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Barbara Ehrenreich on Poverty Now
Jose Rivera, 54, a resident of a homeless encampment in Fresno, Calif., was photographed on Thursday, June 18, 2009. (AP)

Jose Rivera, 54, a resident of a homeless encampment in Fresno, Calif., was photographed on Thursday, June 18, 2009. (AP)

Politicians love to talk about the middle class. Barbara Ehrenreich writes about the poor.

There are a lot of poor in this country. Working poor. The economic crisis of the last year has pushed their lives from hard to harder. And the nation’s response, says Ehrenreich, has been almost cruel. Not help, but the back of a hand.

This hour we’ll sit down with Barbara Ehrenreich — and with two women, hotel housekeepers, recently fired by a national hotel chain that hired replacements at half their wages.

This hour, On Point: life on the edge in hard times, with Barbara Ehrenreich.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Barbara Ehrenreich joins us from Washington. She’s a journalist and author of several books, among them “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” and “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.” Her recent four-part series on poverty in America ran on The New York Times Op-Ed page.  Her new book, out next month, is “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.”

Joining us in our studio is Lucine Williams, a mother of two, worked for 21 years and eleven months at a Hyatt Hotel in Boston as a housekeeper. She had a full-time, non-union job with benefits. In August, Hyatt Corporation laid off approximately 100 cleaning staff and replaced them with outsourced employees making half their salary. The hotel chain has since extended the health benefits of the laid-off workers and offered job-search assistance.

Also with us in our studio is Angela Norena. She worked at a Hyatt Hotel in Boston for 15 years until she was laid off three weeks ago. She’s the mother of a 14-year old son.

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  • Cory

    I’ve both read and lived Ms. Ehrenreich’s book. It should be an interesting conversation.

    Things are on the downswing for the average working American. Unions are the focal point of blame and resentment for the fearful and ignorant. Globalization pits Americans against the underpaid masses of China, India, and eventually Africa. Taxation and regulation have heavily favored the wealthy since the 80′s. We live in a highly materialistic culture without the ability to delay gratification (credit cards?). The expectation gap in the near future is going to come crashing down on 80% of our heads.

    What’s our best hope? The wealthy in this country push their advantage too far. Too many of us become too poor. We hamsters no longer see the benefit of walking on the wheel. Unionization returns along with protectionism and appropriate regulation and taxation. The poor, numerically make up the overwhelming majority of the U.S. and the world population. We just need to realize the inherrent power that this massive majority gives “us”.

  • bob

    The insane thing about what’s happening in this country is the people in power believe in this insane idealism that is not true. Will you please discuss this on this show !!

    I heard Bush’s secretary of treasury, John Snow, back in 2003 say that when jobs are outsourced new ones (through American entrepreneurship) will take their place, huh? We are outsourcing everything and where are these new jobs? They are not here. Everbody in America can not be employed by hospitals. What was Snow talking about and WHY won’t he admit he was terribly wrong? The only thing left to outsource is the consumer!

    The idealism we are being forced to accept doesn’t want to accept the reality we have a BIG problem with people not finding employment that is meaningful and gets them something for their hard work or they can’t find any employment at all.

    This country is taking the path of self-destructive blind idealism that will chew up the middle class and spit it out. Trickle down is a now been shown to be a PROVEN FAILURE.

  • Janet Wilson

    Uncontrolled illegal immigration with terrible trade treaties have destroyed so many lives in this country.

  • Brett

    Janet, you sound suspiciously like Louise. It seems parroting back republican talking points reduces everything to monotonous oversimplification; perhaps that is the reason for the similarity.

  • John

    I hope this is rescheduled. Bait and switch indeed!

  • Maja

    Millions of mothers live in poverty because of nonsupport by fathers, no matter what the economic situation of the country. The media never addresses this dilemma. Sure President Obama mentioned it during the campaign but we have heard nothing about it since. It has become a cultural norm that fathers walk out on their legal and moral obligations to their children and no one appears to care one iota about their plight–in spite of the laws of the land.

