not to be in constant anxiety over money.

BarbaraEhrenreich42 karma

I don't think there's any way out of being in constant anxiety over money. Welcome to the Precariate. More and more people find themselves in a precarious and ultimately untenable economic situation. Living with your family and saving money seems to more and more be the plan, people are doubling up, or house surfing, or whatever it takes. I think you should stay where you are. I think the first thing is to realize you're not alone in this situation, and a lot of people are in this situation, and eventually we are going to need to get together and figure out a way for the economy to work better for the average person.

antidaily18 karma

Do you keep in touch with anyone you worked with during Nickel and Dimed?

BarbaraEhrenreich40 karma

No. I did for a while, but I haven't talked to anybody in a couple of years. One of the big problems is that addresses and phone numbers tend to be very short-lived among low-wage people, it's very hard to track people down.

triplestep18 karma

What, if anything, do you think would be different if you went through the "Nickel and Dimed" experience again in today's economy?

BarbaraEhrenreich35 karma

I don't know if the best way to search for the average service job would be through the internet, I really don't. Do housecleaning companies hire maids through the internet, I don't know. I think that a very important factor today would be having a smartphone. And there's quite a digital divide when it comes to technology like smartphones. If you're looking for a job, you have got to have a phone, and it would really help to get email. Certainly the phone part was true 10 years ago, but I'm not so sure that the email plays such a large part in non-professional type jobs.

Even in 2000, what we would now consider to be very low gas prices (and I can't remember what they were with inflation accounted for), people thought hard about a 20 minute drive, if they could afford a commute like that.

I was amazed at the number of people who rode bikes to work, or took buses.

I think that it would be even more exacerbated nowadays, but I don't know how today's gas prices in real dollars compare to gas prices all those years ago in an inflation-adjusted comparison.

The other issues I brought up are still there: wage theft, people injuring their bodies and being useless from the employers point of view by the time they're early middle-aged. The lack of control over one's schedule - now THIS, to me, was a great shock. When I worked at Wal-Mart, and came in one day, found a new schedule had been posted, and that I had been changed to an entirely different shift. And nobody asked me and it was a problem for me because I was trying to get a second job, a supermarket job lined up, and this took that slot away. It's maddeningly difficult for parents with childcare responsibilities, because it's something Wal-Mart workers have been protesting and talking about.

BarbaraEhrenreich32 karma

And when I was at my orientation day program at Wal-Mart, they didn't give one to me, they could tell I was too old to qualify for Welfare, but they gave some people to fill out to apply for food stamps and Welfare, that being temporary assistance to needy families. They were shameless about that.

Frajer13 karma

Do you think we're getting any closer to minimum wage being a living wage as well?

BarbaraEhrenreich32 karma

Well, there's a lot of talk about raising the minimum wage and I think it will probably happen. That's something most people agree with. The opposition is coming from, well, Republicans, employers, and especially the so-called hospitality industry like restaurants and hotels which employ a lot of low-wage people. But even if we get the national minimum to about $10.50 an hour which Obama's talked about, that's not going to be a living wage in most places. The living wage that you need for various cities, states, etc. is something that is constantly being calculated by a group at MIT for example, and they do it by reason. They give you the amount you need for a bare-bones existence for various family sizes, and certainly where I am sitting in Northern Virginia, $10.50 is not going to do it. It would need to be more like $20 an hour.

psamuelson0112 karma

Hey Barbara,

Thanks so much for writing LIVING WITH A WILD GOD! It is wonderful to hear from a scientist that we must continue to do research to explain the unknown.

In all your research, did you find an account of another "mystical experience" similar to the one you underwent? How closely did it compare?

All the best on your tour! -paul

BarbaraEhrenreich16 karma

Thank you for the good wishes. You know, it's really really hard to compare so-called mystical experiences. That's a vague term. But I immersed myself in reading about anything I could find, and I read, for example, some of the Christian mystics, I'm not a Christian myself (I'm not a mystic either) but if you peeled away the theological layers they put over things, sometimes I would have a sense of recognition. There are also other sorts of people who have written experiences, one of them being the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. He wrote an entire book - more than an entire book - after this experience he had, he wrote about it again, and again. And I could feel a similarity there. How can I really know somebody else's subjective experience is similar to mine, I came to understand that this was not an experience unique to me, it's fairly widespread - one estimate and god only knows what this means, a Pew study found 34% of the American public reporting they had mystical or religious experiences. The content of those experiences, who knows, but we don't talk about these things. Nobody talks about them.

