Barbara Ehrenreich speaks out on social, economic inequality — and how to make things better

Author/activist Barbara Ehrenreich addressed an enthusiastic audience in San Francisco Monday night, supporters of the Washington D.C.-based progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies, on whose board Ehrenreich serves. Also on hand for brief remarks and conversation were IPS Director John Cavanagh, IPS fellow and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Saul Landau and 2010 IPS fellow Tope Folarin.

The event was billed as an overview of such critical current issues as ending the Afghan war, creating a fair tax system, fixing the country’s tattered social safety net, shutting down Wall Street speculation and seeking local and global climate justice. And if that seems a tall order, the mood was decidedly more upbeat than overwhelmed.

Ehrenreich, whose 2001 best-seller Nickel and Dimed exposed the social and economic injustices assailing the working poor, says her current, ongoing focus is on the failure of our social safety net. “It’s not working,” she says, “but it can be fixed.”

To that end, the speakers distributed copies of a recently released IPS study (in cooperation with the Center for Community Change, Legal Momentum and Jobs with Justice.) Titled Battered by the Storm: How the Safety Net is Failing Americans and How to Fix it, the study lists five key findings:

  • Levels of long-term unemployment, underemployment and discouraged workers are reaching historic levels;
  • The percentage of poor children receiving temporary assistance under TANF (the main federal “welfare” program) has fallen from 62% in 1995 to 22% in 2008;
  • TANF benefits are far from sufficient to support the families that depend on them: 2008 assistance payments averaged only 29% of the money needed to bring families up to the official poverty line;
  • Even while labor force participation of mothers has increased, the supply of affordable child care has lagged behind, creating a significant barrier to employment for many, especially single mothers; and
  • Roughly 57% of unemployed people are receiving unemployment compensation; for those receiving benefits, amounts are less than half of wages, and many are losing work-related health benefits.

Saying the safety net has eroded over the last three decades, the report offers an “Emergency Relief Package” totaling just over $400 billion and including jobs program, state and local fiscal relief, insurance and food stamps measures designed to aid middle and low income Americans. These groups, IPS leaders contend, have seen their income decline as the rich get richer. The study also suggests a number of ‘no new money’ measures such as foreclosure relief. Financing could be accomplished, the study says, through tax changes affecting higher income levels, a tax on financial transactions over $100 billion and an end to overseas tax havens.

Her concern with the squeezing of middle and lower income Americans, Ehrenreich says, has grown as their plight has worsened in recent years. “This recession has not narrowed the gap of inequality,” she says, “it has widened the gap.”

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