  • Mark

    What blows me away is how such a vast section of the poor supports the corporate-conservative ideology that aggravates poverty with every step it takes. People who gratefully accept food stamps while howling about the “entitlement” which is all that’s keeping them fed.. the hypocrisy is staggering.

    I simply can’t see how they miss this gaping hole in their logic.

  • Maja

    It is the American way!! This is what makes us different from the rest of the industrial world. We brag about it!! Why is anyone surprised at this?

  • Lisa Harkey

    Another reason for health care/insurance reform. People do crappy jobs (think about what hotel housekeepers encounter cleaning rooms) for low wages and stay at them for the sake of the benefits. They don’t want to make waves (like forming a union) out of fear of losing their benefits. And they’re at the whims of corporate boards who, instead of making fundamental changes to their structures or way of doing business to save money or stay profitable take the easy and painless (for them) way of cutting work force and wages. Talk about indentured servitude….

  • Caitlin

    Listening to the stories of the two women who lost their jobs as Hyatt is appallig and it strikes me that those of us who travel should rethink making reservations for these hotels. If you make a business decision like this, you should be willing to take the hit.

  • donna

    Just listened to the President’s speech at the United Nations. Was struck by the fact that one of his comments could be applied to today’s corporate culture: Are we going to be a source of TYRANNY or a source of MORAL AUTHORITY? Most corporations (including my employer a Fortune 100)are operating with tyranny and fear and no moral compass or for that matter, compassion.

  • N.J.

    Its time to raise the top marginal tax rates again.
    The years of the strongest economic growth in the United States, the lowering of poverty, and the rise of the middle class in the United States were the years between 1950 and 1980. Average annual growth of GDP was 3.9 percent during those years. These years coincided with the highest marginal top tax rates.

    In the 1980′s the American public bought the snake oil of lowering the top personal income tax rate. The argument that if those in the upper income tax brackets are taxed less, they will invest more is nonsensical. High marginal tax rates force businesses to leave their money inside of a business and spending it in ways that lower their tax liabilities. They make business improvements, buy new equipment, hire more employees. That is they are forced to act in ways that create wealth for the nation, rather than profit for the individual. Lowering the top marginal rates merely allows them to remove money from a business venture in the form of personal income without losing a lot of that money in the form of income taxation. That means they do NOT make business improvements, they do not hire more employees, they do not buy new equipment.

    Lower top marginal tax rates are largely responsible for the many boom and and recession cycles we have seen recently, because once the upper income individual has bought his new home, new car, new boat or indulged in whatever luxuries he feels entitled to, he then starts seeking easy places to make money, rather than the hard method of doing it by running a business. That stokes a speculative stock market.

    This has occurred every time the top marginal tax rates were dropped. In the mid 1920′s the top rates were dropped from 71 percent to 25 percent, it fueled the real estate speculation that triggered the Great Depression. The Reagan Tax cuts triggered the market crash at the end of the 1980′s and finally the Tax cuts of the early 2000′s fueled the speculative sub prime real estate collapse. The money for those sub prime loans did not come out of thin air. Those who had extra money to invest, didn’t put it into the sluggish stock market, but into the collateralized mortgage instruments which led to the current crash.

    The best thing we could do is follow Herbert Hoover’s lead, when after his tax cuts caused the Depression, he raised the top marginal tax rates to 65 percent, very unwillingly. Even Hoover knew that this was the only solution to the speculation that triggered the Depression.

  • gina

    Guv putting his bully pulpit to good use:

    “Gov. Patrick says state will boycott Hyatt if it doesn’t rehire workers”

  • ThresherK

    “Uncontrolled illegal immigration [snip] (has) destroyed so many lives in this country.”

    To quote Derrick Z Jackson of the Boston Globe (date forgotten), I hope you’re ready to “clean your own hotel toilet”. And, also, pay higher prices when real wages are paid to “real Americans” to do those jobs.

    Sidebar: Anyone else read the NYT piece on Tavern on the Green (by Glenn Collins, today)? The figure being thrown around for tipped waiters is $5.26/hr plus tips. That’s what they want to work DOWN from. WTF?

