Revealing Poverty: The Legacy of Barbara Ehrenreich

One of my favorite authors passed away two days ago. Her name was Barbara Ehrenreich, and I continue to draw inspiration from her. She wrote with cutting passion about injustice and inequality. She also carried a severe skepticism toward every assumption, resulting in honest revelations about even the most difficult subjects. In over twenty books, she challenged preconceptions about the American Dream and hard work. What I found most interesting in her work, however, was how she confronted the spiritual questions of gods, consciousness, and death.

In her obituary in the New York Times, she is called an “Explorer of Prosperity’s Dark Side.” I’m saddened to realize that such an incredible writer will not have the last word on how she is remembered, knowing she’d likely laugh at this word choice. The dry piece neglects to explore the depth of Ehrenreich’s impact and silences the intensity of her voice. This morning Tim Dickinson pointed out on Twitter that it’s “Telling that NYT eds view ‘Prosperity’ and ‘Capitalism’ as interchangeable”. Nothing about what her work revealed can be described as prosperous. Instead, her investigative efforts showed how many people are struggling.

Barbara Ehrenreich was adamant about the fact that so many people face hardship without notice. She was committed to amplifying the voices of people struggling with poverty, and I was one of them. She founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP), an organization that supports investigative and personal reporting on financial struggle. While I don’t know if she directly read my work, I received careful feedback, editing, and funding through EHRP. In March 2019, I was published in Huffington Post’s personal section with an essay detailing my complex upbringing and fight to find my feet as an adult. I was chronically homeless and dealing with both mental and physical illnesses. That piece helped me reach a wider audience of supporters, and I’m so grateful for that opportunity.

I’ve written at length here on this blog about economic inequality, and it was largely inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich. I wrote a series in 2018 with as much research as I could do about the economic crisis, and it has only worsened since. I quoted her book Nickel and Dimed in the part entitled, “This isn’t a gig economy, it’s a scam economy.” I referenced it again in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic began. My most recent article on the subject was in June of this year.

The first book I read by Ms. Ehrenreich was “Living With a Wild God.” I read it in the summer of 2014, a highly turbulent time in my life. I was drifting from my roots as a deeply indoctrinated evangelical Christian. I was questioning everything, and the existence of an omniscient deity was at the heart of my doubts. I explored her observation about the inexplicable in a post in 2016, “The God Question.” I followed this up in 2018 with articles about how I once believed that I could hear directly from god, and how it was devastating to lose the faith I once held.

All of that to say, I was deeply impacted by Barbara’s writings and activism. I hope her work will continue to reach beyond her own lifetime. She wasn’t an “explorer of the dark side of prosperity,” she exposed so-called prosperity for what it really is: exploitation. While she may not have lived to see a more equal world, I am hopeful that she helped to pave the way for one.

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