BRUNSWICK — Ten years after Barbara Ehrenreich cleaned the toilets of some of Maine’s wealthiest residents while researching “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” the author returned to the state to reflect on how the plight of minimum-wage workers has changed.
Ehrenreich was invited to speak as part of the Brunswick-Bowdoin Community Read, a new book club that brings together Bowdoin students and Brunswick residents. Members of both communities read the book, attended the lecture and met to discuss the book in one-hour sessions all last week.
In a sold-out Jan. 27 talk at Bowdoin College’s Pickard Theater, Ehrenreich described how life has grown more difficult for the working poor since she traveled to Maine, Florida and Minnesota and worked low-wage jobs.
“Those were the good old days,” she said. “For those people already poor in 2008, things have simply gotten worse.”
She argued that being poor has increasingly become criminalized, with employers reluctant to hire the long-term unemployed, requiring credit checks or passing laws against sitting or laying down in public space.
While Ehrenreich used to advocate for sweeping legislative reforms to improve the lives of the poor, the events of the last 1o years have caused her to scale back her message.
Now, she said, she just asks that people be nice to each other.
“Could we stop the meanness, could we stop the relentless persecution of people who are already having a hard time?” she asked.
After the lecture, participants discussed her message in a group moderated by Bowdoin student Diana Lee, assistant professor of Africana Studies Brian Purnell, and Pam Cormier, who teaches special education at Brunswick High School.
The group discussed whether Ehrenreich’s research methods were authentic, noting that unlike most minimum-wage workers, she had financial resources to fall back on, but did not have a support network because she was new to the areas where she worked.
Participants brainstormed ways Ehrenreich’s situation could have improved, like unionization and raising the federal minimum wage.
According to Judy Montgomery, associate librarian at the Bowdoin College library, feedback about the discussion groups has been very positive.
“All the moderators have reported back that the conversations were very fruitful and interesting,” she said.
While initially Montgomery had been trying to ensure a blend of Bowdoin students and residents in each group by having people sign up online, she found that people have tended just to walk into a group. Still, she said most groups have had good representation of the Bowdoin and Brunswick communities, and about 90 people had participated as of Wednesday.
Once all the groups have met, Montgomery said there will be a discussion about whether the experiment was the best way to create a dialog between and within the two communities.
If so, there’s a chance “Nickel and Dimed” could be the first of many Community Read selections.
Barbara Ehrenreich at Bowdoin College.