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Keep on knockin’

The middle class keeps a lid on it


After decades of toil as a muckraking journalist, Butte native Barbara Ehrenreich finally broke through to a wide readership in 2001 with Nickel and Dimed, her account of spending two years “undercover” as a low-wage worker in America.

Ehrenreich did everything from wait tables at $2.43 an hour in Key West to clerk at Wal-Mart in Minneapolis for $7 and change. She even took on second jobs. As it turns out, what sociologists say is true: Work doesn’t work anymore, at least in some parts of this country. Ehrenreich simply could not make ends meet.

This was not news to many Americans, but it was to some—and this discrepancy explains the strange appeal of Ehrenreich’s experiment. It punched a hole in the argument that poverty was a question of character. After all, Ehrenreich was not one of “them,” but one of “us”: a white, educated middle-class American who read books and had intellectual resources to draw upon. And yet still she could not succeed. A few missteps, her tale hinted, and this could be you.

Ehrenreich deserves credit for challenging middle-class readers this way, but in so doing she made a queasy bargain with honesty. Going undercover is not being poor, but a burlesque of the condition, and it says a lot about America that while Nickel and Dimed has spent 92 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, David Shipler’s powerful and grim book about actual poor people, The Working Poor, has garnered a small fraction of that audience.

As reality TV teaches: In America, we almost always choose fake reality over reality itself.

Bait and Switch is Ehrenreich’s latest undercover dispatch from America, and surely it too will have a long run on the bestseller lists. It is a funny, well-paced glimpse at a section of the American population that’s hurting—this time unemployed white collar workers—and once again Ehrenreich is there to do the suffering for us. She ditches her identity as a popular columnist and becomes Barbara Alexander, a middle-aged public relations executive looking for a job in the $60,000 to $70,000 salary range.

But from the beginning something is off about this experiment. As Ehrenreich herself explains, this sector of the work force often has money to invest in job “coaching,” networking seminars, quasi-scientific personality testing, and even image makeovers—all of which Ehrenreich does and then describes in painful (and painfully funny) detail.

Thus we meet Kimberly, Ehrenreich’s annoyingly upbeat career coach who, for $200 an hour, encourages her client to network and feel 37 years old again. (In other words, lie on her résumé). There’s also Morton, a job counselor who uses an Elvis doll and Wizard of Oz characters to sketch Ehrenreich’s personality and show her where she might fit in corporate America.

At first this material is funny, and draws out compelling truths—like the fact many of these coaches have no accreditation, or that a gap in your résumé can spell death at an interview. Each time Ehrenreich tries to fill the gap she has given her fake self, she fibs a little more. By the end of the project she hardly recognizes herself.

Gradually the humor of this situation wears off and the reader longs for an authentic story, some empathy. But it never comes. Ehrenreich flies back and forth to Atlanta to attend job-searching workshops and Christian business-fellowship meetings, but she is so aghast at the bland hotel rooms and the choice of cuisine—would someone get this woman some vegetables!—that she forgets to report on her compatriots. Brief sketches and descriptions stand in for actual digging into peoples’ lives.

Granted, too much digging and Ehrenreich would have given her identity away, but her attempt to sidle out of this experiment highlights this book’s fatal flaw: she cannot possibly feel the desperation that has led her fellow attendees to sink so low.

Ehrenreich, after all, has a job: it’s reporting on this process. But she’s not doing it, or else putting it on hold. At one point during the journey, she even takes a break to do other things, which she explains with a footnote: “Most of July was spent on Ehrenreich business.”

Perhaps Ehrenreich has already made up her mind on the middle class. After all, in her 1989 book, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, she painted a portrait of a part of America that had become radically detached, so afraid of slipping backward that it clung to selfishness like a life raft. Bait and Switch reads like the “I told you so” sequel to that book, and it has all the grim, mean-spirited humor one might expect from such a rigged exercise.

Companies have at last downsized, and here is the middle class’ comeuppance. It’s a windowless conference room at a cheap hotel in Atlanta, and a man with a paunch telling them it’s their fault they have bad attitudes. And the journalist sent down to tell their story? She is too focused on the manipulating man at the white board to acknowledge their pain.

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