Barbara Ehrenreich is perhaps the best popular writer on issues of poverty, inequality and increasing financial insecurity in the U.S., chiefly through books such as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. In a recent New York Times op-ed, “Too Poor to Make the News,” Ehrenreich astutely observes that with all of the attention to the “Nouveau Poor” resulting from the current recession, the plight of those who were already poor has been largely ignored in the mainstream media. Revisiting some of the people she profiled in Nickel and Dimed and groups working with the long-term poor, she worries that the current crisis will only make conditions worse for them.
The deprivations of the formerly affluent Nouveau Poor are real enough, but the situation of the already poor suggests that they do not necessarily presage a greener, more harmonious future with a flatter distribution of wealth. There are no data yet on the effects of the recession on measures of inequality, but historically the effect of downturns is to increase, not decrease, class polarization.
The recession of the ’80s transformed the working class into the working poor, as manufacturing jobs fled to the third world, forcing American workers into the low-paying service and retail sector. The current recession is knocking the working poor down another notch — from low-wage employment and inadequate housing toward erratic employment and no housing at all. Comfortable people have long imagined that American poverty is far more luxurious than the third world variety, but the difference is rapidly narrowing.
We shouldn’t discount the negative effects the current crisis is having on a wide range of families who make up the newly poor; but neither should we forget the long-term poor, who will be less likely to bounce back once the crisis turns.