Americans at all income levels are one crisis away from financial peril, according to a new book by author Alissa Quart.
She says millions of Americans who are in the middle class feel like they’re on shaky economic ground. “A whole range of different people” from adjunct professors to lawyers who work gig to gig are stuck in what Quart calls the “Middle Precariat.”
“It’s precarious,” she says. “They’re living on the edge of not knowing what’s going to happen next year.”
On why middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than 20 years ago
“Well, I think the big thing that we have to talk about here is taxes, which are relentless for the middle-class population. Right now, you’re being dinged under so-called tax reform for being self-employed. So one of the things is taxes. Another is income inequality itself. We have in America the largest wealth inequality gap of 200 countries, according to a global wealth report in 2015. That’s the largest wealth inequality gap. And when the top 1 percent has so much more than even the top 10 percent, the middle class is financially and also mentally outclassed at every step. So I mean, I talked to someone who was making very low six figures, and you think, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a wealthy person.’ … But he commuted hours each day. His wife was taking care of their three children, and they were trying to keep up in this incredibly expensive part of the country, you know, Silicon Valley.
“It’s hard to feel sorry [for people in that position], and I wanted to give a continuum. So I wanted to show people in the lower middle class who were kind of striving and not quite getting into the middle class. And also people who we would say, ‘Oh, they’re fine. They’re doing fine. What are they moaning about? They’re kvetching, you know?’ But I wanted to show that there is a kind of suffering for them, too.”
On the stigma around caregiving professions in the U.S.
“I think there’s a contempt for care work and caregiving in this country that seeps into how we think about mothers, professional workers who are mothers. A survey showed that people will offer $11,000 less to a mother than to a childless woman and obviously, much more to a man. And I think it’s part of our discomfort with vulnerability and need, and people whose work has a kind of an emotional element.”
On finding solutions to these economic problems
“Things like universal pre-K, which has been flourishing in New York City, would be great across the board across this country. And they are starting 3-K for 3-year-olds. One of the architects of it was telling me how parents who enroll their kids in universal pre-K felt psychological well-being having their kids there for the day. It wasn’t just financial [well-being]. It was in a public school setting, not in an informal daycare, for instance. And then things like improved maternity leave and pregnancy leave. But you know, whenever I say these things, there’s always a naysayer who will say, ‘How is this possible?’ And I say, ‘Look at #MeToo. Look at gay marriage. Gosh, look at Trump being voted in.’ For me, this is not a good thing, but these are all huge shifts in this country that seemed to happen almost overnight, but there’s been a real uprising around them that leads to them happening. So I feel like who knows? We could decide in the next few years we’re just going to adopt a different level of maternity leave.
“Universal basic income is a set amount of money that would be given to each citizen, and it’s being piloted in places like Stockton, California, and Ontario, [Canada]. And it’s like $12,000 per person or $20,000 per family roughly. Richard Nixon argued for it in 1969, and in the 1970s, it was referred to as ‘income maintenance’ where citizens in certain cities like Gary, Indiana, and Seattle, Washington, were given a certain amount. Alaska has paid residents — given something resembling [universal basic income] — a thousand to $1,500 each. I mean that seems a little low, but it’s not unprecedented. It’s not entirely pie in the sky, and I was just thinking what that would have done for someone like some of these adjuncts I have spoken to.
“So these are some of the solutions in my book. I mean, I have others that are more personal. You know, I hate to tell people to tend their own gardens, but let’s say we are thrown back on ourselves. What can we do? Well, we can organize as people are doing around adjuncts right now, for instance, adjunct professors. There’s a group called something like tenure for the social good that’s trying to raise awareness and money for adjunct labor. Why are they making $3,000 a class? Why is this the majority of professors in universities? And then there’s other kinds of white-collar organizing. I include my own nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. We’re giving support to journalists including low-income journalists. We raised money for newspapers after [there was] union busting and other kinds of malicious firings, and we created funds for laid-off journalists, and we’re planning to create more. So there are things like that that give me hope, and then finally, we can vote for people with family friendly policies. Locally, it’s also extremely important. That’s where a lot of these, say universal pre-K, would be local, municipal decisions.”
by Alissa Quart
Michelle Belmont’s debt haunted her. It was almost unspeakable, but it was a raw relief when anyone asked her about it. She wanted people to hear about her life as she lived it, how her debt trailed her like a child’s monster, how it was there when she went to the supermarket, to her son’s day care, and home to her one-bedroom apartment.