    (Disclaimer: Haven’t heard this program. Been reading Ehrenreich before Nickeled and Dimed. Looking forward to the podcast.)

  • loninappleton


    Your comment above echoes a recent interview I heard with Larry Beinhart on electricpolitics.com. The book of his called Fog Facts and other sources such as your observations indicate the validity that higher taxes do not mean less jobs but the opposite. Even though this sounds counter intuitive that in itself only indicates how we have come to accept the “fog facts” as given by the rich and powerful.

  • Brett

    Having to reduce employee numbers, reduce employee hours/benefits, etc., often times directly relates to managerial incompetence in large corporations. Bad managers usually are reactive rather than proactive and become mired in spending their energies putting out fires. The short-sightedness in large corporations (especially with respect to firing employees so a company can hire a new, cheaper, less-skilled, work force without benefits) may improve the bottom line in the short term, but it costs companies much more in the long run.

    The example of the Hyatt workers being dismissed en masse so the corporation could hire a new workforce at half the wages with no benefits sure smacks of a company “reacting” to a crisis that perhaps was borne out of mismanagement, I don’t know. The Hyatt corporation, at the least, implemented a most despicable strategy to address labor costs. The company’s labor needs didn’t diminish, and I’ll bet the company’s executives didn’t take any pay cuts or benefits reductions.

    If Hyatt has fired its trained workers who were working at capacity workloads in favor of replacing them with less-trained workers who will be expected to perform work beyond capacity workloads, then it is reasonable to assume the quality of the company’s services has greatly diminished!

    In any case, it sounds like a good idea for consumers to boycott Hyatt hotels!

  • Brett

    N.J., your comment is right on the money! (No pun intended…well, maybe a little…) Anyway, trickle down economics do not work in terms of economic stability.

  • http://npr amber dru

    As someone whose family has always done “those jobs Americans won’t do” I wonder why B.E. thinks I owe illegal aliens anything.

    Barbara’s Blog: What America Owes its “Illegals” Jun 6, 2007 … Barbara Ehrenreich comments on working in America ….. Thus, despite Barbara’s inane claim that we owe illegal immigrants back pay, …

  • ThresherK

    As someone whose family has always done “those jobs Americans won’t do*” I wonder why B.E. thinks I owe illegal aliens anything.

    Amber, I forgot the unspoken end of that quote: “*…at wages employers wish to pay them”.

    Not having heard the ‘cast yet, I’m addressing the larger subject: One person or one family isn’t going to fix this. When an entire substrata of workers are treated as replacable and disposable, under the threat of deportation, your family is forced to compete in this labor pool with illegally cheap labor simply by doing this work.

    And corporations aren’t worrying too much about that. Are you getting paid more to do the same work simply because you’re a US citizen? Are you sure you’ve never lost a job because you were expecting the kind of treatment, fringe benefits, or even being paid for every hour worked*?

    (Sidebar: *Do I remember a Walmart actually had an image ad in which they vowed to “pay all our workers for every hour worked”? Wow, that’s progress!)

    It really goes to the hands-off, no-faultness of the situation: Big corporations get to hire these people (directly and indirectly through subcontractors), and don’t have to answer to anyone for it. Smaller companies have to do this because they need to “stay competitive”. If it happens just once or twice, it’s a happy accident.

    But as we geeks say about software, “That’s a feature, not a bug”.

  • Frank the Underemployed Professional

    Thank you for hosting Barbara Ehrenreich.

    I hope that this discussion can continue and that Tom will start investigating the real problems that underlie our nation’s economic malaise — Global Labor Arbitrage — foreign outsourcing, foreign work visas (H-1B, H-2B, L-1, TN, etc.), and mass immigration, both legal and illegal. Please host some guess like Paul Craig Roberts who really understand the intricacies of these issues.