Just as I've written this book, I've had people I've known for decades come up and say "me too, but I never spoke about it." It's like a big taboo, and a lot of people go around thinking they might be a little bit nuts, not knowing what to do with this. And this made me think well, I've got to come out.

Stoooooooo9 karma

In your research and writing, I am sure you have encountered some amazing stories/people that may not have made it into your works. Can you relate a story or two?

BarbaraEhrenreich29 karma

I'm not a big collector of people's stories, Nickel & Dimed for example, strange enough, is my story. It's not a generalization about low-wage workers, it was my experience trying to pay bills by being one, my living expenses. So I'm not just a curator of interesting stories. Now I KNOW a lot of interesting people and they have interesting stories, but this is more among my friends and family. But I initiated, a couple of years ago, a project called the Economic Hardship Reporting project, and what we do (we're very small) is we promote journalism about poverty and inequality and economic hardship by highlighting stories and finding people to work on them.

See, journalists aren't paid anymore, really. People expect people to write for no pay. So we try to raise money to pay them, because we think it would be wrong to leave journalism just for people who are rich enough to do it, or people who just write about celebrities. We had a wonderful story on, one by a man who had been a very successful journalist until he was fired for very dubious reasons and ended up working in a retail sporting goods store for $10 an hour. And he just wrote, you might say, a Nickel & Dimed type story of what it was like to go from being a professional to being a low-wage worker with all the indignities that it involves such as being frisked every time you enter or leave the premises.

rich_guy_throw_away8 karma


BarbaraEhrenreich14 karma

That's not a strange story to me. This was really the story of my family. When I was born, my father was a copper miner in Butte, Montana. My mother had had one job, cleaning boarding houses, and my father principally got some education through scholarships, and we moved upward from the blue collar working class to white collar suburban middle class. So this can happen, that is great. But one thing I would have to say for my parents: they never looked down on those who did not rise. They understood the problems. They didn't say "oh, we're better than the people we left behind in our old community in Butte." But there was an understanding that there were huge obstacles, and I was taught to respect everybody's work, whatever that work is. And it would be nice if that work was respected with higher wages too.

tibbles17 karma

How do you see the future of organized labor? It seems like the public opinion has turned solidly against unions, and the UAW couldn't even get a Volkswagen plant unionized with the cooperation of the company.

BarbaraEhrenreich27 karma

I was very concerned by the UAW loss. Volkswagen had actually gotten close to, cozied up. It was not a big antagonistic relationship because they did not use company strong-arm tactics to strong arm the union. We know what happened there. Right-wing politicians got SO worried about the UAW coming into their state, that they raised a huge fuss in the media about this. And why were they concerned? Because they know unions donate to the Democratic party.

Now I do have a criticism of the Unions here. In addition to not organizing enough new people, I think unions spend too much of their resources on the Democratic party. And I don't think that one of the main budget items for the AFLCIO should be supporting Democratic candidates or getting out the vote efforts. They should be organizing the working class, organizing people, in a crusading way, not in a self-interested way. You know what I would like to see? The AFLCIO sell its beautiful building near the White House in Washington DC and take whatever money it generates and set up storefronts in neighborhoods, worker's rights centers in neighborhoods, places where you don't have to pay dues to come, and come in with problems and work with other people to solve them.

the_questioner_237 karma

Hi Barbara -

You mentioned that journalists aren't really paid anymore. If so, what do you see as the future of journalists and journalism?

Do you envision a decline of the type of journalism you produce?

I read the article about the gent that got fired from his journalism job, and it seems he made a real racial faux pax via twitter, and was also arrested for assault on his wife.

Do you think racism and violence against women are dubious reasons?


See, journalists aren't paid anymore, really. People expect people to write for no pay. So we try to raise money to pay them, because we think it would be wrong to leave journalism just for people who are rich enough to do it, or people who just write about celebrities. We had a wonderful story on, one by a man who had been a very successful journalist until he was fired for very dubious reasons and ended up working in a retail sporting goods store for $10 an hour.

BarbaraEhrenreich10 karma

He did not lose his job because of the assault on his wife, he lost his job because he said on TV that Romney was more comfortable around white people than black people. I don't see that as a slur, rather as an observation. A white person could have made that too. Then his life began to unravel. He had a deplorable fight with his wife, they're divorced, and he's been trying to put it together since then.

