Murat Can Bilgincan reporting

Covering the Working Poor

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Barbara Ehrenreich and Tony Horwitz are two prominent journalists who have specialized in covering the working poor. Motivated by their passion for journalism, they have both gone undercover and produced articles based on their experiences as poor workers. Ehrenreich, initially got her experiences published in the form of an article. In 2001, she transformed this article into a popular book called “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America”. Horwitz on the other hand, had his story published in the Wall Street Journal on December 1st, 1994, under the title “9 to Nowhere”. This masterful account of the working poor significantly contributed to his winning the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Even though both journalists have used similar techniques to camouflage themselves among the working poor and worked under comparable circumstances, their approaches to reporting differ significantly. It is the purpose of this paper to contrast these two approaches and to formulate the ideal method of covering the working poor.

As she was pitching ideas to a Harper’s editor, Ehrenreich commented that the poor should be covered in the “old-fashioned way”, by living among the poor under cover. (Ehrenreich, 1) Encouraged by the editor, Ehrenreich decided to spend a month in three different cities working with the poor. She started her project in 1998; worked as a waitress in Florida, as a cleaner in Maine and as a Wal-Mart “Associate” in Minnesota. However, before she started off her project in Florida, she decided on a set of rules: she was not allowed to use her education and skills to find jobs, she would accept the best-paying job and she would live in the cheapest accommodations available above a minimum safety and privacy standard. In addition to these rules that would make her experience more realistic, she implemented another set of rules that would make the experience endurable for Ehrenreich, who was approaching her late-fifties. She would always drive to work; would use her credit card if homelessness came into question; once again, would take out her credit if hunger became an issue. Confessing that these second set of rules reduced the realism of her experience, Ehrenreich says: “So this is not a story of some death-defying undercover adventure.” (Ehrenreich, 6)

In the shoes of a poor worker, Ehnrenreich was not always honest. For instance, during her job interviews, she would describe herself as a “divorced homemaker reentering the workforce after many years”. (Ehrenreich, 5) She would also hide the fact that she had a Ph.D. and tell her prospective employers that she was a college drop-out. Job experience is another area that Ehrenreich lied about. Occasionally, she would add that she had had some waitressing and housekeeping experience and give her friends’ names as previous employers. These lies were essential for maintaining her camouflage. On the other hand, while conversing with her co-workers, she would always tell them stories from her real life. Stories about her real husband, real children, real friends… This was an optimal strategy through which she could both act as a member of the poor working class and form genuine bonds with the poor.

In her book, Ehrenreich is not always transparent to her readers either. She has changed most of the people, store and neighborhood names in order to minimize the damage that could come to her co-workers’ careers. There is a tradeoff here. By assuring the employment of her co-workers, Ehrenreich has prevented the employers from receiving the public attention that they deserved. If she had mentioned the real names of the employees and their employers, the public, chaperoned by the media, would have put these entities under the spot light. As a result, they would not have been able to fire their employees and would have been forced to improve their employment conditions. Afraid of a further investigation, the competitors of these firms might have improved their own conditions as well. However, if the spot light had quickly been turned to a different direction, as it is usually the case, Ehrenreich’s co-workers would have been replaced and the old working conditions would have resurfaced. Since the risk of losing media interest rapidly is high, Ehnrenreich most probably did the right thing. She not only protected the poor people that she met, but also encouraged the general public to take action against a nation-wide, as opposed to an employer-specific, problem.

Ehrenreich’s account of her waitressing experience in Key West, Florida is representative of her reporting style. In Key West, she starts off by living in a cheap apartment that was 45 minutes away from the first restaurant that she worked at. At the first restaurant, Ehrenreich worked 8 hours a day for $2.43 per hour plus tips. Despite her Ph.D., she was far from feeling overqualified at waitressing that supposedly did not require any skills. In addition, she quickly made friends. From her friends and her brief experience, Ehrenreich learned that “there are no economies that nourish the poor”. (Ehrenreich, 27) Faced with this reality, she had to find a second job. She began waitressing at a second restaurant that was more popular and less hygienic than the first one. At the new restaurant, Ehrenreich worked 6 hours a day. Both due to exhaustion and to the abusive managers at the first restaurant, she quit her first job and stuck with the better paying second restaurant. In an attempt to ease the pressures on her budget, she moved to a trailer park close to work. Meanwhile, a disturbing incident occurred at work. An American co-worker accused a Czech co-worker who could not speak English of stealing kitchen supplies. Although Ehrenreich would have protected the accused worker in her real life, she could not find the motivation to do it under the current circumstances. She believed that this was an indication of the Darwinian working conditions making her “loathsome and servile”. (Ehrenreich, 41) Later, she found an additional job as a housekeeper at the hotel adjacent to the restaurant she worked at. Her new job paid $6.10 an hour for 7 hours a day. After her housekeeping shift, Ehrenreich arrived at the restaurant where the perfect storm was about to break. There were too many customers sitting in Ehrenreich’s jurisdiction. The inexperienced cook could not handle the high volume of orders. The customers were displeased with Ehrenreich. Hence, the manager was furious. Ehrenreich’s exhaustion and frustration combined; she walked away.

