Barbara Ehrenreich, author who challenged American Dream myths, dies at 81


Barbara Ehrenreich, an author and essayist who picked apart the myths of the American Dream with books that included a firsthand struggle to live on minimum wage in “Nickel and Dimed” and a rebuke of by-the-boot-straps optimism in “Bright-Sided,” died Sept. 1 at a hospice center in Alexandria, Va. She was 81.

Her daughter Rosa Brooks, who confirmed the death, said her mother had a stroke. Ms. Ehrenreich has been declining health after publicly revealing a breast cancer diagnosis, but wrote in 2018 that she refused “to accept a medicalized life” and stopped most doctor visits and other care.

In more than 20 books, Ms. Ehrenreich explored a sweep of topics that echoed her varied background as a feminist political activist and scientist with a doctorate in cellular immunology. She returned over and over, though, to cast a critical eye on chronic inequities in U.S. society — from health care to housing to gender roles — and the collective folklore that hails the country as the land of unlimited opportunity.

Her breakthrough project began with question to an editor, Lewis Lapham at Harper’s Magazine, about how people can manage on minimum wage. It led her to find out for herself. Beginning in 1998, she did a modern-day version of writer Upton Sinclair’s eye-opening time in the Chicago meatpacking yards. She worked incognito in jobs around the country at the bottom end of the pay scale: waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman, a Walmart clerk averaging about $7 an hour.

She lived paycheck-to-paycheck — sometimes falling short, sometimes eking by — in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels.

“In every job, in every place I lived, the work absorbed all my energy and much of my intellect,” she wrote in 2001’s “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.” “I wasn’t kidding around. Even though I suspected from the start that the mathematics of wages and rents were working against me, I made a mighty effort to succeed.”

The book help drive debate over sustainable wages and the yawning U.S. income divides between people with jobs that bring retirement investments and health care and others trying to stay afloat on hourly pay.

Although Ms. Ehrenreich mostly framed the book as cry for help for poverty-level workers, her portrayals of her colleagues were sympathetic and at times uplifting. Some readers saw the book as a look into the first steps of immigrant success stories.

“Jobs are not necessarily a cure for poverty,” she said in a 2011 interview. “Jobs that don’t pay enough to live on do not cure poverty. They condemn you, in fact, to a life of low-wage labor and extreme insecurity.”

Barbara Alexander was born in Butte, Mont., then a copper-mining hub, on Aug. 26, 1941. Her father worked in a mine while studying at the Montana School of Mines. Ms. Ehrenreich described her mother as a New Deal liberal who “would always talk about racial injustice” but possessed a volatile side that left her scared as a child.

The family moved to Pittsburgh while Ms. Ehrenreich’s father earned a Ph.D. in metallurgy at Carnegie Mellon University. He later became director of research at Gillette in Massachusetts.

She called her parents “dogmatic atheists” who passed along their views to her. “It’s the absence of God that inflects this great moral responsibility on us,” she told the New Yorker.

Ms. Ehrenreich graduated in 1963 from Reed College in Portland, Ore., with a degree in chemistry. She received a doctorate in cellular immunology in 1968 from Rockefeller University in New York, where she met her first husband, John Ehrenreich.

In the early 1970s, she was an assistant professor in health sciences at the State University of New York in Old Westbury and began lecturing at feminist and women’s health events. A common theme was her anger over what she called substandard conditions at a public clinic in New York in 1970 when she gave birth her to daughter, Rosa.

Her writing career was already underway as well. Her first book, “Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad” in 1969 was co-written with her husband. Their next book in 1970, “The American Health Empire: Power, Profits and Politics,” was a prescient look at the influence of the pharmaceutical industry. Together, they coined the term “professional-managerial class,” which is still used in academic studies.

Ms. Ehrenreich left academia in 1974 to write full time. Her gaze remained fixed steadily on those left behind by the U.S. economy or just hanging on. “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class” (1989) and “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream” (2005) dug into what she called the facade of middle-class security.

Opinion: Barbara Ehrenreich on ‘how we’re in trouble as a species’

Some of her sharpest takedowns on American culture were leveled in her 2009 best-selling “Bright-Sided.” She built a case that the country’s emphasis on “positive” thinking and self-image obscure risks that can lead to economic crises and exacerbate social injustice.

“My mind has been full of grim and rageful thoughts, many of which are about the lack of paid sick leave,” she told the New Yorker. “We turn out to be so vulnerable in the United States. Not only because we have no safety net, or very little of one, but because we have no emergency preparedness, no social infrastructure.”

Her marriages to Ehrenreich and Gary Stevenson ended in divorce. In addition to her two children, Brooks, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, and Ben Ehrenreich, a journalist and author, survivors include a brother; a sister; and three grandchildren, the family said.

In 2018, her book “Natural Causes” tied together many of the themes of her past work — American culture, health care failings and corporate influence — into a critique of what she called an obsession over ignoring the inevitability of death. The body was in a constant fight to keep us alive. And one day it will lose, she reminded readers after her own breast cancer diagnosis.

“Every death can now be understood as suicide,” she wrote. “We persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly untimely age to a kind of bio-moral autopsy: Did she smoke? Drink excessively? Eat too much fat and not enough fiber? Can she, in other words, be blamed for her own death?”



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