Former Laureates

Barbara Ehrenreich

2018

Introduction

The Erasmus Prize marks its 60th anniversary this year with the theme ‘The Power of Investigative Journalism’. Quality, independent journalism is under pressure – owing to the decline in circulation figures, the decline in reading, and the growing competition from new media. Moreover, journalists themselves are increasingly targets of criticism. It is precisely this in-depth, timeconsuming investigative journalism that is now endangered. And yet good journalism is clearly important as a correction mechanism in a democracy. Investigative journalism is a form of truth finding that deserves our support. To call attention to this issue, the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has chosen it as the theme of its jubilee year.
The Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has awarded the 2018 Erasmus Prize to the American journalist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich (b. 1941). Barbara Ehrenreich is commended for her courage in putting herself on the line in her journalistic work. By leading the life of people in precarious situations, she gives a voice to groups in society that would otherwise remain unheard, and she lets us see life as people on the underside of society live it. As a journalist, Ehrenreich draws on various disciplines, uniting scientific analysis with literary elegance, and larding her focused writing style with dry humor. A major voice in the current debate surrounding the search for truth, she is an advocate of critical thinking and fact finding. Motivated by empathy and social engagement, she brings statistical data to life – for example concerning conditions at the bottom of the labor market. In doing so she embodies the Erasmian ideals championed by the Foundation.

Speech by His Majesty the King

Read the opening words by His Majesty King Willem-Alexander in his capacity as patron of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation, to mark the 60th edition of the Erasmus Prize at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam here:

The Royal House - Opening Words by His Majesty The King

 

Citation

Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows: “Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts. The emphasis lies on tolerance, cultural diversity and non-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation tries to achieve this aim by awarding prizes and by organizing events that draw attention to the work and vision of the laureates. A cash prize is awarded under the name of ‘Erasmus Prize’.” In accordance with this article, the Board of the Foundation has decided to award the Erasmus Prize 2018 to the American writer and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich.
The Prize is awarded to her on the following grounds:

As a pioneer in the genre of immersive journalism, she is commended for her courage in putting herself on the line in her journalistic work. By leading the life of people in precarious situations and reporting on what she calls ‘a world apart’ in a most lucid and penetrating way, she brings to the fore the concerns of groups in society whose voices would otherwise remain unheard.

As a writer, Ehrenreich unites scientific analysis with literary elegance and a sobering sense of humor. Her ability to give life to what would otherwise remain cold statistics, opens our eyes in a most thought-provoking manner.

Whether dealing with the labor market, the healthcare system or the fragility of the middle class, she shows how myth making and positive thinking divert us from reality. In her work she points out that such an approach reduces structural societal problems to being the result of individual shortcomings. This message is also becoming ever more relevant in today’s Europe.

She proves to be an inspiration to other journalists in both content and method. Having created the tools for future generations of journalists, she has also actively committed herself to mentoring and supporting them by founding her ‘Economic Hardship Reporting Project’.

Ehrenreich proves to be an advocate of critical thinking and fact-finding, at the same time motivated by empathy and social activism. She thus embodies the Erasmian ideals championed by the Foundation.

Laudatio

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

On Monday May first, 2006, Timothy J. Bowers robbed a bank in Columbus, Ohio. He made off with 80 dollars, handed the money to a security guard and calmly waited for the police to come and arrest him. In court, he pleaded guilty and told the judge he would like a three-year sentence – just enough time to get him to the age of eligibility for social security benefits. Timothy Bowers was 65 years old — too old to find work in a labor market looking for young, cheap workers — not old enough to receive any support from the government.

The case of Timothy Bowers is discussed by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book This Land is Their Land. Reports from a Divided Nation, in which she points out that he’s by far not the only person who has chosen incarceration as an answer to poverty. For the vast majority of the American prison population comes from the lowest income groups.

Such an anecdote about a man who sees prison as his escape from poverty is typical of Ehrenreich. In her work she not only portrays people living on the fringes of society but also casts a critical eye on the absurdities to which poverty can lead.

