The Middle Class is Too Broke to Afford the American Dream

The author of ‘Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America,’ on the economic realities of the everyday American

Alissa Quart’s new book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, puts plain the economic predicament of the middle class in eloquent and heart-wrenching vividness. It is rare that a book hits home for me in such real and practical ways like Squeezed. As a working mother who grew up poor, my understanding of what it meant to be middle class included owning your own home and being able to pay for certain luxuries such as beach vacations, and maybe even, private school for my kids. I’ve realized, however, that despite our tax bracket, we are hardly ever able to afford those vacations, private school is a dream that will never be realized, and in this economy, renting is our only option.

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In fact, on the day I conducted my interview with Quart, my own life could’ve been an example of one of the many people highlighted in Squeezed. There I was, a 38-year-old non-practicing attorney (and the debt to show for it) working at her part-time gig as a freelance writer while my five-year-olds were being babysat by a television because a nanny was not in the budget. Toward the end of our conversation, my son burst in on me and made it known that if I thought I was going to get any more work done that day, it was not going to happen. Quart has touched a nerve with Squeezed that will resonate with almost every person I know.

Alissa Quart is the author of four non-fiction books and works as the Executive Editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP), a non-profit devoted to commissioning, editing and placing reportage about inequality. She is a 2018 Columbia Journalism School Alumna of the year, a Nieman fellow, an Emmy-nominated video writer and producer, and professor and poet.

I spoke with Quart over the phone about what defines the middle class, why caregivers are devalued in our society, and how parents can better equip their children for the economic realities of what it really means to be middle class in America.

Tyrese L. Coleman: I feel like I fit into all the categories discussed in your book. Maybe not so much the chapters on nannies and immigration, but I can relate to everything. Have you come across that a lot?

Alissa Quart: I’ve gotten 80 or so emails from people. Some are from people I know who are, kind of, “coming out” as struggling economically. There are other journalists who are like, “I don’t understand how my friends are able to pay for daycare.” You know, these kinds of mysterious things, “how is Blank Blank able to pay for so much daycare?” People will be like, “I went to business school and my wife is in IT and we can’t afford to have kids, thank you for writing about our experience.” And then a lot of people who were firefighters, adjunct professors, journalists and municipal workers write to me saying, “My husband has cancer and our insurance wouldn’t cover it, and our marriage is totally strained,” things that I don’t even get into as much in the book as I could’ve, which is people feeling depressed and isolated in their relationships. And the reporters who interview me, sometimes they’ll be like, “This really helped me. I’ve been thinking that I’m stigmatized and ashamed and my husband felt ashamed when he couldn’t get a second job on top of his first job and I gave him the book.” Those moments really make this whole process meaningful for me.

As a reporter and writer, there’s always this moment when you’re out of the proverbial cave of a big project and you are blinking in the light. That happened with this book as well. And when I started meeting the book’s audience, I realized that people’s experiences were even worse than I presented them in the book. For instance, I gave a reading in Cambridge and an adjunct professor stood up and said “Oh, I’ve sold my plasma lots of times.” I hadn’t even gone there in the book.

The organization I run, Economic Hardship Reporting Project, has covered the issue, though. With Barbara Ehrenreich, I funded and edited a story by the essayist, Darryl Wellington, who wrote an account of selling his plasma so much that he practically fainted — he did that to survive. I mentioned that in the conversation at the Harvard bookstore as an extreme instance of the squeezed middle class experience and then an adjunct got up and said it’s been his experience as well.

TLC: Most people do not want to talk about money concerns or how much money they make. How did you get people to open up about these topics and discuss the shame of not being able to live up to what it means to be middle class?

AQ: My line of work in running EHRP has put me in touch with people who are comfortable writing about this experience. That made it slightly easier. The fact that I was editing folks in squeezed milieu meant that I was in touch with nonprofits that do poverty alleviation and perhaps lent me more credibility with sources. I also worked really hard to find people who were open, and a bunch of people wanted to be anonymous. I never liked that because I feel like if you’re trying to get your reader to stop feeling ashamed, you don’t want your subject to show the reader that they are [ashamed]. Forget about standard journalistic principles, which would entail me wanting to name everybody. You also don’t want the shame of your sources to be literally coming off the page.