    Could you please do a show with finance writer Eamonn Fingleton? He recently wrote an excellent book about international trade and how it is impoverishing the United States called:

    In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Hegemony

  • Brittancus

    Any company that has hired more than 3-5 illegal aliens–MUST –be entirely aware that they are hiring foreign nationals? That’s why we need a comprehensive E-Verify application in operation, as permanent immigration identity software countrywide? Nor should it be on a voluntary basis for everybody. Long timers and new hires must be verified? Sen. Grassley must have heard from his constituencies, because a letter The Honorable Thad Cochran Chairman Ranking Member Committee on Appropriations Committee on Appropriation requesting their support for my amendment (S.A.1415). The amendment gives businesses a tool to ensure that they have a legal workforce by allowing them to check the status of all workers, NOT JUST NEW HIRES? The amendment allows for voluntary checks of existing employees through E-Verify in the working locations.

    But this amendment doesn’t go far enough? It should stipulate that anybody who doesn’t comply or ignores the usage of E-Verify should be held in violation of our laws. The fines should be severe, but in cases of second violations, should forfeit business assets and receive a prison sentences. These obnoxious businesses know exactly what they are doing and know the risks? E-Verify could be easily expanded for many other uses in the US, including admittance to health care, driver’s licenses, government subsidies that would include education and home mortgages? CALL YOUR DISINCLINED SENATOR OR REPRESENTATIVE AT 202-224-3121 SO THEY KNOW, HOW ANGRY WE ARE WITH THE IMMIGRATION INVASION TRAVESTY. Much more to learn at NUMBERSUSA, JUDICIAL WATCH & CAPSWEB.

    All American workers and legal population should be very attuned in the coming months, as the Democratic leaders have tutored President Obama in forcing into Congress another AMNESTY bill. It is an objectionable legislation to enact in legalizing the 20 to 30 (?) million illegal people who have settled around our nation? Millions more will follow over borders, by plane and any entrance ports. They are already alert that free health care lies just across the international borders, for themselves, immediate family, young and old. This is the majority parties’ method to sneak health care for illegal families by legalization; America doesn’t even offer free treatment to its own people, who are hounded into bankruptcy for unpaid hospital bills. Americans absolutely cannot afford another path to citizenship, as it will have a major impact on our crumbling infrastructure, irreversible road to OVERPOPULATION and higher taxes. I am very agreeable with President Obama, for a European style health care package, but those illegal immigrants who have not been caught, will have to rely on a humane admittance to emergency hospitals.

  • Frank the Underemployed Professional

    I heard someone make a comment about people with Masters degrees and I want to point out that it is not only uneducated people who are suffering, but also people who did what the media, politicians, businessmen, and grant-funded politicians told them to do. People who have obtained higher education.

    A great many people with college degrees, including those with advanced degrees, are either unemployed or heavily underemployed-and-involuntarily out-of-field. You can find a large oversupply of people and suffering amongst Ph.D. scientists (9-10 years of college education), lawyers (7 years), MBAs (6 years), computer programmers, IT people, and people with degrees in just about any non-medical field.

    I am glad that this show pointed out that many members of the upper class, upper middle class, and employed middle class are disconnected from reality with their unwavering and almost religious belief in Meritocracy–that people who are suffering are suffering because they are lazy and/or uneducated and that they should go find jobs and better jobs.

  • Leon

    Amazing how not one comment even mentions that this is the result of capitalism. Talk about being brianwashed. Americans are so afraid to see the economic system for what it is: capitalism. And capitalism rests on the exploitation of labor for the short-term maximization of profit. Now that you know the problem, look up a word your even more brainwashed against: socialism. Oooohhh! We need democratic socialism in order to overthrow capitalism and create a free society. I dare you to explore these words, these ideas on the radio or even in the comments section.

  • Joe

    Firing employees en mass in order to rehire at lower wages and benefits is the same strategy that Circuit City used to create their death spiral. It’s hard to have decent service with less trained, qualified and motivated employees. Customers will notice and take their business elsewhere.
    The big shame is that the executives who make these decisions don’t lose their wealth and livelihoods to match their low paid employees.

  • Heather

    What does the Pritzker family have to say about this situation?

    These women need to contact a lawyer.

    They also need to contact the union even though they are not members.

  • david

    “We need democratic socialism in order to overthrow capitalism and create a free society.”