For her journalistic masterpiece Nickel & Dimed. On (Not) Getting By in America, she plunged into the world of the working poor. She presented herself as a single mother without qualifications or work experience, and tried to survive on what she could earn from unskilled work. So she waited on tables and became a maid in Florida, she cleaned homes and fed nursing home residents in Maine, and she worked shifts at Walmart in Minnesota.

Very quickly she discovered that you need quite a bit of money to be poor. For it’s almost impossible to rent a home if you don’t earn enough to pay a deposit and a month’s rent in advance. And if you are forced to live in a cheap motel, you won’t be able to eat affordable or healthy food because you cannot cook there. Since you can’t live off one low-paid job, many of her colleagues worked two or more jobs. And anyway, noted Ehrenreich, who has a doctorate in biochemistry, there’s no such thing as ‘unskilled’ work. Such work actually demands a high level of skill.

Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrates where investigative journalism – the theme of the Erasmus Prize this year – can lead. Investigative journalism draws attention to hitherto unknown realities and evils. It exposes what lies hidden. It sets out to redress the version of reality presented by those in positions of power. Hers is an indispensable countervailing force. She directs that force by following flows of money and revealing scandals, financial or otherwise, and also by engaging in more social investigative journalism and in-depth reporting. That’s what Ehrenreich did in her book Nickel & Dimed, and again in Bait and Switch. The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, in which she became a job seeker and showed the difficult plight of the middle class. Even with the right qualifications and an office job, its members are mercilessly dumped on the scrapheap after mergers and takeovers.

Both of those books are fine examples of investigative journalism in which the method itself is exposed. Ehrenreich sets to work as a sort of empirical journalist, immersing herself in an unfamiliar world and putting herself on the line. It is her way of making what she has termed ‘a world apart’ not only visible but also palpable. It’s what we now also call immersive journalism: living something fully in order to report on it. Or as she once put it: ‘Affluent people can read it and have me as a guide. They’re looking through my eyes.’ Barbara Ehrenreich is the grand old lady of this genre and has inspired many followers.

Ehrenreich has an impressive body of work to her name, with over twenty books and numerous articles in publications such as The Nation, Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian and Time Magazine. If you were to pick out a common thread in her wide-ranging writing, it would be the deceptive nature of the American dream. No wonder she has called herself ‘a myth buster by trade’.

Whether she’s writing about the job market, the health sector or the fragile existence of the middle class: time and again, Ehrenreich shows that the meritocratic ideal of the American dream is a fiction that leaves people to fend for themselves. In her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World, again with a personal slant, she paints a hilarious yet shocking picture of the pink and infantile world in which people with breast cancer find themselves. Yet all those pink ribbons and teddy bears do nothing but deceive patients into believing that cancer and other calamities can be ‘conquered’ through positive thinking. The implication being that if you do not make a successful recovery, you simply weren’t optimistic enough. Ehrenreich the scientist knows only too well that the misery caused by cancer occurs at the level of the human cell. She knows that recovery or illness is simply a matter of luck, good or bad. The American dream and the dogma of positive thinking are both myths that individualize problems instead of identifying their structural causes.

Barbara Ehrenreich is much more than a versatile writer. For she also wields a sensitive pen and her writing, often laden with irony, can be both empathetic and extremely funny. Her journalism always goes hand in hand with incisive, even provocative analyses. Such as the following: ‘When someone works for less pay than she can live on (...) she has made a great sacrifice for you. The “working poor” (...) are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.’

Above all, her constant social engagement merits high praise. Ehrenreich was writing about the widening gap between rich and poor, about the working poor and the middle-class fear of losing its comfortable existence, about all of these subjects when they were hardly on the political agenda. She truly did make the invisible visible. And she is still committed to doing that, most recently by founding the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, in which she supports young journalists, many of whom find themselves in precarious situations, in telling their stories and offering them to established media outlets.