And yes, re the decline, it's happening. That's why we have the Economic Hardship Reporting project. There are so many great journalists in this country who can't find work or who cannot get paid for their work, and they have to do other things. Those are precisely the people who should be covering economic issues because they have the direct experience.

orangejulius6 karma

I read Nickel and Dimed as part of an undergraduate course and thought it was a really neat project.

What do you think of raising the minimum wage and if you think it should be raised why wouldn't it create a surplus of labor?

BarbaraEhrenreich41 karma

This is the argument that is made all the time against raising the minimum wage, that it will lead to unemployment. There is no empirical evidence for it. Obviously if we raise the minimum wage to the living wage, there might be some difficulty, but you can look at places like the state of Washington, which has one of the highest minimum wages in the country, and compare its economy to that of Idaho, right across the border, and Washington does better.

I would say to that argument is: I don't care. This is a moral issue. If you are paying people less than they can live on, you are in effect expecting them to make a charitable contribution TO YOU. If someone says "Well I'm a small business person, and I can't afford to pay more than $8 an hour" then maybe you don't have a business plan. You have a plan to exploit the desperation of certain people. With all this talk of a minimum wage, how come there is so little complaint when we see a CEO or hedgefund manager when they add $10 million to their pay? Yet we don't. We get all bent out of shape going from $7 to $10 an hour. And that's crazy to me.

rfshunt6 karma

I'm sorry that I haven't read Nickled and Dimed, although I hear it's very good.

My question is this: In general, did the people you worked with internalize the idea that if they were broke, it was entirely their fault, or did they have a sense that there is something wrong with the system?

BarbaraEhrenreich15 karma

I would say the latter. I think that there's a huge ideological pressure to consider that poverty is a result of your personal choices, or a bad attitude, or an unwanted lifestyle. So that does affect people somewhat. But they also know, personally, well, that if you're making $8 an hour that you're not going to be able to afford an apartment to live in. You will be crowded with other people, you may not have medical care. These are the facts, and you can see the great wealth around us, which makes it even harder.

MDjensen026 karma

What do you do before to prepare yourself before you sit down and start writing/typing?

BarbaraEhrenreich16 karma

Well, I have to do a lot of thinking. And there's no writing, or typing, until I have something to say. It amuses me when people say "you write every day?!?" and I say "Of course not! I am doing research, I'm thinking." I don't write until I have something to say. Thinking is amazing. Then you can possibly write something.

thebageljew5 karma

What was the craziest drug you've ever take when you were younger?

BarbaraEhrenreich17 karma

Well, I was not much into drugs. One of the things I describe in my latest book is insisting on disposing a bag of marijuana, which one friend had given to another friend to carry around - not a good idea at all, in the 1950's especially, it was our friend Frank, who turned out to be Frank Zappa when he grew up. But when we were teenagers, he was the first one of us to use marijuana. When I found out that my friend was holding the bag, I freaked out, I insisted we stop the car and put it in the rain gutter in the street. I cringe when I think of it now. There were some funny things I tried briefly in college, I don't even remember what they were, but I was not attracted to psychedelics, not in the least part because I had had this mystical experience and I didn't think that it was anything recreational.

Didi635 karma

Haven't gotten the new book yet, but I loved Nickle and Dimed. It's made a real impression on me. Do you ever go into WalMart? Have you made personal plans for your eldercare?

BarbaraEhrenreich19 karma

I don't shop at Wal-Mart. It's not like there's a formal boycott. I just say to people who ask me if it's a moral thing to do, I say, if you get yourself a t-shirt printed up which talks about the internationally recognized right to organize into a union in large letters, and you go into Wal-Mart with a lot of friends who are wearing those same t-shirts, well that's okay. But the whole vibe, I would have a post-traumatic flashback if I were to shop at Wal-Mart.

As for elder care, I'm 72 now, the plan is to keep working out.

lamarrotems5 karma

No question, just want to say thank you for your books - they have helped many people.

I actually just finished a "poverty simulation" in which teachers from a local school came to my organization and spent an hour representing one month in which they try to cover all the things low income people need to deal with over the course of 4 weeks: paying bills, cashing check, buying food - while facing long lines, limited transportation, getting ripped off, etc. It really helps people understand all those little things you deal with in poverty that most of us do not have to deal with on a day to day basis (essentially all the stuff in your books).