The author’s reporting style is excessively personal. She extensively describes all of her feelings. For instance, she talks about her dreams and how their effects on her have changed: “When I wake up at 4am in my own cold sweat, I‘m not thinking about the writing deadlines that I’m neglecting; I’m thinking of the table where I screwed up the order and one of the kids didn’t get his kiddie meal until the rest of the family moved on to their Key lime pies.” (Ehnrenreich, 18) The purpose for providing us with such a detailed description of her anxiety is to help the reader identify with the working poor. However, Ehrenreich could have achieved this goal by directing anxiety related questions to her co-workers. The answers of the co-workers would have given us a more realistic picture of their anxieties, since Ehrenreich’s anxieties that may have been triggered by her abrupt transition into poverty may not have manifested themselves in the “real” working poor. Such examples are prolific in Nickel and Dimed. Ehrenreich has concentrated on her own thoughts and emotions so much that she has not been able to allocate the necessary time to delve into the thoughts and emotions of the “real” working poor. Moreover, after dropping her camouflage, she has not conducted comprehensive interviews with the poor people that she worked with. Complementing her own observations with the observations of her co-workers would have provided a more realistic and comprehensive image of the working poor to the reader. Interviewing not only her co-workers but also other people from similar backgrounds would have brought her reporting one step closer to perfection. Unfortunately, at times, Ehrenreich has forgotten that she has lived an abnormal temporary life and that the thoughts and emotions of her co-workers may have differed significantly from her own.

In the final chapter of her book, called “Evaluation”, Ehrenreich analyzes the observations that she has made among the poor of the three cities and attempts to draw conclusions regarding possible solutions to the social problems she has observed. Her first conclusion is that “no job, no matter how lowly, is truly unskilled”. (Ehrenreich, 193) The main evidence she uses to back up this statement is the fact that she has struggled to master her low-pay jobs, despite her high level of education and experience in the business world. Her second conclusion is that she has failed to make ends meet. Ehrenreich definitely could not achieve this goal in Key West and Maine, and optimistic assumptions were necessary to speculate that she would have been able to survive in Mineapolis. This statement is also sufficiently supported with the behind-the-envelope calculations that she provides. However, she loses her credibility considerably when we arrive at the final section of her last chapter. Here, she makes a cursory attempt to discover the chief factors that have caused the situation described in her second conclusion.

Her rapid loss of credibility begins with her fanatical attack on the rich. Ehrenreich claims that the rich compete with the poor for rent, thereby causing rents to skyrocket. This is a highly problematic claim that even a Yale economics professor would not dare to make. It is seldom that the rich compete with the poor for housing, since their communities are strictly segregated. Nobody would build a condominium in a neighborhood dominated by the poor. A rich person may build a condominium in a developing city where the rich and the poor have not yet been segregated. This was the situation that Ehrenreich observed in Key West. In such cases, usually the law mandates that the poor tenants be compensated for the cost of searching for a new home. Once the displaced tenants find a new apartment it is not easy to determine whether they will pay a higher rent or not. It is likely that the new landlord will attempt to increase his rents, but seeing that there are not enough rich buyers and that the few rich buyers tend to congregate in the same part of the city, he will eventually drop it down to its previous level. The negative impact of this process on the displaced poor is that they will not be able to settle into an apartment for an extended period of time. Although this seems like a problem, it will not be one, since the displaced poor will be compensated for their transition costs. As we have seen, the issue of the rich competing with the poor for housing is a highly complicated problem that can in fact be the subject of an entire book. Failing to notice this complexity, Ehrenreich has decided to spend a short paragraph on the issue. She has not even cited any economics literature. Although it is much more socially beneficial if she does, the journalist does not have to discover the causes of a particular issue and find remedies for it. If she is unable to dedicate the necessary time for research or is not equipped to handle the roots of the issue, it is sufficient to provide the public with an accurate snapshot. If the snapshot is impactful, others will be influenced to dig deeper into the issue.

The remedies that Ehrenreich suggests are equally superficial. In order to solve the problem of high rents, she suggests that the government increase its subsidies for housing. She emphasizes that public rental subsidies stopped growing after the mid-90s. Blaming the government is the easiest way out. Since none of Ehrenreich’s friends were homeless, the effect of increased subsidies on these poor people would be living in a higher quality apartment. Considering the fact that increasing the poor’s living standards is not nearly as vital as providing the homeless with a home, increasing subsidies for rents may no longer be a priority for the government. Subsidizing education, for instance, may be a more pressing priority. Since public debt should be kept at a minimum, the government may not have sufficient funds available to increase the subsidies that Ehrenreich mentions. Although what we have here is a brief counterargument, it does convincingly suggest that Ehrenreich has not carefully formulated her recommendation.

As we approach the end of Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich’s excessively subjective tone evolves into a populist one. What is suggested by the word populist is that her melodramatic comments, such as her attack on the rich, reflect the lack of economic intuition, despite the fact that the majority of the readers would be pleased to read these same comments. Her populism reaches its peak in the second-to-last paragraph of her book: “When someone works for less pay than she can live on…. then she has made a great sacrifice for you.” (Ehrenreich, 221) We can extrapolate this faulty logic to think that the customers who cannot afford to eat at a restaurant better than the ones that Ehrenreich worked at are in return making a sacrifice for the poor waitresses. After all, these customers are stretching their budgets to tip the waitresses and to keep them employed. Such a populist logic does not exist in our world. Suppliers and demanders do not make sacrifices for each other. Both groups are free to move within their range. The waitresses can work at various restaurants and customers can eat at various restaurants. The limiting factors are qualities, such as education, that are highly valued by the society in general. Life is simply not fair. Therefore, the following subjective comment by Ehrenreich is not only far from being realistic but is also amusing: “The working poor are in fact the major philanthropists of our society.” (Ehrenreich, 221)

Even though Tony Horwitz of the Wall Street Journal used techniques similar to those used by Ehrenreich to go undercover, his reporting style was different. In 1994, Horwitz went to a poultry processing plant for a job interview. He informed the interviewer about his university degree and said that he was previously employed by Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of the Wall Street Journal. Lying does not always imply the exchange of words. Sometimes silence can also indicate a lie. If Horwitz had told his interviewer that he worked for the Wall Street Journal, the interviewer would have grown suspicious and would not have hired him. Because he was aware of this fact, Horwitz concealed that he worked for a newspaper. Ehrenreich lied in similar ways in order to get hired. In both of these cases, learning the dire realities that surrounded the working poor was far more important than not committing the sin of lying.

Unlike Ehrenreich, Horwitz reveals the real names of his co-workers and the companies that he has worked at. Although this will initially force the companies to improve their working conditions, as soon as the media turns the spot light to a different direction, it will cost some of the workers their jobs, especially if they have harshly criticized the company. Therefore, it would have been better if Horwitz had not reported the real names. This way the workers’ careers would not have been risked and the eyes of the public would have been opened to a broader problem related to the poultry processing industry in general. However, there is one important reason why concealing names is easier for Ehrenreich compared to Horwitz. Writing a book is not the same as writing a newspaper article. In a book the author can easily customize his style, but newspapers have rigid norms. Using fake names is not common practice and many editors would believe that it decreases the value of the article. Hence, Horwitz may not have had complete control over this particular choice.

First, Horwitz worked at a poultry plant in Mississippi where he was paid $5.10 an hour for at least 8 hours a day. The training program was far from being satisfactory. A supervisor quickly read him the safety hazards, handed him his equipment and put him on the chicken line. The risk of injury was high around the chicken line. It was easy to slip and fall due to the chicken parts lying on the floor. Cutting yourself was not difficult either. Either the scissors or the chickens’ beaks would do the job for you. Standing in abnormal postures and lifting heavy boxes can be added to the factors that increased injury risk. Moreover, taking bathroom breaks was not allowed if you did not have someone who could temporarily replace you. Even if you made it to the bathroom, you would find the toilets clogged and the soap dispensers empty. Although the second poultry plant that Horwitz worked at was more hygienic than the first one, the working conditions were harsher. The breaks were shorter and the working hours were longer. In return, Horwitz earned 70 cents more per hour. Slaughtering chicken was not only low-paying and dangerous. In addition, the poultry workers did not acquire any skills that could potentially help them get better jobs.

At the poultry plant, Horwitz mastered his new role but did not forget his old role as a journalist. In addition to describing his disgust of the unsanitary working conditions and his pity for the poor workers in detail, he allocates extensive space for describing the perspectives of others. For instance, Horwitz has written what the workers think as they perform their repetitive tasks for long hours. They think about “sex, making more money and getting out of this place”. (Horwitz, 12) Such information cannot be gathered through regular conversation, as it would be awkward to ask a co-worker what he is thinking at the moment. Having realized the limits of his conversations, Horwitz decided to conduct proper interviews with 50 poultry workers after his undercover work was completed. Moreover, he interviewed some of the white-collars of the poultry plants. Exposing the reader to both the blue-collar and the white-collar perspectives has made the article not only more objective but also more powerful, since most of the comments that the managers have made contradict the basic facts that Horwitz has observed. When the Chief Consul of one of the plants claims that “the bathrooms are cleaned regularly” and the reader has previously learned that the bathrooms are always clogged, it is tempting for us to take a more anti-poultry-plant stance. (Horwitz, 11) As you may recall, such a variety of perspectives were absent in Ehrenreich’s work.

The most important quality of Horwitz’s reporting style is his gift to form a bridge between the micro and the macro levels. In his article “9 to Nowhere”, the tragedy of the poultry workers in the two plants that he has visited constitutes the micro level. The macro level has multiple layers within itself. The first layer is the entire poultry processing industry. Horwitz makes a transition from the micro level to this layer by providing the reader with statistics that show the size of the labor force involved in this industry and the injury rates. In addition, he unites the whole industry by delving deep into the reasons behind low levels of unionization in the poultry processing sector. The second layer of the macro level is all industries that are similar to poultry processing with respect to low-pay, injury risk and the lack of skills acquired by the workers. Horwitz relates his unpleasant experience at the poultry plant to similar industries via brief paragraphs about recycling plant workers and workers of other comparable industries. The third and the topmost layer of the macro level is government policy. Bridging the micro level to government, Horwitz adds the complaints of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the lagging ergonomics standards of the US and the favors that the Agriculture Secretary Mike Epsy has received from the largest poultry producer of the nation. Such a multilayered approach is absent in Ehrenrecih’s work. Instead, she jumps to questionable conclusions without having carried out a meticulous analysis. In other words, Ehrenreich has not been able to bridge the micro to the macro as masterfully as Horwitz has done. The lack of this information bridge has reduced her credibility.

Both Tony Horwitz and Barbara Ehrenreich have lied to their interviewers. This was the only way that they could temporarily become one with the working poor. Although Horwitz has not informed the reader about the rules that he set while working under cover, Ehrenreich has told us that she set minimum standards. These would make her experience endurable. In the spirit of being transparent, Horowitz’s readers would have benefitted if he had included more detail about his rules for working under cover. Revealing names is another issue where the two journalists diverge. Ehrenreich uses pseudonyms while Horwitz uses real names. Even though concealing the identities of the workers would have been more responsible, perhaps Horwitz did not have a choice due to the type of media that his article would be published in.

Most importantly, the reporting styles of the two journalists exhibit significantly different levels of objectivity. Ehrenreich has not used interviews as an additional form of collecting and checking information. By providing his readers with information from 50 interviews, Horwitz has not only enhanced the objectivity of his article but also has drawn conclusions from a larger, more reliable sample of poor workers. On the other hand, Ehrenreich has drawn highly questionable economic conclusions without doing the necessary research. Faulty economics mixed with the emotional experience that she has had with the poor has produced a populist tone by the end of Nickel and Dimed. Horwitz would never have fallen into this trap, since he would conduct all the necessary interviews when faced with a similar challenge. The statistics and the citations that he has used in order to teach the public a macro-level lesson from his micro-level experiences is the solid proof. Despite the positive qualities of her reporting style, such as revealing her working procedure to her reader and using pseudonyms, Ehrenreich’s work lacks the two most important assets that any journalistic piece can have: objectivity and meticulous research. Since Horwitz’s article is essentially built on these two assets, his reporting style is much closer to ideal.


NOTE: This is a term paper I had written for a Yale College Seminar in 2007.



Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: on (not) Getting by in America. New York: Metropolitan, 2001.

Horwitz, Tony. “9 to Nowhere.” The Wall Street Journal 1 Dec. 1994.

Author: bilgincan

Murat Can Bilgincan is a Turkish journalist and filmmaker who has worked for CNN and on PBS' "Frontline." Bilgincan holds a bachelor's degree from Yale College and a master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. He teaches an independent journalism seminar at Koc University in Istanbul.

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