Barbara Ehrenreich, through your courage in putting yourself on the line, your insatiable curiosity for the unknown, your compassion for the ‘ordinary’ people you write about, and your sharp insights, through all this you uphold for the values of Erasmus. It is therefore a great honour to congratulate you, on behalf of the Foundation, with the Erasmus Prize.

Read by Xandra Schutte, on behalf of the Board, 27 November 2018

Acceptance Speech

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Wow. Amsterdam is completely disorienting to an American. I’ve been here for more than a week and haven’t heard a single gunshot. Even the dignitaries, like the king and queen, are warm, kind people. When I met the Dutch ambassador to the US last spring, in connection with this prize, he was so pleasant and jolly that I had to question his credentials.

And now this: For me, this is like a fairy tale come true. We’re in the royal palace! With the king and queen! And I’m here with everyone I love including all the people who have enabled me and inspired me for so many years! Thank you so much to all the Dutch people not only for the Erasmus Prize but for this unforgettable moment!

Well of course I’m saying all these nice things about The Netherlands in the hope that you will, when necessary, grant me refugee status. Me, my family and friends, that is.

One thing about this country that is strange, even exotic, to an American is that you seem to lack the steep class divisions that are so visible almost everywhere in my country. You may eventually get to the same divided condition as my country – this is the way most industrialized countries are trending – but at least for now, the Dutch welfare state remains strong enough to prevent that from happening. In the US, by contrast, we have virtually no welfare state to protect the poor and downwardly mobile, and the results are visible even to tourists.

Take Manhattan, that once-beautiful island that, according to legend, the Dutch bought from the Indians for $24 – and that’s a real estate deal that even Trump would have to admire. Today, Manhattan land sells for $1000/sq. foot, so $24 would get you a few square inches.

One sad consequence of the current prices is that only the super-rich can afford to live in the upper story apartments where the sun still shines. Walk around on the sidewalks of Manhattan today and you will be in the perpetual shade of the sky-scrapers housing American – and Russian and Chinese –billionaires. Actually, you’ll be in the shade of the empty apartments of the super-rich – because when you have 6 or 7 homes you can’t be in any one of them much of the time.

I have spent a lot of time in that shade. I was born into the relative poverty of a working class family in Montana and spent a good portion of my adult life struggling economically. Partly because I chose to be a writer and a journalist. This seemed like a good fit for me because I’d been educated as a scientist and journalists have the same goal – finding the truth and getting people to pay attention to it.

At the beginning of my career, I could earn enough to support my family, at however minimal a level. But starting in the 90s that began to change. Newspapers and other news outlets were taken over by large corporations that were concerned only about the bottom line. They cut their staffs, including journalists, and closed those magazines and newspapers that weren’t making enough money, at least by the standards of their new owners, with the result that, today, writers aren’t paid well when they’re paid at all.

To make things worse, I often chose to write about poverty – about all the people who are left out of America’s fabulous wealth, who try to get by on about $10/hr while raising children and paying exorbitant prices for rent and medical care. This seems so unfair to me, so easily fixable. Why not, for example, open up the empty sky-high apartments of the super-rich as squats for the homeless while their super-rich owners are off in London or the Caribbean?

But this of course is not the kind of thing that the new super-rich owners of the media business want to hear. I found the demand for my kinds of stories diminishing. Editors urged me to write less about economic inequality and more about “feminine” topics like the first lady’s fashion choices and the secrets of success of female CEOs. I could no longer make a living in journalism, and had to find other ways to support myself.

What is worse, I could not be sure I was actually making a difference. I had started in the 80s doing the conventional type of journalism: interviewing people and getting their stories published. This was my way of debunking the common prejudice that the poor are only poor because they want to be – because they don’t make an effort, or because somewhere along the way they forgot to get an education for a high-paying career.

I got some praise for “giving a voice to the voiceless” but nothing changed. In fact, things were only getting worse: Wages started going down relative to the cost of living; the welfare state began to disappear; unions were becoming weaker.

