9/20/2005

Book: Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

What Bush and his greedy croonies made of the American Dream -- law

by Barbara Ehrenreich, reviewed by Powells.com

Back in 2001, Barbara Ehrenreich published a book examining the plight of America's lowest wage earners. In Nickel and Dimed, she detached herself from all of the security nets that her education, experience, and social stature provided and worked in some of the lowest paying jobs in the country. Whether she was a waitress, a house cleaner, or a blue-vested minion of Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich experienced the tenuous existence that confronts a growing population of the American workforce. It was a service industry Black Like Me.

Never one to not follow an argument to its logical conclusion, Ehrenreich returns to examine life in the next tier of socioeconomic mobility. In Bait and Switch, she turns her attention to the while-collar middle class. These are the individuals would have read Nickel and Dimed and scoffed that there was nothing wrong with these folks that a little education, ambition, and flexibility couldn't take care of. Now, they are the collateral damage of American corporatism. These are the people who educated themselves, put in the long hours at the office and relocated if necessary, only to be discarded in the wake of a merger, or corporate "rightsizing." As the corporate workplace continues to hemorrhage employees, the competition for even entry-level work becomes ferocious.

Returning to her undercover mode, Ehrenreich undergoes the transformation from recognized columnist and high-profile bleeding heart, to a middle-aged professional attempting to re-enter the workplace after an extended hiatus in employment. What she discovers is an unending parade of networking sessions, career coaching, and, ultimately, no job offers. To be fair, she is offered two actual positions: selling AFLAC insurance and Mary Kay cosmetics. But neither of these are jobs per se. They are more like opportunities to earn income without any of the benefits, such as health insurance, paid sick days, or even an office to work out of. (Now, before anybody bothers to point out that as Barbara Ehrenreich, the nationally published writer, she already works for herself, probably pays her own health insurance, and works out of a home office, I'm already aware of that. But we're not talking about Barbara Ehrenreich the writer; we're talking about Barbara Alexander -- her maiden name, the middle-aged job seeker that is much more representative of her case study).

Critics of Nickel and Dimed frequently point out that by casting herself alone in the world, without any of the support network of friends and relatives that most Americans have, she was doomed from the start, and biased her study. And a similar argument will probably be leveled against this new book as well. (How can somebody have been in the workplace for any length of time and have not built some network of friends, colleagues, and contacts?). These critics, old and new, would be missing the larger point that a lot of Americans don't have these networks. Whether it's a homeless person who has no family to rely on, and no friends except their fellow dispossessed, or a middle-class woman trying to re-enter the workplace after a divorce or raising a family, it should be fairly evident that these networks are not universal.

To be fair to her critics, Ehrenreich often displays a shocking naiveté when confronted with certain middle-class realities, such as strip malls, subpar franchise eateries, and low-end motel rooms. At one point, she mistakes the signature pink packages of Mary Kay cosmetics for candy from a distance. I don't know if it's her attempt at humor or irony, but such surprise, or possibly thinly veiled contempt, only fuels critics

Powell's Books - Review-a-Day - Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich, reviewed by Powells.com

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