A lot of the way I located sources was through unions or advocacy groups: the Fight for $15 campaign, job counselors, second act types who are coaching people to get them into new careers. Because it’s gotten so bad for lawyers and journalists and academics, now there are all these groups that seek to help people who on paper should be privileged but are actually sometimes hungry and on food stamps. There are literally suicide call lines for lawyers and other specialized organizations for them like Leave Law Behind, and I found subjects through these sorts of for-profit and non-profit groups. I also went to “What’s Your Plan B?” which is a Facebook group with something like 10,000 out-of-work journalist members.

While desperation is still signaled by an empty shopping cart in this country, that’s not an accurate image when you come across the people in my book. It’s bigger things — housing, schooling, daycare, health care.

TLC: Your poetry book, Monetized, discusses this topic as well. Is there a nexus between that book and this one?

AQ: I am very interested in the place where people’s consciousness hits American capitalism. It started with my first book Branded, about how adolescents were dealing with the lust for Air Jordans and Backstreet Boys and the stuff in Delia catalogues that companies created. The objects of the teens’ desire may seem dated now, but the feelings around stuff — teens coveting stuff — is even more intense now. They would say things like “I am Pepsi. I am Coke.” There was such identification with brands and it’s only gotten more extreme in the social media age where they are their own brands.

I also read a lot in that area, not straight economics. It’s more like cultural studies and anthropology. I read books like No Shame in My Game or Evicted or Privilege, about that experience where consciousness hits this incredibly punishing and contemptuous marketplace that is unfair to many Americans. I wanted to capture the feelings around that, not just the numbers. When I wrote Monetized, it was over a 15 year period. I can’t afford to be a poet — we can all barely afford to be journalists! — so I was like, “Ok, I’m going to do this on the side, in the marginalia.” I would literally do poetry versions of the pieces I was reporting, or it would be almost on the side around the margins, like a metatext. That’s what I think that poetry book is and the one I am working on now, it’s the emotional lyrical response to the material I was encountering in my regular life as a journalist.

TLC: What to you does middle class mean these days?

AQ: Numerically, it means $42,000 to $125,000 a year in earnings for a family. That varies from place to place. For example, $117,000 now qualifies a family as lower-income in the San Francisco area. That’s why there’s a chapter about couples who earn say, $100,000 — $125,000, living in expensive areas, because I wanted to show that the middle class squeeze can affect people with higher incomes than we think. Then, on the other hand, my book includes people who, on paper, should be middle class, but they’re school teachers and they’re making $32,000, or the academics that are making $25,000.

I also think of “middle class” as a state-of-mind as well. It’s a way of seeing yourself as comfortable and secure. Somewhat aspirational, but not excessively so.

What I also notice about middle class jobs — ones that women work in particular — is that many of them have some element of caring for others which isn’t the case if you manage a hedge fund! But if you’re a teacher, a nurse, even an accountant, you’re tending to people’s needs in our society.

I didn’t focus on the people who were hardest hit but I focused on the people whose lot changed very dramatically instead.

TLC: I noticed that as well, the care-giving thread. It also seems to come down to whether you decide to have children as almost a deciding a factor as to whether you fit into these categories.

AQ: Yeah, it does. Barbara Ehrenreich, who started EHRP, said at an event we did at Politics and Prose, a bookstore in Washington D.C: “Why on earth would anyone have children after they reading your book?” And I thought, “Yeah that’s kind of thing.”

After all, having kids is really the difference. The cost of college and daycare are the some of the most expensive things right now for consumers, in this country. Daycare is eating up to 38% of people’s salaries in New York State. It can go anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 per child. And it doesn’t have to be fancy to cost this much. We are talking about just any daycare. And if you have children in America, chances are you’re saving for your kids’ college and you probably also are in debt yourself. Some private college tuition has quadrupled since 1996 and public college cost has doubled. While desperation is still signaled by an empty shopping cart in this country, that’s not an accurate image when you come across the people in my book. It’s bigger things — housing, schooling, daycare, health care.

TLC: Did you see or feel any push back in the decision to focus on middle class? There’s always going to be the argument that there are people who are suffering more.

