Barbara Ehrenreich, Reporting From a Divided Nation

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Andrew Shurtleff / AP

Author Barbara Ehrenreich

Social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has written about living as a low-wage worker (Nickel and Dimed) and looking for a white-collar job (Bait and Switch). She spoke recently with TIME's Jeremy Caplan about her new book, This Land is Your Land: Reports from a Divided Nation, a collection of emotionally charged essays.

TIME: What, if anything, links these essays to Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch?

EHRENREICH: The growing inequality in our nation and the plight of the lower classes and the middle class in our very polarized society.

Some argue that today's basic standards of living surpass anything the nation has enjoyed historically. What's your response to that?

Well, I certainly wouldn't want to live in the 18th century myself, or the 19th either, for that matter. I am operating on a slightly smaller time frame here and thinking that there has been a real increase in inequality since the 1970s. In recent years we have seen stagnation in average people's wages and salaries and a decline in the benefits they get from their employers. So in recent years I don't think we have been fulfilling that kind of potential that historically we have always felt was America's.

What do you think are the primary causes of that?

I think it's class war coming from the wealthy, from the top really squeezing workers, trying to get more and more out of them.

Not from from international competition and globalization?

I think that's been an easy excuse for a long time. Anything you don't like about this economy — declining wages and speed-ups at work — it's because we have to be competitive. Yet I look at the top and see that American CEOs, for example, are paid much more relative to the average worker than CEOs in other countries.

You are critical of many large companies, including Wal-Mart, but are there also models of good corporate citizenry?

Yes. I think the anti-Wal-Mart is Costco, which pays much better and has much better health benefits and which is profitable and offers low prices. I have fond feelings for American Apparel, the non-sweatshop casual clothing store. Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's has become a national campaigner for doing something about this inequality of wealth and income and for more corporate accountability. So yes, there are plenty of good examples.

What is the path forward for the U.S. health care system?

We need a single-payer universal health insurance system such as those that other civilized nations have. What stands in the way of it is the power of the private health insurance companies. Everybody is afraid of them. Clinton, Obama, McCain. Nobody is willing to say, "They're going to have to get out of the way because they're not doing a good job." I mean, this country wasn't afraid to take on the Soviet Union or England, in the beginning, or Saddam Hussein. Why can't we take on our own private health insurance companies?

But many doubt that the government could manage the health care system efficiently.

Well, has the private sector run it efficiently? No. We've had this drummed into us for so long, that the public sector can't do things well, but then in the case of health care we have seen the private sector screw up on a tragic, disastrous scale. We have learned that the profit motive is not a good thing to base the delivery of health care around. Medical debts are the number-one cause of bankruptcy in America.

In the book's last essay, "God owes us an apology," you question the idea of God as both omnipotent and all-good.

I was inspired to write this because of the tsunami of December '06. In the wake of that there was all this bloviating by religious people from imams to leading evangelicals about whether there was some sin that people were being punished for where the tsunami struck. What struck me is that there was this assumption that God must be all good and all-powerful. For a long time on earth humans didn't worship good Gods; that's a new idea. The ancient Greek Gods, the Hindu Gods, are fairly amoral, most of them. We get stuck when we insist that God be both good and all-powerful. If I were weighing into the great debates about atheism that Dawkins and everybody have started in with I would say "What about a God that just doesn't really have our interests at heart?"

You draw connections in one essay between the way evangelical churches in the United States operate and the way Hamas does. Could you talk a little bit about that?

What struck me when I have visited mega-churches from time to time is that they are really great big social service centers. You won't see references to Jesus in a mega-church. I mean the trappings I associate [with church]are gone, the crosses and everything. What you will see is over here we have our battered women's support group, over here we have our after-school activities. We have our group for the unemployed professionals and so on. They have really filled in where maybe there would have been public services or secular services at some other time. In the same way that Hamas, and I understand Hizballah also, gain a base by providing social services that people aren't getting otherwise.

What's your take on the presidential election?

I find it hard to imagine that many people would want to continue Bush's economic policies with McCain, and I will keep encouraging them not to. I also think there has to be a lot of pressure on Obama or his economic populism may only turn out to be skin deep. We need to keep pushing him on that.

You've described Hillary Clinton as bellicose and aggressive in her campaigning. Why were you critical of her?

Yeah, here I am, an old white feminist for Obama. I was originally for Edwards because he is strongest on poverty and economic inequality. My objection to Hillary Clinton was always her support for the war. When I said bellicose I wasn't referring to her stance against Obama but against the world. When she talked about obliterating Iran, well, that was too much for me. There are children living in Tehran, for one thing. I think that she has been far too willing to assert her machismo in foreign policy.

Are you optimistic that the country is moving in the direction that you'd like?

More so than certainly in quite a while. I think things have moved in a much more progressive direction. Look at the fact that all three of the top Democratic contenders in the primaries were strong economic populists; that was not true in '04 or '00. It's just because things are getting so bad for so many people on so many fronts. There is definitely a new tone in the whole discussion in this country.