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  • Changing our cultural narratives requires a rethinking of how we define “success” and “meaning” that is both more radical and less revolutionary than what Quart proposes. Tweet This
  • In her presumption that a traditional slate of progressive economic policies would be enough to alleviate the concerns she captures, Quart reveals a more basic challenge facing American families. Tweet This

Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America is a book squarely in the tradition of Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic, Nickel and Dimed, examining how larger economic trends manifest themselves in American families. This shouldn’t be surprising – Squeezed author Alissa Quart is executive editor of Ehrenreich’s Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which funds journalistic examinations into economic insecurity and inequality.

But while Ehrenreich criticized the impact of welfare reform on the lives of the working poor, Quart studies what she calls the “middle precariat”—the “just-making-it” families of America’s middle class. Embedded with a public school teacher moonlighting as an Uber driver, an adjunct professor whose child has special needs, the operator of a 24-hour daycare, and others struggling to keep it together in America’s middle class, Quart worries that rising inequality has made it impossible for these families to achieve the same basic standard of living previous generations took for granted.

Or, as CBS News summarized the book, “Want a middle-class life? Prepare to pay up.”

This sort of book is often criticized for being unrepresentative. And it is—Quart is most comfortable drawing from the plight of upwardly striving workers in a knowledge-based economy, such as former journalists, who fill the pages of Squeezed to a degree that should suggest some caution in extrapolation.

And, of course, the basic narrative framework isn’t backed up by larger economic trends. America’s middle class is indeed shrinking—but because more Americans are moving up into the upper-middle or upper classes than are falling out of it. Over the past half-century, as the percentage of Americans making $35,000-$100,000 (in inflation-adjusted dollars) has shrunk, the number of American households making more than $100,000 has more than tripled.

But these conventional critiques skip past an element of Quart’s analysis that is accurate but exaggerated. Many families do have an increasingly hard time making ends meet, and Quart compassionately and skillfully sketches them throughout the book. But in her presumption that a traditional slate of progressive economic policies would be enough to alleviate the concerns she captures, she reveals a more basic challenge facing American families.

The basic bargain used to go like this, Quart says. In exchange for achieving a solid and respectable profession, like teacher, lawyer, or yes, journalist, your family could have access to the comfortable standards of American life—the house, the car, the dog, the 2.5 kids.

Now, as the stability of these middle-class careers is eroded by automation, increased competition, and a systematic bias against caring for families, Quart repeatedly feels the need to stress “it’s not your fault” to the families she speaks with. “Stop placing blame,” she writes. “Parents either blame themselves or blame others for their problems. We need to change both of these reactions.”

What to blame instead? Quart echoes Bernie Sanders—“the system is rigged.” At the same time that the vagaries of our post-industrial economy leave formerly-solid professions economically vulnerable, we are being seduced by the consumption habits of the “top one percent” we envy and borrow to keep up with. She writes, “The middle class is endangered on all sides, and the promised rewards of belonging to it have all but evaporated.” We are constantly told to want more but can rely on less from work, society, and government. The fault, Quart argues, is not in ourselves, but in our stars.

It’s no secret that the cost of child care and college tuition are increasingly eye-popping, and the design of America’s social safety net penalizes families by subsidizing seniors. Middle-class families would undoubtedly benefit from more stability and money in their pocket, perhaps via the Canada-style family allowance she explores.

But in her focus and solutions she wears the myopic blinders of a rarified geography, class, and sociopolitical persuasion—she writes, for example, about her and her husband’s decision to choose to have one child for financial reasons, and to stay in New York City, despite the high cost of living, rather than move to a more affordable city. Elsewhere, she gravely intones that we “must reconsider the long and deeply held belief that a graduate degree in a stable and ostensibly sensible field is the path to personal betterment.” I’m not convinced this comes as news to many outside the Acela Corridor.

When calling for “high-quality, across-the-board, way-better-subsidized day care,” is Quart speaking for the 56% of mothers who tell Gallup that they would “ideally like to stay home and care for their family”? When she decries the conspicuous consumption that causes middle-class Americans to live beyond their means because of the ultra-wealthy “flaunting their luxurious homes,” is this a problem of public policy or a knottier one that runs in every human heart?

Taken to its conclusion, Quart’s insistence that a vast impersonal “system” is to blame for the economic struggles facing the families she talks to easily leads to an overwhelmed passivity. Without a dramatic re-envisioning of social insurance and the welfare state, how can we ever hope to ease the psychic stress on the “Middle Precariat,” or give families more options to achieve the stability they are looking for?

Two vignettes in Quart’s book suggest a humbler—and more encouraging—way forward. A single mother raising a child with a developmental disability had been struggling for over a decade as an adjunct professor before enrolling in a speech pathology program, which offers a more stable career path. In a later chapter, Quart interviews parents who have pursued “co-parenting” as a way to pool resources and responsibilities, a kind of self-selected extended family to help balance the pressures of economic life.

These decisions are being made inside our current system, without the need for a revolution. The myth of complete self-sufficiency, which, as Quart notes, is “exhausting and often unsustainable,” is driven just as much—if not more—by cultural factors around consumption and careerism as by tax breaks for the wealthy and a lack of universal pre-K. Blaming a “system” rather than encouraging individuals to critically think about the benefits and trade-offs it provides is an easier path but a less rewarding one.

Changing our cultural narratives requires a rethinking of how we define “success” and “meaning” that is both more radical and less revolutionary than what Quart proposes. Every family is going to answer these questions in a different way, so empowering them to make the choice that’s right for them—in child care, education, or career and family —is an agenda that has more potential to relieve the “squeeze” Quart so passionately documents.

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites ) is a Master’s of Public Affairs candidate at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.