Talking About Money Book Club: Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America by Alissa Quart
Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America paints a detailed portrait of the hopes and struggles of the American middle class, and provides recommendations on how we can begin to formulate policy and personal solutions to American families’ woes.
“It’s not your fault.”
This way my key takeaway from Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America by Alissa Quart, which I read upon recommendation from one of my esteemed colleagues (thanks, Matt!). And while “don’t blame yourself” is a clear message that I will be sending to my students from here on out, this was a message that I also had to absorb for myself. As a self-employed mom of two and wife to an architect living in an outrageously expensive coastal city, I have spent many a day second-guessing the financial choices that I have made:
Should I have gone back to full-time paid employment after the kids were born, with its predictable paycheck and paid time off?
Should we have chosen a cheaper city in which to live and raise our kids, one where my current lifestyle is more affordable and where I could breathe more freely and not fret about whether or not we could afford to take a vacation this year?
Should I have not purchased a car with a third-row, the one that makes it easier to cart around a bunch of kids and makes me feel like a more useful member of my community of parents?
I think that I can say with some certainty that all of us blame ourselves if we are not happy with our current financial circumstances. We tell ourselves that we must have made a wrong choice, or didn’t take enough time to consider all of the options, or were downright lazy. After all, our society makes it easy to be judgy. A few years back when visiting with my cousin, he remarked to me, “At least when I was growing up I knew to be embarrassed to be on welfare. People nowadays aren’t even embarrassed, they game the system and they don’t even hide it.”
That comment stuck with me, because I don’t agree with it. I think that people are embarrassed, and do blame themselves, even while trying to carry on as if everything is fine. Everything is decidedly NOT fine with how American families have to manage their financial lives in the post-Recession world.
Detailed reporting makes it clear that there is little security in today’s middle class lifestyle
Alissa Quart is the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit with Barbara Ehrenreich. She weaves her own story of her professional life and parenthood into a thoroughly researched book that features dozens of stories about middle class households across the country trying to make ends meet while raising their families.
Alissa starts out by informing us that the American middle class comprises about half of all U.S. households and ranges in annual income from $42,000 to $125,000. These are young families who are not doing better than their parents’ generation, counter to the common assumptions that the next generation should do better than the last. And this factoid blew me away: Alissa reports that middle-class life is a whopping 30% more expensive than it was 20 years ago. Geeze.
But while the previous generation (and I am looking at my parents here too) benefited from the invisible scaffolding of stable jobs with benefits and pensions, those features of middle-class lifestyle have been stripped away without us noticing beginning in 1980 (and if you are curious about the origin story of the American middle class, you can read about it in my blog post here).
Alissa examines various areas where workers intersect with the economy, from pregnancy discrimination (which resonated with me, and is probably a contributing factor on why I chose self-employment post-kids), to adjunct professors, to 24-hour day-cares, to immigrant nannies, to teacher Uber drivers, to second-act job seekers, to co-parenting. She paints vivid pictures of the economic circumstances that her subjects are living through, inspiring compassion on the part of the reader (I hope).
Policy and personal recommendations to better support middle class families
Alissa closes her book with a number of policy recommendations that could better support American families, such as:
A universal child allowance that is paid to all families with kids
High-quality, accessible and affordable day-care and universal pre-K classrooms
Universal Basic Income for everyone
Corporations that effectively address their employees’ day-care needs through innovations like on-site child care
Alissa finishes with what we as individuals can do to combat this ongoing crisis of American middle class families:
Stop placing blame, on either ourselves for our own failings, or on other families for taking resources that are meant for us
Reframe what it means to be a caregiver and support those who choose caregiving professions through buying from worker-owned cooperatives and supporting unions
Continue to push the boundaries of traditional gender roles in our families, so that males contribute a more equitable amount of their time and labor to household tasks
Start to talk openly about social class within families in a way that brings those uncomfortable feelings to the forefront, and to work on diminishing the self-blame and other-blame that we participate in when we are feeling frustrated with our financial circumstances (and I must say, as the author of this blog I was thrilled to see this as Alissa’s final recommendation)
Please read Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America by Alissa Quart whether or not you deal with personal finance in your day job, and whether or not you have a family. This book provides an important in-depth examination of the lived experience of so many middle class people here in the United States. It will make you feel both sobered at what is going on and hopeful for what can done, and what social policies we can get behind to better support families.