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From "Working Poor" to Poor

Barbara Ehrenreich has shredded central American myths: the unshakeable "America of the Middle Class," the blessed "service society" and the "trickle down economy." The mass media offer "recession porn" with their reporting abou9t the crisis.. "Our heroes are no longer the heads of firms with their billions. A change of values is underway."

Poverty without the social net. That is Barbara Ehrenreich's description of the real victims of the recession in the US

By Max Boehnel

[This article published in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis, 7/2/2009 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/30/30621/1.html.]

The 67-year old journalist Barbara Ehrenreich has shredded central American myths in non-fiction books and articles in large journals and newspapers: the unshakeable "America of the Middle Class," the blessed "service society" and the "trickle down economy." The investigative journalist explained the "working poor" to Americans during the economic boom under Clinton and Boom: a constantly growing number of people who work for low wages, often have several so-called McJobs and nevertheless remain poor. That was before the economic crisis.

Then the crisis came along with enthusiasm for the newly elected US president Barack Obama, which also sized Ehrenreich. Like many other social-democratic Keynesian-oriented intellectuals, she was long disgusted with "recession porn," which the mass media offer with their reporting about the crisis. In the last months, journalists belonging to the upper social strata concentrated on the super-rich who had to sell their private jets, the upper middle class who could no longer afford their personal trainers and persons on the medium runs of the social ladder who now must forego their Caribbean vacations.

These are not really the social abysses of the "Great Recession." She was brought back to the ground of facts through an email of one of her nephews, "a cry for help" from her own family.

Her nephew's 55-year old stepmother was a victim of foreclosure. As "working poor," she had a coronary because she was completely overworked by three jobs. With these three jobs, the single woman provided for two grandchildren and a handicapped child. After the heart attack, she could not pay her mortgage any more. The well-situated author Ehrenreich transferred money and visited her in her mobile home in a trailer park somewhere in rural Missouri. There Barbara Ehrenreich found four persons crowded into the tightest space in a mobile home. The past breadwinner was unemployed.

The "working poor" are not in the limelight any more. Every day hundreds of Americans endure the bitter fate of poverty without a social net. In the middle of June 2009, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about this in a long article ["Too poor to make the news (1)] in the "New York Times." Peg, the stepmother of her nephew, is "the real face of the recession." The former "working poor" cannot find any work any more.

Unemployment of the formerly "working poor" in the law-wage sector is now three times as high as with mid-level employees. The living conditions of those who crash in the US and the poverty conditions in the third world cannot be distinguished. In the trailer park visited by Ehrenreich, she saw hungry persons searching for raccoons and squirrels.

In the past, tent cities of the homeless [2] were the exception. The homeless could still find accommodations with better-off relatives, live together in the most crowded spaces and walk to supermarkets that auction food at or past the expiry date for a few cents. These are survival techniques. Isolation and shame block social protests in the US where such disastrous conditions persist.

To oneself and others, one admits not belonging to the middle class - whatever that may be. For many, the promises of the "American Dream" are abandoned. In this ideology, the first breaches are recognized ["Why no social outcry? (3)]. The social control still functions through the PR-industry so the "nouveau poor," the new unemployed, continue writing endless job applications. However "our heroes are no longer the heads of firms with their billions. A change of values is underway."

(1)  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/14/opinion/14ehrenreich.html
(2)  http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31401128
(3)  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104001212

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