    Democratic means mob rule, it means the people get whatever the people want. The people want the government to give them everything under the sun, and be accountable for nothing. Socialism will not work without a dictator. There are plenty of examplies of that around the world. There is a movement in this country right now that is pushing us in that direction and a majority of Americans are being led to the slaughter by the scape-goat politics of these liberals. It will ruin our country and it will be to late to say “I was wrong.” But! who cares? we will be just like all the nations around us, just another 3rd world country. Wake up America!!!!!

  • Hilary Greenleaf

    I absolutely agree with the assertion that there is a policy of harassment towards those living in poorer areas. I encountered this first hand in Los Angeles, when I first moved here and was struggling to get on my feet. I lived in a poor area where parking was impossible. I have never, ever seen another area in the entire country where parking laws were enforced (in the form of expensive tickets)so aggressively and in such a way that pushed the limits of legality. It was indescribable. I still don’t know how people manage to successfully live there.

  • Brett Greisen

    Thanks for having Barbara Ehrenreich on.

    In 2000 my post-shingles pain had made it impossible to stay @ a long-term full-time job in a teaching hospital as office staff.

    After trying temp work, I was unable to maintain that. I applied for Social Security Disability in 2001 & was on NYC/NYS welfare, food stamps & medicaid. As I have multiple illnesses, just coping with chronic medication is rough.

    Just last week I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes & have had to change diets, buy test supplies to approximately $50 over and above drug copays for 1 patent drug & 6 generics + monthly Medicare premiums (just under $100/month) + Part D premiums every 2 months.

    My rent is approx 80% of my SSD, then I have phone/net service, Con Ed, food, travel, etc. And don’t forget that SSD/SSI won’t have COLA adjustment next year & my food stamps will be $1/month lower & it was insufficient.

    & I am a college grad, 60 yo & have worked in multiple industries.

    A provider has re-applied to NYS Medicaid for me

  • paul

    Simple job, 16$ an hour for something anyone can walk in and do with minimal training what do you expect? I have worked worse jobs for less (many) while I went to school had kids without insurance (paid every penny) and have issues with my body physically today because of it but guess what NO social assistance. buck up and work hard expect to get paid for what the market can sustain

  • Jerry

    I have a BS degree in network and communciation management and it was a shock to me when I lost my job back in May 2009. I feel the pain, lost of hope, disbelief and total humiliation these two ladies and their families on your show have experienced, having found myself in a similar situation, you absolutely feel crush.

    I hope something will be done about this injustice which even God himself hates. It seems like as a people we are not our brothers or sisters keeper, we simply don’t care. Each individual is so busy looking out for himself and family, that we do not recognize the fact that someone else may be hurting. Unfortunately, this society teaches individualism, look out for me, myself and I, it doesn’t teach or promote unselfish, benevolent service and goodwill to others. God help us.

  • Cory


    I wonder if you can name the dictators of France, Italy, Sweden, Japan, and all of the industialized nations of the world? All of these countries have strong elements of socialism, most notably nationalized healthcare. Are Canada and the Netherlands third world countries? Who are their dictators? You just don’t make much sense.


    God bless the “buck up” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” people. Do you believe in charity or christian based social justice? How about your neighbors paying taxes for your police, fire, and military protection? Did your kids go to public school? Do you plan on using medicare or social security when you are eligible? I didn’t think so. There are vitually no Americans who “do it on their own”, and I’m willing to bet you aren’t either.

  • Todd

    It was a poor way for Hyatt to go about it, but at the end of the day, they have a business to run. Revenue is down and they needed to cut costs to stay in the black. Hospitality is a tough business. Everyone in the industry knows that.

    Are we going to villainize every business that lays off workers? Is it worth getting worked up over a mere 100 of the millions of unemployed?

  • Sam

    @ Todd,

    You are absolutely right, the cost of the production of ANY product is 1/50th or so in China, India. So lets move everything from US to China and India, and lets cut down the cost of everything and make our businesses prosper.

    I wonder what industry you work? If you are in IT, I can bet that you wont have said this.

    Better business decisions are not always cost effective, but a prudent move that involves good in all aspects.

  • rick10

    I listened to the program Wednesday evening on KWMU in St. Louis.