AQ: I wanted this book to challenge some assumptions. A lot has been written about the poorest people in this country. I wanted to show something related but different — just how an entire class of people, the middle class, has changed in meaning, stability and status, starting decades ago but ramping up recently. I felt a focus on the middle class was a way show something about our society generally, how it has devalued humans and care and many professions, that readers might find particularly identifiable. So yes, I didn’t focus on the people who were hardest hit but I focused on the people whose lot changed very dramatically instead.

TLC: One of the stories that I found striking was about one of your characters who I felt was required to stay below the poverty line. When my children were born prematurely, I was encouraged to quit my job in order to receive certain government benefits. I could relate to this woman.

AQ: I don’t think at that point that she could have made more money. There’s another story in the book about a labor organizer named Carly Fox who made just a little too much to get subsidized daycare. I think at some point she might have even asked to have her salary reduced by a few thousands dollars so she’d be daycare eligible. That’s part of the challenge for many of the people in this book. They aren’t the working poor or the unemployed poor and they’re making a little too much to have access to programs, to have access to affordable housing, or to have access to subsidized daycare or school lunch or food stamps. But they still could really use these forms of help to survive.

Having open conversations with our kids, our colleagues, and friends about social class and money, would ultimately create more solidarity among us, so we can try to create better small worlds among ourselves and a better future overall.

TLC: One person in the book said, “My dreams did this to me.” Do we need to change our American dream of upward mobility? What should that dream look like now knowing what the middle class is going through?

AQ: I think we obviously need more support. Teachers need affordable housing. We need to have more programs: Medicare for all, better maternity leave, universal pre-K. These fundamental things would make this transition easier.

But it doesn’t entirely describe what’s happened — this sort of “do what you love” identity that many of us had as journalists, writers, lawyers even, that we could still be middle class and do what we love. To do what we love now may just be too difficult, and we may have to offer different lessons to our kids about what they should aspire to do. That is challenging to me as a parent. Do I really want to tell my daughter she shouldn’t be an artist? “You should be a coder.” Should I say that? These and not the things my parents ever said to me. To them, being a professor was one of the highest things you could be. But I would not encourage my daughter towards that now. I think we do have to probably change our dream.

Of course, all that said, one of the things we need to look at with these “Make America Great Again” voters is that who was it great for? And my book isn’t saying the past was Edenic either. Sure the middle class was more stable and humdrum, but it was arguably more sexist, racist. Many were left out of that equation of the GI Bill or affordable college or home ownership or middle class professional success due to American racism or sexism. We really do not want to go back to 1960.

Yet there were elements of the past in America, like social welfare and social security, things that were created by the Great Society, that we should want to retain, and that we are losing or have lost. That recognition that people need that kind of support. There are also the things that almost happened in American history, that we need to happen in the future, for example in 1971, Nixon almost passed a childcare act that would’ve given many of us greater access to subsidized daycare. That was nixed by Nixon. And there are things during that period that almost happened that now aren’t even being considered.

One of the things we need to look at with these “Make America Great Again” voters is that who was it great for? Sure the middle class was more stable and humdrum, but many were left out of that equation of the GI Bill or affordable college or home ownership or middle class professional success due to American racism or sexism. We really do not want to go back to 1960.

TLC: What can we so that we don’t have to sacrifice our dreams or tell our children they cannot be artists? How do parents cope during a movement that devalues caregivers?

AQ: We can reframe. We need to think differently about care. And I try to own that process myself. I write about my own prejudices against motherhood. I thought pregnancy and mothering might make me weaker, that it would make me less productive. But there’s been both social science and scientific studies that show mothers are in fact more productive and that’s been my personal experience, that caring for a little person has made me a better reporter. I call it at the end of my book, the “motherhood advantage.” I think we could remind ourselves of this advantage and think about how care can easily coincide with productive labor. We should argue for expanded on-site daycare. Only 17% of fortune-500 companies offer onsite daycare despite the fact that childcare costs rose for the 5th straight year in 2017. We can vote differently. Internally, the things like having open conversations with our kids, our colleagues, and friends about social class and money, would ultimately create more solidarity among us, so we can try to create better small worlds among ourselves and a better future overall.

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