It began as it often does, with the student loans for the college her parents back home in Georgia thought would ensure the right future. Then there was the money she borrowed for her master’s of library science degree. A bit later, when baby Eamon came along, she and her husband owed over $20,000 in hospital bills as well. What was shocking were the price tags, just for normal things, like Michelle’s labor and her overnight stay. She had required a few days extra at the hospital: Eamon had been born weighing ten pounds, thirteen ounces, and she had pushed that hefty creature for five hours.
“I thought that insurance helps you get by,” Michelle told me. “But my husband had a really cheap insurance, and you get what you pay for.”
Then the debt shadow monster just grew. Eamon developed a fever of 103 degrees and had to go back to the hospital. There were two years of surgeries. The bills piled up on the kitchen table. Michelle tried to pay them off, for fear of getting refused treatment later, but then she stopped opening the envelopes. They were different colors. They demanded payment now or legal action, in screaming capital letters. She saw herself on trial, in court, explaining why she had nothing in her account. Her debt was six figures and growing.
The couple had struggled before they had their baby, Michelle said, but then “it got astronomically insane after Eamon was born. We always had money for food before, but now it’s, ‘How are we going to eat?’ I’ll borrow from one credit card bill to pay that other credit card bill. I can’t find rent money each paycheck, and we make a decent salary between us.”
Michelle Belmont was fighting to stay middle-class. She hoped to train herself into a career of certitude—to become a technological librarian, to set up her future. But the costs were beyond what she ever imagined, and she grew more vulnerable. Meanwhile, the squeeze tightened. The Belmonts lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis that she and her husband paid $1,300 per month to rent. Minneapolis, with its supposed hipster status and so-called Midwest Modern food and furniture and textiles, was only getting more expensive for Michelle. When I first spoke to her, it seemed unlikely that the Belmonts would ever be free of debt.
“That requires nothing bad to happen,” Michelle said, almost laughing.
But bad things do happen.
When I first spoke to Michelle, her concerns were not abstract to me. Back then, I had recently given birth to my daughter. And it wasn’t until I had my own child that I quickly realized that I too had entered the falling middle-class vortex. My girl was born face-first—sunny-side up, as they say—her unblinking stare promising new joy and terror. Her cries soon became the soundtrack of the anti-romantic comedy of our lives. My husband and I wound up with an unexpected $1,500 bill after her birth that we hustled to pay; most Americans owe even more, an average of around $5,000. Although we managed to avoid the financial perils that many of the people you will meet in this book experienced—partly because of the wonder of having a New York City rent-stabilized apartment—we did go through a few years of fiscal vertigo. We had been freelance writers for most of our careers, but by the time my daughter arrived this was no longer a stable line of work for the majority of its practitioners, including us. And now we had day-care costs and hospital bills. We started to search for jobs with regular pay, regular hours, and health insurance.
My husband was already fifty, and it turned out that our years of relative liberty—of “doing what we loved”—had finally exacted a price. When our daughter was four months old, it got even worse. We first hired a nearly full-time sitter and most of my own take-home earnings as an editor went directly to her. Eventually, my earnings also flowed to my daughter’s cheerfully boho day care (even though, paradoxically, all the caregivers were most likely themselves just scraping by, despite their loving and primary-color-bright attentions). Again, given the larger field of suffering, our family’s worries were relatively low-key. But still we yearned for more of a social mesh to keep us afloat. At the time, we felt like startled nocturnal animals. Subsidized day care had done so much for us. And how much would it have done for people who did not have as many choices as we did?
Eventually, my husband found a full-time editorial job, and so did I. Perhaps not so coincidentally, mine was as director and editor of a journalism nonprofit devoted to supporting reporting on inequality by a good number of reporters who had themselves fallen on truly hard times. I continue to spend my days editing these narratives.
Through these full-time positions, our family was saved from tumbling out of our class position—at least for now. But even after we found ourselves in momentary safety, I couldn’t shake the self-blame. Despite our encroaching middle age, we had not planned ahead, I thought. I felt juvenile, but also suspected that the game was rigged—that unlike me, the very wealthy who now filled the city of my birth and worked in finance didn’t lacerate themselves for small missteps.
This personal experience was partly how I arrived at what was to become the mantra of this book: It’s not your fault. It seems key to me—to recognize that feeling in the red or on the edge isn’t all your personal problem. And while some psychological analysis or boosts may help, the problem of not being able to afford to live in America can’t be cured by self-help mantras. It can’t be mended simply by creating a résumé that utilizes several colors of printer ink or a regimen of cleansing green juices. The problem is systemic.
Excerpt from SQUEEZED: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America by Alissa Quart. Copyright 2018 by Alissa Quart. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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