    I hoped someone would guide these women, and I suspect all the laid-off housekeepers were women, to organize their own business. Locally, there is an organize that will consult and guide prospective business owners named SCORE. I think the organization is national.

    This seems to be the time for these women to apply their talent cleaning rooms, and expand it to cleaning homes, businesses, and offices. Who knows they may some day clean the executive offices at Hyatt.

  • Janet Wilson

    I’ll say it again. The uncontrolled illegal immigration has destroyed many lives in this country. I mow my own lawn, wash my own car and tip the waiter if I eat at the local dinner. I don’t want anymore illegals “hanging out at Home Depot” looking for slave wage jobs. I don’t want anymore hispanic gangs shooting up the town. I don’t want anymore illegals!

  • Nicabod

    One comment I found memorable (months ago) was that the USA is the world’s wealthiest third-world country.

    As to Barbara, she’s doing a great deal of good. There’s a selfishness in the USA among many, but not all wealthy people that is dismantling our country. She’s doing a fine job giving the often “gory” details.

  • Orlando

    Yep, never stayin’ at a Hyatt again and definitely going to let friends and family hear about it.

  • Mia

    Thank you for bringing up this topic! This has been a problem ignored in the media. We’d like to listen to more discussions on this kind of real topics.

  • Rob L

    A very sad story of the hardworking housekeepers who got fired after 21 years of service. That is faceless capitalism at its worst. In the old days those were people. Now they’re just a line item on some MBA’s spreadsheet. Faceless capitalism. It will go on until the people wake up realize their power. The founders of America didn’t get their freedom from British service and taxation by asking nicely. They got it by taking what was theirs.

    My dad told me a story recently about a company in Indiana in the 70s that built a garage with non-union labor. Not long after that garage happened to blow up in the early morning. Now obviously blowing stuff up isn’t a way to solve problems. But neither is paying people $64 for a day of hard work. Something’s got to give.

  • Paula

    Re the Hyatt Hotel housekeepers (substitute any other upscale hotel chain): the hotel charges well over $200 per night in most urban markets. The variable cost associated with cleaning those rooms (and restocking supplies) is peanuts, despite the $10-11/hour the corp. pays these staff members. Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the cost of getting those rooms ready for the next guest is less than $10 (that’s on the high side). The profit margin per room per night is astronomical. As Ehrenreich astutely pointed out, the problem is not the housekeepers’ hourly wage, it’s the managerial salaries, bonuses, stock options, etc. etc. that suck the life out of the organization. The hotel chains are shooting themselves in the foot. They will have a very difficult time maintaining service levels by substituting cheap, inexperienced labor. This strategy can’t last long. If it does, we can only hope that their business will fall off so badly that they cease to exist. Doesn’t help these poor unfortunate workers but it will warm my heart. Let the stockholders fret about where their next dividend is coming from.

  • paul

    Cory I hope you don’t gamble you would lose the bet. my kids are home schooled, I am in law enforcement ( a branch that actualy generates revenue and because of my gene pool I most likely will perish before I can reap the benifits of socialized medicare. Sorry

  • James Grosser

    I listened to this program by podcast, and was very disappointed. This program was entirely lacking in balance. There was no advocate for the contrary point of view. No spokesperson from Hyatt was on the program, and no statement from Hyatt was read. In fact, I didn’t even hear the host state that he sought comment from Hyatt. Without a basic level of balance, I don’t see how the listener can be expected to trust the subject matter of this program

  • Rob L.

    James Grosser asks for the Hyatt side of the story. That might be justified if the facts of the firing and replacement were in dispute. But I haven’t heard anyone dispute them – in other news sources as well. Most likely, Hyatt P.R. wishes this never happened – what are they going to say? We charge $200/night, but will throw out long term, hardworking employees to save $5/room?

  • Shaman

    When unemployment is at 5% no one cares about anything the government does and idiots like George Bush and Herbert Hoover can get elected.

    But when unemployment hits 10% and continues climbing the government begins to operate properly.

    It is time to soak the rich with a hefty tax.

    SCREW HYATT! I’ll never stay at another again.

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