Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
On Monday May first, 2006, Timothy J. Bowers robbed a bank in Columbus, Ohio. He made off with 80 dollars, handed the money to a security guard and calmly waited for the police to come and arrest him. In court, he pleaded guilty and told the judge he would like a three-year sentence – just enough time to get him to the age of eligibility for social security benefits. Timothy Bowers was 65 years old — too old to find work in a labor market looking for young, cheap workers — not old enough to receive any support from the government.
The case of Timothy Bowers is discussed by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book This Land is Their Land. Reports from a Divided Nation, in which she points out that he’s by far not the only person who has chosen incarceration as an answer to poverty. For the vast majority of the American prison population comes from the lowest income groups.
Such an anecdote about a man who sees prison as his escape from poverty is typical of Ehrenreich. In her work she not only portrays people living on the fringes of society but also casts a critical eye on the absurdities to which poverty can lead.
For her journalistic masterpiece Nickel & Dimed. On (Not) Getting By in America, she plunged into the world of the working poor. She presented herself as a single mother without qualifications or work experience, and tried to survive on what she could earn from unskilled work. So she waited on tables and became a maid in Florida, she cleaned homes and fed nursing home residents in Maine, and she worked shifts at Walmart in Minnesota.
Very quickly she discovered that you need quite a bit of money to be poor. For it’s almost impossible to rent a home if you don’t earn enough to pay a deposit and a month’s rent in advance. And if you are forced to live in a cheap motel, you won’t be able to eat affordable or healthy food because you cannot cook there. Since you can’t live off one low-paid job, many of her colleagues worked two or more jobs. And anyway, noted Ehrenreich, who has a doctorate in biochemistry, there’s no such thing as ‘unskilled’ work. Such work actually demands a high level of skill.
Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrates where investigative journalism – the theme of the Erasmus Prize this year – can lead. Investigative journalism draws attention to hitherto unknown realities and evils. It exposes what lies hidden. It sets out to redress the version of reality presented by those in positions of power. Hers is an indispensable countervailing force. She directs that force by following flows of money and revealing scandals, financial or otherwise, and also by engaging in more social investigative journalism and in-depth reporting. That’s what Ehrenreich did in her book Nickel & Dimed, and again in Bait and Switch. The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, in which she became a job seeker and showed the difficult plight of the middle class. Even with the right qualifications and an office job, its members are mercilessly dumped on the scrapheap after mergers and takeovers.
Both of those books are fine examples of investigative journalism in which the method itself is exposed. Ehrenreich sets to work as a sort of empirical journalist, immersing herself in an unfamiliar world and putting herself on the line. It is her way of making what she has termed ‘a world apart’ not only visible but also palpable. It’s what we now also call immersive journalism: living something fully in order to report on it. Or as she once put it: ‘Affluent people can read it and have me as a guide. They’re looking through my eyes.’ Barbara Ehrenreich is the grand old lady of this genre and has inspired many followers.
Ehrenreich has an impressive body of work to her name, with over twenty books and numerous articles in publications such as The Nation, Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian and Time Magazine. If you were to pick out a common thread in her wide-ranging writing, it would be the deceptive nature of the American dream. No wonder she has called herself ‘a myth buster by trade’.
Whether she’s writing about the job market, the health sector or the fragile existence of the middle class: time and again, Ehrenreich shows that the meritocratic ideal of the American dream is a fiction that leaves people to fend for themselves. In her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World, again with a personal slant, she paints a hilarious yet shocking picture of the pink and infantile world in which people with breast cancer find themselves. Yet all those pink ribbons and teddy bears do nothing but deceive patients into believing that cancer and other calamities can be ‘conquered’ through positive thinking. The implication being that if you do not make a successful recovery, you simply weren’t optimistic enough. Ehrenreich the scientist knows only too well that the misery caused by cancer occurs at the level of the human cell. She knows that recovery or illness is simply a matter of luck, good or bad. The American dream and the dogma of positive thinking are both myths that individualize problems instead of identifying their structural causes.
Barbara Ehrenreich is much more than a versatile writer. For she also wields a sensitive pen and her writing, often laden with irony, can be both empathetic and extremely funny. Her journalism always goes hand in hand with incisive, even provocative analyses. Such as the following: ‘When someone works for less pay than she can live on (…) she has made a great sacrifice for you. The “working poor” (…) are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.’
Above all, her constant social engagement merits high praise. Ehrenreich was writing about the widening gap between rich and poor, about the working poor and the middle-class fear of losing its comfortable existence, about all of these subjects when they were hardly on the political agenda. She truly did make the invisible visible. And she is still committed to doing that, most recently by founding the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, in which she supports young journalists, many of whom find themselves in precarious situations, in telling their stories and offering them to established media outlets.
Barbara Ehrenreich, through your courage in putting yourself on the line, your insatiable curiosity for the unknown, your compassion for the ‘ordinary’ people you write about, and your sharp insights, through all this you uphold for the values of Erasmus. It is therefore a great honour to congratulate you, on behalf of the Foundation, with the Erasmus Prize.
Read by Xandra Schutte, on behalf of the Board, 27 November 2018