Anyways, thank you for all you do. Have you ever seen the plays based off your first book?

BarbaraEhrenreich4 karma

Oh yes, I consulted with the playwright who wrote it, and I got to see it put on the stage in actually some pretty large theaters, in Seattle, LA, Minneapolis. It didn't make it to Broadway, but that was a real thrill, to see something going into another medium.

And I want to thank you for your wonderful encouragement. It means a lot. Writing is a lonely business, and we need to hear back and get the sense that we're making a difference.

thraces_aces5 karma

Hi Barbara! Thanks for doing an AMA.

My question: recently, NPR (Fresh Air) ran your interview regarding the visions you had as a teen and how you have tried to make sense of them. What was the most difficult part of reconciling your beliefs/non-belief with what you saw? It was an incredible interview--thank you!

BarbaraEhrenreich5 karma

No belief ever entered into it. I think if I had been a religious person, and this had happened to me, and I had gone to a pastor or rabbi or whatever, they would say that was god, end of story. And I would have tried to deal with that. But no such answer was available to me, nor would I have accepted such an answer. I saw nothing that resembled any image of the deity, any deity, whatever. Certainly it was not a sense of being filled with love or embraced by any benevolent power. It was shocking. Shocking.

SugarPistils4 karma


BarbaraEhrenreich4 karma

I don't think so, no. I know that whatever we say is true today may have to be revised tomorrow, because we may have better or more evidence tomorrow, but we have provisional proof at any point, and we have to scramble to do the best job we can of finding it.

Nadyshenz4 karma

What in your opinion is the mail goal of modern journalism?

BarbaraEhrenreich6 karma

I don't know what that is?

Internet_Validation6 karma

Just chiming in: I think the poster meant "main" goal.

BarbaraEhrenreich14 karma

Well the main goal of most commercial journalism is to make money. That is not, though, the main goal of true journalists. The main goal of a committed journalist is to reveal the truth, even when the truth is very painful and unpleasant.

BarbaraEhrenreich13 karma

My project,, is not crowdfunded journalism (maybe it could be better?) but we have areas that we focus on a lot, like the criminalization of poverty, the police harassment of the poor and homeless, we focus on issues that span different social classes like childcare which is unaffordable even for middle-class professionals. We recruit writers or they come to us with great ideas, and we fund them.

I don't know what else to do. In the past, in the old journalism or old media days, a lot of the mainstream publications may have been totally focused on selling advertising but they also took pride in having good journalism - exposes, thoughtful essays, etc. Now nobody wants to fund that. So alternative approaches are springing up, like my project or on a much larger scale Pro Publica or a new group called First Look which will be promoting journalism in the areas of national security and surveillance among other things. So we are searching for approaches. This is a crisis.

Havefaithinfraud4 karma

Hello, Barbara.

Do you think that the institutional, governmental, and cultural support for policies that contribute to greater and greater inequality can be overcome? If so, how?

Many thanks.

BarbaraEhrenreich28 karma

I think we have to understand that poverty is not a natural thing. It's something that is being generated and created EVERY MINUTE. And employers seek to grind down wages, for example. It's created and enforced in illegal ways too, by institutions. There's the issue of wage theft, all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways employers manage to trim down wages even further than the low levels they offer now. There's the high cost of housing. Too many people are getting rich by standing on the necks of people who are struggling.

What I'm trying to do now, in my latest project, is to nurture more journalists to take my place, to do the same type of thing to share more stories and shine the light on inequality. I'm interested in passing the torch.

ThorManhammer3 karma

I read Nickel and Dimed years ago for a college class, it was such a great book. I've read it twice since. I love your work and can't wait to read your new book!

BarbaraEhrenreich4 karma

Thanks! I hope you like the new one. It's very very different. But it's also a story. It's also a narrative. There is action in it.

uberlad3 karma


BarbaraEhrenreich32 karma

Well, I was reading about life coaches in Harper's Magazine. And it seems like one good trick would be to become a life coach yourself. There's not much by way of qualifications, and then you just serve as a cheap therapist for people and try to cheer them on - do more! try harder! lean in! etc.

So my advice would be to get into that racket.

pm_ur_dicks_girls1 karma

What are your thoughts on Obama wanting to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour?

BarbaraEhrenreich4 karma

Well, we have talked about this. I am all for raising the minimum wage, but we have to understand that $10.10 or 10.15 is not a living wage. It would be nice, but it's barely a start.