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Remembering Barbara Ehrenreich


Barbara Ehrenreich had this thought over two decades ago.


BARBARA EHRENREICH: Some journalist ought to go out and do the old-fashioned kind of journalism and just try living on entry-level wages.

RASCOE: And that journalist was her. She ended up taking a series of those jobs, and it was a revelation.


EHRENREICH: Every job had a whole lot to master. My Walmart job was particularly taxing 'cause I had to constantly memorize the changing layout of the ladieswear department so I know exactly where each one of several thousand items had to go. So I no longer speak of any job as unskilled.

RASCOE: Barbara Ehrenreich poured her experiences into her landmark 2001 book, "Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America." It would change her career, but also kick-start a conversation in the media and government about the working poor. Barbara Ehrenreich died last week, shortly after her 81st birthday.

To remember her and her work, we're joined by Alissa Quart, executive director of the group founded by Ehrenreich, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us. And I wanted to say, first off, that I'm so sorry for your loss.

ALISSA QUART: Oh, I thank you so much. Yeah, it is a devastating loss.

RASCOE: I want you to talk about "Nickel And Dimed" and why it was such a revolutionary project.

QUART: In the '90s - this was the Clinton period - there was a lot of complacency about the working poor who were being kicked off welfare rolls and who had fewer job protections than we might like. And Barbara saw that so clearly and was willing to put her body and her wit on the line and report from the front lines of this struggle.

RASCOE: What made Ehrenreich so effective and so able to connect through her writing?

QUART: Well, she had an elegant way with words. She was not afraid of mocking people in power. She also wasn't afraid of activism. And I think that was something that set her apart from other great journalists. She knew when somebody was in the wrong - when a boss was in the wrong, when a patriarchal man was in the wrong - and she was willing to call them out.

RASCOE: And I guess what I also find, you know, so interesting about this - 'cause often times you may hear politicians or journalists - you know, they'll talk about, oh, well, what would the everyman feel? But she was willing to actually go, not just talk about what she thinks the poor people want, but the actual - to live through their experience, right?

QUART: Yeah. She was somebody who spent her entire life committed to labor and to class struggle, honestly. And so when she did this exercise, it was part of a broader career that had gone on already for decades. I mean, she really had started in the 1970s. And to me, the fact that she put her body through this was actually pretty remarkable. She was in her 50s. I mean, people don't realize that "Nickel And Dimed" - it came out in 2001, and she was already, I think, in her mid-50s by then.

RASCOE: Her legacy will continue mainly through the project that she founded that you now run, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. What will you - what will this project continue to do to honor her?

QUART: Well, you know, her vision is one of immersion. So people who report and photograph and film the struggles of people in financial jeopardy and people who are themselves in financial jeopardy - these are the two kinds of people whose work we're supporting. And we co-publish with major publications, and we try to get these voices heard and for people to experience empathy across the class divide. Because it - I mean, this country is very striated right now, and there's a lot of aggression and antagonism. And there are people who blame others for their poverty or their economic struggle. And our aim is to tell stories that are so gripping and moving that you can't turn away and you can't reject your fellow Americans.

RASCOE: That's Alissa Quart remembering writer Barbara Ehrenreich. Thank you so very much.

QUART: Oh, it's been a pleasure to be here.


RASCOE: After her death last week, Ehrenreich's son Ben tweeted this - she was never much for thoughts and prayers, but you can honor her memory by loving one another and by fighting like hell.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "AGAPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.