So I decided to turn things up a notch, to try “immersion journalism,” in the style of the German journalist Gunter Wallraff who went undercover to report on the lives of Turkish guest workers (I had not heard of him at the time.) I left home, found the cheapest housing I could, and took the best paying jobs I could find – as a waitress, a hotel housekeeper, a cleaning lady, a nursing home aide and a WalMart employee. I didn’t deliberately select these jobs: They selected me. These are the only kinds of jobs I could get without using my actual credentials. (Not that my credentials would have helped, since I never did see a job advertisement for a political essayist, especially not a sarcastic feminist political essayist.)

To my utter surprise, the book that I wrote about my experiences became a bestseller, and helped reinforce the ongoing movement for higher wages. To my even greater surprise, many people praised me for my bravery for having done this – to which I could only say: Millions of people do this kind of work every day for their entire lives – haven’t you noticed them?

And I learned a very important lesson: I never use the word “unskilled” any more to refer to anyone’s work. I learned the hard way that every job takes skill, intelligence and concentration – and should be paid accordingly.

Now I’m in my third and final phase of my personal campaign for social justice. Six years ago, it struck me that people living in poverty (or near poverty) don’t need someone to “give them a voice.” They have voices and they know what they want to say. They just need some help, some support to allow them to write and help them get published.

So I created something called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project for exactly that purpose. In our 6 years of existence, we have raised money from philanthropists to help support over 100 people – factory workers, house cleaners, and many professional journalists who have fallen on hard times.

We’ve turned some lives around. We’ve called attention to issues no one was thinking about – like the plasma business, which pays poor people for their vital blood proteins, at considerable cost to their health. Or the growing number of childcare centers that operate 24 hours a day, because their parents have to work pretty much around the clock … about homeless Americans who live year-round in tents … and about the epidemic of suicides among American farmers.

We are very proud of what we do. Some of our people have won prizes and awards. All of them have had their work published in widely read media outlets. A few have gotten book contracts or actual paying jobs. We like to think that we’re making a difference.

And maybe we are. But it’s a tiny difference compared to what needs to happen. And I guess that’s the story of my life as a journalist: You try and try to bring attention to what is really happening and to all the unnecessary pain in the world. Most of the time you fail. You don’t change the world. You may not even get paid for your work.

But once in a while, very rarely, you are recognized and applauded for what you are trying to do. This is one of those moments – and not only for me. I am encouraged and emboldened to work even harder for a just and equitable society, as are my many friends and colleagues and loved ones. I thank you on behalf of all of them.

Biography

Barbara Ehrenreich (b. 1941) is a pioneer in the genre of investigative journalism. Her international breakthrough came in 2001 with her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, for which she spent months trying to survive on her earnings from what society calls ‘unskilled work’. In her subsequent work she often applied this technique of ‘immersion journalism’, as it is now known, for instance to highlight the obstacles encountered by the American middle class in scaling the social ladder. A common thread running through her impressive body of work is the deceptive myth of the American dream. Recurring themes in her essays and books are: the labor market, healthcare, poverty, and the position of women. Such themes are now more important than ever. Among her most important works are: Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America (2001); Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (2005); and Smile or Die (2009), on the dangers of ‘positive thinking’ at the expense of, among other things, adequate healthcare. In her most recent book Natural Causes (2018), she describes the senseless resistance to growing old. Through her choice of subject and working methods, Ehrenreich is an inspiring example for journalists all over the world.

The Erasmus Prize 2018 has been awarded to American journalist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich

The Erasmus Prize 2018 has been awarded to American journalist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich

Erasmus Prize 2018 awarded to Barbara Ehrenreich

The Erasmus Prize 2018 has been awarded to American journalist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich

The Erasmus Prize 2018 has been awarded to American journalist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich

The Erasmus Prize 2018 has been awarded to American journalist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich

The Erasmus Prize 2018 has been awarded to American journalist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich