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From Prisoner to Novelist.

Writer Eddie Little is making his debut with the semi-autobiographical novel, "Another Day in Paradise" (Viking) about a 14 year old boy who gets caught up in a world of drugs and theft. Little himself is a former heroine addict, who spent time in prison for armed robbery and grand larceny. He also helps run We Care, a Los Angeles organization that provides assistance to house bound people with AIDS and elderly shut-ins.

36:30

Other segments from the episode on February 3, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 3, 1998: Interview with Eddie Little; Interview with Sara Horowitz.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 03, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020301NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Another Day in Paradise
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's hardly necessary to have committed crimes in order to write a compelling crime novel. But Eddie Little's new crime novel is based on first-hand experience. The 42-year-old writer has spent years in prison.

He was a criminal for a lot longer than he's been a professional writer. He supported himself mostly through robbery since he quit school in the seventh grade. He soon needed plenty of money to feed his heroin addiction.

Now, he claims to have given up crime, to be free from drugs, and free from his own self-destructive behavior. He does volunteer work with drug addicts and ex-cons through a group called "We Care." He writes the "Outlaw L.A." column for the L.A. Weekly, and he has a new novel based on his own experiences. It's called "Another Day in Paradise." A movie adaptation is in production, directed by Larry Clark, who made "Kids" and starring James Woods and Melanie Griffith.

Here's a reading from the opening of the novel. Some listeners may find this passage offensive or too violent.

EDDIE LITTLE, AUTHOR, "ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE," VOLUNTEER, WE CARE: Most people think you open a safe with high-tech instruments and incredible skill. I once thought the same time. That was a long time ago. I was still young and pretty. Now Mel -- Mel was huge; a human wrecking machine. Even at 14, I knew that refrigerators with feet came a dime a dozen.

What I liked was that this huge, dangerous person liked me. But more important, what was crucial: Mel knew things; not what they taught in school -- practical things: how to crack a safe, the best way to set up bogus checking accounts; when to force a door with a pry bar, and when could use a loid (ph) to slip the lock; the fine art of cutting through walls and ceilings; how you could slip into the crawl space beneath a building and tear through the floor to gain entry.

Just as important was his advice on day to day life, like never, ever buy your drugs from niggers. Always call cops "sir." When you can't avoid a fight, use a weapon, your first choice being a gun. If you're not packed, you grab whatever is handy. And if there's nothing to pick up -- no bottles to break, no bricks or rocks to use -- what you do is you stick your index finger in their eye -- ram it through, turn the eye into pulp. Shove your finger all the way into their brain. Guaranteed -- they'll leave you alone.

The world according to Mel wasn't exactly a boy scout manual, but it was absolutely the guidance I needed. Before Mel, I was shooting speed, eating pills, occasionally slamming stuff; surviving by robbing vending machines, petty burglaries, stealing stereos out of cars and boosting.

This generated a couple -- three hundred bucks a day; well over a grand a week. But wanting more was part of me, just like the whiteness of my skin; something I was born with and couldn't change even if I wanted to.

The American dream in person -- hustling, stealing to steal; blowing the cash as fast as I could get it; shooting speed 'til my nose bled, til my eyes crossed -- ether fumes rolling out of my lungs like clouds of toxic waste; staying away for days on end; amphetamine psychosis in full bloom; giving money away; giving drugs away; and always stealing so I'd have more for me and more for the borderline crazies, buzzed out junkies, psychotic scooter trash, ex-con vet -- Vietnam vet -- "kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out" fools and dope fiends I ran with, looked up to, and loved like a normal person supposedly loves his brothers.

A riotous, 14-year-old dope fiend Robin Hood -- that was how I saw myself.

GROSS: That's Eddie Little, reading from his new novel Another Day in Paradise.

Before we talk about how you became a writer, just give us a sense of what your crime resume is. What are some of the crimes you've pulled off in your career?

LITTLE: That I've been convicted of?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

LITTLE: Man, go back -- man. Go back to when I was 10 years old, I got picked up for use of inhalants, which is sniffing glue. And after that, strong-arm robbery, burglary, armed robbery. The list goes on. It's...

GROSS: How much time would you say you spent in prison during your life?

LITTLE: More than I wanted to.

GROSS: Years?

LITTLE: Yeah.

GROSS: Now, the character in your book has a mentor named Mel, and Mel teaches him the ropes when it comes to burglary, self-defense, dealing with the cops. Did you have a mentor like Mel who taught you how to get along in the world of crime?

LITTLE: Mel was -- the character is based on a guy very similar to Mel in the book, you know; a very similar guy.

GROSS: How did you meet him?

LITTLE: Very similar situation to what you read in the book.

GROSS: Well in the book what happens, the character has just stolen money from a vending machine. A security guard catches him. They start fighting. The main character is very roughed up. He's in pain.

And that's when he meets Mel, and Mel kind of takes him under his wing, give him heroin to dull the pain, but also creates a heroin addict out of him. And you know, he becomes Mel's -- Mel's number two, you know, on the crime jobs that he does.

Is that how it happened with you?

LITTLE: Yeah, verbatim. Reality was, Mel, you know, was an ex-military guy. He did get thrown out of the military for abusing drugs and so on. I had -- I was involved in a crime where I got really badly beaten -- really badly. And the cat got me through that period. I'd been using heroin before, but when you're that beat up, you need morphine. You need something. And what was available was heroin.

He's maybe the last of the old Jewish outlaw goons (ph), and he was, you know, he was into it. And him and his old lady basically adopted me, and the chick I was going out with at the time. And it was -- it was a very interesting period of my life.

GROSS: Once you got addicted to heroin with the help of your mentor, did that make it easier for him to control you, because you needed to constantly get more money whether you wanted to or not; you needed a supplier for drugs.

LITTLE: That's -- it was -- it's a dual thing. One -- before I hooked up with him, I was -- I was shooting speed for -- you know, the book doesn't exaggerate -- days on end. You know, I mean, like shooting methamphetamine until I was seeing stuff that wasn't there, talking to people that weren't there. I was out of my damn mind and stealing with both hands. You know, start in the morning; stop at night. If it wasn't nailed down, I was stealing it.

And continuing that particular lifestyle, I had a really short life expectancy. Heroin -- and I'm not a -- you know, I mean -- heroin like has literally killed me. I mean, it stopped my heart, you know, all that, but -- it's a nightmare. The one thing it does is it does not make you stark raving insane. It allows you to function.

And so in that sense, I was already hooked on drugs, whether it was speed or it was heroin, whether it was whatever. That was not going to change until I was so burnt out that I was ready to stop. So, it was not like the cat turned me on to heroin specifically to get me hooked so that I'd be an active crime partner. It was just part of the whole lifestyle.

GROSS: It would seem to me that in some ways addicts wouldn't make very professional criminals, because you're desperate when you're an addict. You need money. You need it right then. And in a way, it doesn't matter whether it's a lot or just enough for your next fix. You have to take whatever risk is necessary to get that money for your next fix. And it probably makes you really sloppy.

LITTLE: That's true. When you're hooked, you're gonna do absolutely whatever you've got to do to get the drugs. You know, there is no morality. There is no savoir faire to it. You know, you're hooked.

What took place with me and what takes place with most functioning addicts, and that's whether you're -- you know, some little trendy movie star guy or you're a dope fiend who's got a nine-to-five job at the Chevrolet plant or whether you're a thief -- what takes place is you go through a period of time -- I'm speaking strictly for myself, I don't generalize -- where I was on top of the whole deal. My thinking processes were clearer. I was able to plan in advance. I was able to execute the things I had to do and stay ahead of the game.

And what happens with me and everyone I've ever met is you start deteriorating. You become sloppier. Your thinking becomes less linear and more fragmented. Your desperation level increases as your habit increases.

And eventually, you end up either getting stopped because you get arrested or because you, you know, if you're a regular person trying to keep a habit going, you get fired from your job. Or, you overdose and you die. Or, you know, for the few fortunate people that manage to do it, you get clean.

But it's a gradual process. You don't start out using a complete wreck, you know. You gotta work to get there. You with me?

GROSS: Yeah. Well, you said, you know, when -- when you were addicted to heroin, there's no morality. You know, you just do whatever you have to in order to get what you need. I mean, and if you're not addicted to heroin and you're a professional thief, is there -- is there morality there?

LITTLE: I have no idea.

GROSS: You've never been in that position? Is that what you're saying?

LAUGHTER

LITTLE: Well, that and there's -- you know, there's myths. There's -- that our society propagates, that we propagate ourselves -- to continue, you know, the stand-up guy; the...

GROSS: Mm-hmm. The criminal with a code.

LITTLE: The criminal with a code -- the guy who'll never screw his friends -- goes on and on and on. Well, I mean, reality is everything I've ever heard about, you steal a few million dollars and all of a sudden best friends start killing each other. You know what I mean?

So, you know, maybe that exists, just I've never seen it. I've never -- I've read about it and I've seen it in movies, but as far as real life goes, you know, it's an incredibly competitive, vicious lifestyle.

GROSS: My guest is Eddie Little, an ex-con and ex-junkie turned writer. His debut novel is called Another Day in Paradise. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Eddie Little, an ex-con and ex-junkie turned writer. His debut novel is called Another Day in Paradise.

What are some of the most important things you learned from your mentor -- the guy who the character Mel is based on in your new novel?

LITTLE: The most important thing, I think, anyone can do is learn how to think. And until, you know, eventually drugs took a toll -- and the guy it's based on did start falling apart -- he was a very bright, sharp, analytical cat. And we would have like these long conversations, you know, just stoned out of our minds. But -- and I learned how to think. I learned how to actually use my brain, as opposed to just going to school and learning stuff by rote.

You know, I only went through the seventh grade. That's it. As far as I went. And as a 14-, 15-year-old idiot, which is what I was, having like these things, not just brought to my attention, but brought out of my mind, like -- like -- by a process of discussion where I came up with the answers, thought it out, and realized that what I was saying was true, instead of having it preached at me. I think that's the greatest thing.

You know what I mean, to teach a guy how to short-wire an alarm or cut through a roof or, you know, in the regular world, maybe work a computer. You know, that -- that's a trade. It's a craft. It's a skill. It's, you know, it's like a nice thing. But learn how to think is heavy, and that's what the dude did.

GROSS: How did -- I don't know his name, that's why I keep calling him your "mentor," but...

LITTLE: In the book, he's Mel. He's dead in real life. I think just stick with Mel.

GROSS: Well, how did he die in real life?

LITTLE: Very unpleasantly.

GROSS: During a robbery?

LAUGHTER

What are you laughing at?

LAUGHTER

LITTLE: Is that a trick question?

GROSS: No -- no.

LITTLE: He died real unpleasantly. He was not a happy guy. And as far as going into details, I'm not going to do it. The book's fiction. Read the book. It's...

GROSS: I guess there are things that you really can't talk about when...

LITTLE: There are absolutely things that I cannot talk about.

GROSS: ... a lot of your life has been conducted illegally, it's not, I guess, all stuff you can talk about on FRESH AIR.

LITTLE: There is no statute of limitations.

GROSS: Right. OK. How old were you when you left home?

LITTLE: Twelve.

GROSS: And why'd you leave?

LITTLE: I wanted to expand my life.

GROSS: I'm not sure what that means.

LITTLE: I was not real happy with my home situation and I felt that I could probably do better elsewhere.

GROSS: When you started stealing, how did you rationalize it? I mean, how did -- how did you justify it to yourself that you were taking other people's stuff and sometimes, when necessary, hurting other people?

LITTLE: When you were a little teenie child, did you ever steal a piece of candy or piece of gum?

GROSS: Actually, yes I have.

LITTLE: I think most of us have. OK. The jump from a piece of candy or a piece of gum to a stereo, to a car, to a sack full of money is not much of a jump. It's the same act. And regardless -- whether piece of gum, sack full of money -- it's all wrong. There's no cleanup for it.

I think that as a youth, or maybe for most kids period, if you do not have a strong moral framework or spiritual framework, if you will, there really is no differentiation between snatching that piece of candy or that piece of gum and then accelerating into maybe stealing a new pair of pants or a new -- I've heard rumors that oftentimes, teenage girls will shoplift an article of clothing or some perfume; for guys, it's other stuff. But, it's a logical progression unless there is something to change your mind.

GROSS: Would you ever have any direct encounters with the people you were stealing from?

LITTLE: Not if I could avoid it.

GROSS: I guess what I'm wondering is: did you feel like you ever had any empathy for the people whose stuff you were taking? Or, you know, how do you -- how do you turn that off? Or maybe some people never have it in the first place.

LITTLE: OK, going back to the whole code thing...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

LITTLE: ... what -- what I did was -- you see, OK, there's no cleanup for any of it. Break the law, you hurt people, you pay the price. But you know, for instance, I never snatched purses. I never broke in somebody's pad and ran off with their television set. The crimes I committed were commercial burglaries, things of that nature.

Consequently, the identification of having damaged a person did not take place until I was significantly older and became aware that we have a society. As a member of that society, if I cause damage, even if it is to a ridiculously rich chain of banks, I'm damaging the society. Consequently, I'm damaging everyone involved in it, and damaging myself and those I care about.

As a youth and as a young man, those concepts were entirely alien to me. Does that track? Do you understand what I'm saying?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. When you would, you know, rob, I don't know, a store or a bank or whatever it was you robbed, if you got a lot of money, what would you do with it? I mean, did you have legit bank accounts? Or did you have to, you know, hide the money or carry the money?

LITTLE: Money went on drugs -- drugs and fast living.

GROSS: So you -- there wasn't much to save or anything?

LITTLE: No. It was, I mean, you know, you spend 500 bucks a day and you got a nice hotel room, and you got expensive tastes, it's gone. You know, you get to the other end of the spectrum and you're all the way broke and dying and just scuffling to live, you're broke. So regardless, you're broke.

GROSS: Eddie Little's debut novel is called Another Day in Paradise. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Eddie Little. He's an ex-con and former junkie who says he's given up crime, drugs, and other self-destructive behavior. He's now a writer. He writes the Outlaw L.A. column for the L.A. Weekly and his first novel has just been published. It's a crime novel called Another Day in Paradise.

In your novel, the main character discovers book stores while he's on the road doing robberies. And he starts buying books about philosophy, including books by Sartre and Nietzsche. How did you start reading?

LITTLE: I have always been a compulsive reader. When I was -- I don't know -- 10, I really discovered reading. And it was my first major love, first big escape, if you will; the first time that my mind actually worked above and beyond looking at whatever idiocy was currently on the television set.

I started reading, and the world opened up to me. It became a lot more than what I'd ever dreamed of. And I read voraciously, right up to this day. Consequently, it's -- I, while I have no education, I have acquired a whole lot of knowledge.

GROSS: The interesting thing, for me, I think, about your having read so much is that reading is in so many ways about empathy. It's about identifying with a character who isn't you and really feeling for them, and allowing yourself to see completely through the eyes of somebody else. And yet, your work required that you not have any empathy for people because you were stealing things from them.

Just an irony I thought I'd point out.

LAUGHTER

LITTLE: It's an irony I have often contemplated. You know, it's like a contradiction in terms. It is -- and there's no easy explanation. You can -- you know, fact is there's no easy explanation and there is no excuse. My reality was I was hooked. My reality was I had to eat. My reality was I was a kid.

My reality was that if you go into -- and this still is in effect -- you go into foster homes and you go into the child welfare institutions and bureaucracy, your life is not -- you know, I mean, a miracle may happen. You may hook up with some wonderful people. But most of the time, it is an ongoing nightmare.

And for a kid that's in that situation, there are very few options. You know, if this was a utopian society, great, but the fact is, it's not. And the fact is that if you're a kid that's getting abused at home, and if you're a kid that has no rich relatives to take you in, and if you're a kid whose best option is to hit the street, you have got -- you have got few options. You were either gonna turn tricks. You're gonna steal. Or you're gonna die.

GROSS: My guest is Eddie Little. His new novel is called Another Day In Paradise. And like the character in the new novel, Eddie Little spent a lot of his life as a -- a burglar and criminal; been in and our of prison; had a drug habit. This is his first book.

In the acknowledgements to your new novel, you thank the writer Jerry Stahl (ph), and you say he is to writing what Mel -- the mentor in the new novel -- was to crime.

LITTLE: Absolutely.

GROSS: Now, Jerry Stahl used to write for TV shows ranging from "Moonlighting" to "Alf." And while he was writing for those shows, he had a heroin habit. And he wrote a terrific memoir about those years called "Permanent Midnight," which he -- he talked about, after it was published, on our show.

How did you meet him and how did he help you?

LITTLE: Me and Jerry have very similar bad habits. And oftentimes when you're involved in that particular underground, your paths cross -- the bad habit underground. And we were hanging out and getting loaded and doing this, doing that. And he checked out some of my stuff and he dug it. It was like, man, this is good. You should do something with this, brother, you can get -- you know, I think you could get a deal. I think people would like to read this.

And my response was not -- you know, I didn't go for it. Anyway, our friendship continued and eventually through Jerry I got my nerve up to actually submit this, like this first chapter actually, to this guy named Trevor Miller (ph) who runs a magazine called "Men's Perspective." And he's -- you know, he's a writer himself and so on.

And he dug it. You know, it was like -- he really, really liked it. And they published a little chunk of this in Men's Perspective, and I went on to, you know, put the book together; got the deal with Viking-Penguin. And you know, they're currently making a movie out of it. And that's -- I guess that's like the evolution of this particular book.

GROSS: We'd been talking a bit about empathy during the interview on how you can't have any if you're, you know, a professional burglar or thief. You now work for -- work with a group called We Care, which helps people who are house-bound by AIDS or, you know, by age. And this kind of work is really like an exercise in empathy. Is -- are you -- do you feel like you're using different muscles than you've ever used before, by doing this kind of work -- helping other people?

LITTLE: It's like a trick question. I have always -- how do I explain this? -- I've always, even at my worst, I would want to like help other people, be of service. There's a line in the book: I perceive myself as like a little dope fiend Robin Hood.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

LITTLE: And that's really true. That's the way I perceived myself as a kid. OK, now we're coming a lot of years later, and the whole Robin Hood concept is invalid, but like maybe in jolly old England there was like some guy who stole from the rich and gave to the poor and was really a nice guy. But I don't believe it. You know, it's -- you know, you steal, you screw people over, you get a certain karmic balance. It's bad. It is not good.

But as a kid, I didn't see life that way. I had the opportunity, and that's what it is, man, it's an opportunity. I got the opportunity now to actually help other human beings who need that help, without looking for nothing in return. And see, that is a gift. It's a gift to me.

GROSS: Do you ever go into the home of somebody who's sick or who's very old and they maybe know something about you and they think: "well, wait a minute -- I don't want this guy in my house, you know? Maybe he's not thoroughly reformed. Maybe he'll take something. Maybe -- maybe I can't trust him."

LITTLE: Hell, no. I...

LAUGHTER

GROSS: I keep getting funnier and funnier.

LITTLE: Yeah. OK. "A" -- all right -- "A" -- regardless of what my past is...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

LITTLE: ... I bust my ass whatever I'm doing. That's "A." "B," if I'm going into somebody's home and they need help, they are not going to turn down the help because I have a past that is less than perfect. And when I do something -- when people like me do something -- we -- I tend to be as effective as possible.

You know, if -- there's a multiplicity of things that I am involved in. I mean, aside from, you know, people that are sick, people that are old and so on, We Care also works with gang-bangers on a regular basis; with ex-cons on a regular basis; with junkies, active and otherwise, on a regular basis.

And if I'm dealing with a sick person, like someone that needs -- say they're just out of food -- you know, it's like I'm covered with tattoos -- I don't go in flying a tank top and looking scary. I go in wearing long sleeves and talking to them the way I'm talking to you and being pleasant as I can. And I do what is needed and I get the hell out.

You know, I don't say: "can I use your bathroom" and go through their medicine cabinet. I don't poke around their kitchen. I don't -- you know what I mean? -- I get in, I do what I'm supposed to do, I get out. See you.

If I'm talking to gang-bangers or if I'm talking to a junkie or if I'm talking to a convict or an ex-convict, the words that I say have an amount of validity that will not be obtained talking to anyone other than someone like myself, who has been through all the -- I'm doing my best not to swear -- who has been through all the ups and downs and pitfalls, ins and outs of that lifestyle.

GROSS: Eddie Little. His debut novel is called Another Day in Paradise.

Coming up, an advocacy group for part-time workers, temps, free-lancers, and the self-employed.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Eddie Little
High: Writer Eddie Little is making his debut with the semi-autobiographical novel, "Another Day in Paradise" about a 14-year-old boy who gets caught up in a world of drugs and theft. Little himself is a former heroin addict, who spent time in prison for armed robbery and grand larceny. He also helps run We Care, a Los Angeles organization that provides assistance to house bound people with AIDS and elderly shut-ins.
Spec: Crime; Youth; Drugs; Heroin; Books; Authors; Eddie Little; Another Day in Paradise
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Another Day in Paradise
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 03, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020302NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Working Today
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Many fast food workers, nannies, computer programmers, artists, writers and consultants have something in common: they don't get benefits; no health insurance; no pension.

Nearly a third of the American workforce is now temporary, part-time, freelance, or self-employed. This is a reality that the labor laws, most unions, and the tax laws have not taken into account. And although the number of independent workers is huge, it's hard for them to organize, because they not only don't work together, many of them work alone at home.

Stepping into this vacuum is an advocacy group for independent workers called "Working Today." My guest is the founder and executive director Sarah Horowitz. She comes from a union family. Her grandfather was vice president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Her husband is a labor lawyer; so was her father. In fact, so was she before founding Working Today.

I asked her what independent workers don't have that full-time employees do.

SARA HOROWITZ, ATTORNEY, FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, WORKING TODAY: Probably the biggest-picture answer to that is that we have created a system for people who are working in full-time jobs, where they're connected to an employer that provides them benefits; provides training, skill development, legal protections, and legal rates.

So what you notice about this new workforce is people are often working either without health insurance or paying huge rates -- hugely high rates for them. Their pensions really are nonexistent or else, they're, again, saving on their own. They're not protected by the basic laws that you and I really think of go with work. For instance, if you're working as a freelancer or a consultant or some kind of independent contractor, you're not covered by the major laws of this century. You could be sexually harassed and you're just not covered by the Civil Rights Act.

GROSS: What -- why aren't you covered?

HOROWITZ: Because the Civil Rights Act talks about employees, and in fact if you look at the way we've created our whole legal regulatory structure, you have to often be an employee to be covered by basic rights. You can't be unionized if you're not an employee. You just aren't protected by unemployment laws.

So for instance, the irony of this is that as people are working in more short-term ways, going from job to job and project to project, they're precisely the group that's excluded from unemployment laws.

Now, when we start putting this in positive perspective, there are a lot of people who are really enjoying this kind of work or contemplating it, either because they don't have other options or this seems like something good to do, following a dream. We really have to start thinking about: what does this workforce need?

The number one issue is going to be a portable system of benefits; that wherever you go, either as an employee or an independent contractor, you should get a certain credit for the amount of time you work that goes into a fund to pay for health insurance and pensions.

GROSS: There are a lot of tax disadvantages to being self-employed or being a freelancer. Why don't you run through what some of those tax disadvantages are.

HOROWITZ: Sure, the biggest one is this: if you are getting 1099 income, you are paying both the employee and employer portions of Social Security tax. That amounts to 15 percent of people's income. And we're not just talking about, you know, the consultant who's making, you know, $200,000 a year. We're talking about farmworkers in North Carolina who are termed independent contractors.

This is just an incredible penalty on people who are trying to work on their own, or who have to work on their own, or who are being called independent contractors. And what's really the most galling piece of it all is that if you look at the legislative history about this, the legislators basically decided that because people were working on their own, it was very hard to police the tax write-offs they were taking. They just came up with a figure that people would pay double because they were going to be cheating on their income tax, essentially.

So that for instance if you are an independent contractor, you go out to lunch, you're gonna take the receipt and you're just -- anytime you meet your friend, you're gonna do it. That, of course, is not the reality. But the fact is that, I don't think there's any kind of organized group that would allow laws to stay in effect that are based on these kind of premises. And that 15 percent is just really killing people, especially lower-income and moderate-income people.

And I think that when we think of this workforce, we have to think about all of these people who are graduating from college taking all these freelance jobs -- working, making $13-, $15,000 a year; farmworkers; people who are middle-income trying to send kids to college or paying for their houses. I think we're really -- what we really see here is we're talking about the declining middle class. And that this group is really getting hard-hit and these Social Security taxes really are a problem.

GROSS: When -- when you talk about how unfair it is that freelancers and independent contractors have to pay both halves of Social Security payments -- they have to pay the employee and the employer half, which is about 15 percent of their wages -- what are you proposing? That they only pay half and then they don't -- they only get half of their Social Security in the long run? And if not, who would pay that half that's usually paid by the employer?

HOROWITZ: Well, there are a number of things in that. Number one, I think what's happening is a lot of people don't know they're supposed to be paying, and they're not paying in. And the way Social Security works is you have to have worked for 10 years paying in in order to get.

So, one of the big problems isn't a problem of today, but it's a problem in several decades, especially if you have a new workforce that really doesn't know that they're supposed to be paying. They're supposed to be paying estimated taxes every three months. And I think this is sort of a potential time bomb down the road.

But the other issue gets to the larger point of the distinction between employee and independent contractor doesn't make sense; and that what, if you go to this portable system of benefits, what really is important is that you work a certain number of hours and you pay taxes and you get credit for benefits according to how much you work.

Right now, the distinction is all-important. If you're an employee, you pay 7.5 percent. If you're an independent contractor, you pay 15. If you start really looking at that distinction head-on, you start saying: "wait a minute, why should this workforce be paying twice as much when another work force is only paying half, when this distinction makes no sense?"

And I think when you start looking at it that way, you can start looking at the different players and seeing whose paying what and what would be fair. I think that's really the issue.

GROSS: So you clearly see what the problem is, but you're not sure what the solution is yet.

HOROWITZ: I wouldn't say that. I think that there are probably many solutions. There's a -- it's a road toward solutions. And I think one of the clear things would be finding out who's paying, how it's working out, where the caps are on Social Security. There's a lot of room to maneuver. But the most important thing in that is to look at the tax fairness for this group and to make sure that what system we look at will ensure that Social Security, as a system, will survive.

Social Security is a really fair system. You work. You pay into it. You get something out at the end. It's incredibly efficient. It is one of the best-run programs that are around. And more importantly, it's portable.

It is perfectly suited to this new economy because wherever you work, you get a FICA payment that gets credited and is kept track of. It really works. And I think we need to start looking at Social Security in a new way. And I think that it's a model for portability.

GROSS: My guest is Sarah Horowitz, founder of Working Today. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Sarah Horowitz, and she's founder and executive director of Working Today, which is a group that represents the interests of independent contractors, the self-employed, freelancers, consultants, temps, part-timers, and other people who work on their own.

