December 18, 2009 / 1:31 PM / 9 years ago

"Nickel and Dimed" author sees lost middle class

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Barbara Ehrenreich joined the ranks of America’s financial underclass for a spell and wrote a book about it.

But for a growing segment of the U.S. population, there is nothing experimental or temporary about that life.

The author of “Nickel and Dimed” sees no quick recovery in sight for formerly middle class Americans ground down by job losses, the burst housing bubble and constricted credit.

Many of those families have gone from living the American dream to relying on Uncle Sam and other charities to feed themselves.

Reuters recently spoke with Ehrenreich about the new American poverty. An edited transcript follows.

Q: What do you think about reports that an economic recovery may be at hand?

A: Many people you might have called middle class or working class before have been ground down toward poverty or even destitution and then you see these billions of dollars of bonuses on Wall Street.

Wall Street is having a wonderful time. Banks are doing fine ... Are we going to come out of this being an even more economically unequal society than we were in 2007?

Q: What role did loose lending practices play in masking declining wages during the last period of economic expansion?

A: Easy credit has been America’s substitute for decent wages.

Q: Have you contacted any of the families you interviewed for earlier books to see how they’re faring during this downturn?

A: I did manage a few months ago to reach two people I met while working on “Nickel and Dimed.”

They were not doing that well. They said, “What recession? We’ve been in a depression for a long time.”

They weren’t noticing anything that new except that it’s much harder to get that second or third job they depend on.

Q: Is the upper middle class safe?

A: Over the last 15 or 20 years, white collar workers have become increasingly disposable ... It became a trend, a fad, whatever, to cut your payrolls as much as possible, so we have more and more people who went to college, maybe even got a master’s degree — did all the right things — and now they’re lucky to get short-term contract work, no benefits.

Q: What does that trend mean for higher education in the United States?

A: I do a lot of speaking on college campuses. A few weeks ago at Tennessee Tech, a young man said at the Q&A, “I am one of those poor people.”

He works part-time at Wendy’s, lives in a house crowded with other people. The only thing he could see doing is the Peace Corps because there is nothing else. It’s not because he’s altruistic, it’s because there’s nothing else.

There are a lot of highly educated dog walkers in big cities today. They’ve been horribly exploited.

Q: Do you think the economic downturn and high youth unemployment will change how young people think about taking on college debt?

A: It creates a scary crisis for higher education. We have created a system where that credential — the college degree — supposedly is your ticket to a decent job and a middle class lifestyle.

It’s not a ticket, it’s only a lottery ticket. You come out of college with tens of thousands worth of debt and absolutely no guarantee of any kind of job.

Reporting by Lisa Baertlein. Editing by Robert MacMillan

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