Trade unions have been organized according to the trades. So you have the autoworkers union, health workers union. Your organization, Working Today, is organized on the principle that these people are freelancers or independent contractors. They might be renovating homes. They might be plumbers. They might be writers. They might be computer software designers. It doesn't matter what kind of work they do, you're interested in having them join as long as they are independent contractors or freelancers.

Do you think that that is enough to hold this disparate group of workers together?

HOROWITZ: Well, what's really interesting is that while we've seen the decline of unions, the growth of associations has just skyrocketed. People are organized into all sorts of professional and other kinds of associations like writers associations, telecommunications consultants, computer game developers, tax accountants -- that it just really ranges.

And what Working Today is saying is that people bring themselves together in ways that make sense for them. And obviously these associations are doing something. The problem is they are isolated in their particular field, and there's been no way to bring them together as a constituency on the issues that they have in common.

So for instance, these groups -- their members are paying two portions of Social Security. They're paying too much for health insurance and they're not covered by labor laws. They can't get unemployment. But as each association, they can do very little about it. But what we're doing is joining these associations together into this network so that you identify by what your field or your trade or your craft is, and you stick with the group that's working well for you, but that we can start talking about these general issues together.

And there is a constituency about being a freelancer or a consultant, but it has to be coupled with these groups so that you -- one can talk about a particular field. And that's why -- that's why our structure is geared that way. But also, individuals can join Working Today for $10 a year. An individual can join and just have a relationship to Working Today. There's a lot of flexibility built into our structure.

GROSS: A lot of the people who are now independent contractors or freelancers got to be that way because they were downsized out of a job or, you know, because their corporation wanted to stop paying benefits to some people and redefine them as freelancers or independent contractors. So it wasn't always voluntary, you know -- for voluntary reasons that people got into this new type of labor force.

Employers are demanding more flexibility, so what do you think workers need to demand in response to that?

HOROWITZ: I think that the point to be made is that this isn't all a workforce of people who are happy to be in it; that one of the reasons why there are so many more people who are working this way is because the traditional corporate route isn't -- isn't there for them. They've either been downsized or the jobs that are offered tend to be these short-term jobs without benefits.

I think the important question is: are employers all doing this because -- because they're greedy and they're evil and they're just taking advantage of a situation? And the answer is for some, yes.

But for many, it's a lot about a transformation, and that because we are creating a workforce that has no constituency voice, very little leverage, you start seeing that employers are paying attention to the bottom line. And we have very difficult -- we are having a very difficult time saying: "wait a minute, if I'm going to work here, this job better provide me with X number of hours that go into my portable system of benefits."

Or -- and I can think you can really see that this is happening by looking at how tight our labor market is. Our unemployment rates are -- are low. And I think we can also start saying to employers: "if you want flexibility, flexibility has to be a two-way street here. Flexibility is going to mean that if you want me on a six-month assignment, we have to come up with a way that I'm going to get six months worth of benefits" -- that you could actually use this mobility with structures in place that make sense.

And I think that's what's important.

GROSS: You're saying that it just no longer makes sense to have pensions and health insurance tied to your employer, because people change jobs so much; people go through long periods of unemployment; and so many people are freelancers and they don't have an employer per se.

So, where are you looking to for models of alternatives?

HOROWITZ: The -- the first example is mutual -- mutual aid societies from the last century, where people got together through guilds or crafts and they provided those kinds of benefits. People stayed with their craft or guild organization or their union. And when they went around from job to job, they made sure that their benefits were still connected to the organization, not the employer.

GROSS: Sarah Horowitz, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

HOROWITZ: Well, thank you so much.

GROSS: Sarah Horowitz is the founder and executive director of Working Today, which is headquartered in New York.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Sara Horowitz
High: Lawyer Sara Horowitz is the executive director of Working Today, an membership organization group for independent workers. Its roster includes independent contractors, the self-employed, freelancers, and part-timers. The group provides services -- like health insurance group rates, education, and advocacy.
Spec: Business; Economy; Temporaries; Working Today; Self-Employment
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Working Today
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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