The rising number of homeless individuals and families in Seattle is impossible to miss. Tents on the sidewalks and in greenbelts are a reminder that a lot of local folks can’t afford to live here — really live here — anymore. But inside homes from Northgate to Normandy Park, folks are feeling the pressure, too.
Unless you’re exceptionally wealthy — on the Bezos, Gates, Schultz level — you are likely feeling the pinch of rising costs of education, health care, housing and, frankly, living.
You’re not alone. In her new book, “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America,” author and longtime journalist Alissa Quart details how those caught up in the search for middle class life are now facing a middle class death by a thousand cuts.
“Squeezed” goes above and beyond just complaining about the cost of stuff. From 24-hour day care that caters to single moms with two jobs to the despair of those working so-called “good” jobs (such as lawyers and adjunct professors), this book is a kind of oral history of how every perceived opportunity in the American workforce has resulted in new, unforeseen challenges.
Quart, who has worked with proletariat hero Barbara Ehrenreich at the Economic Hardship Reporting Project for years, is no stranger to examining the financial forces that push and pull. She’s also a mother and someone who has made a living working in media in New York City. The book reflects this; it’s equal parts reporting and relating.
“Despite our encroaching middle age, we had not planned ahead, I thought. I felt juvenile, but also suspected that the game was rigged."
“I couldn’t shake the self-blame,” Quart states, telling the story of her own financial difficulty. “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.”
The story is familiar to anyone who felt like they followed the prescribed path — go to college, get a white-collar job, buy a house? Maybe? — only to find themselves at the end of the instruction booklet without a penny in their pocket or a place to stay. They weren’t lazy or expecting anything for free. They worked hard and it just didn’t pay off.
As Quart says in the opening pages, “the mantra of this book” is that “it’s not your fault.”
Quart does a deft job of detailing both the reality of the situation and the systemic undertones that have gotten us here. Decades of sexism and racism have led to the dramatic underpayment (and undervaluing) of teachers, home health care workers and nurses. The assumption that nonprofit employees and journalists do it because they love it have all but ensured that only people with family money can take on these jobs. And, of course, there’s college debt, which has ballooned in the past two decades while the pay for college graduates hasn’t come close to catching up.
Every generation since the baby boom is doing worse than their parents and wealth has become more and more striated.
Every generation since the baby boom is doing worse than their parents and wealth has become more and more striated. As a result, there’s a new class of almost-poor who are just trying to get by and figure out where, if anywhere, they went wrong.
“According to a 2016 study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, Americans born in the 1940s had a 92 percent chance of making more money than their parents did at age thirty,” Quart states. “Those born in the 1980s have around a 50 percent chance of earning more than their parents. (In the Midwest, as the New York Times reported, the odds are less than half.)”
One caveat for the reader: This is not a book about extreme poverty, so it may, at times, feel like a lot of uptown problems. Developers in San Francisco who drive for Uber at night but still have a beautiful home and send their kids to summer camp may not always feel especially relatable. But these stories do matter because, while the struggles of the middle class may feel “less bad” than, say, the struggles of people living outside, they’re also less visible — and, from a policy standpoint, easier to ignore.
As always, it’s a matter of balance and representation. And while visible poverty has certainly received a hefty share of media attention in the past five years, the steps that lead people right up to the brink haven’t been examined nearly enough. When they have, it’s almost always with a finger pointed squarely at the individual, rather than at the system.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is the interim editor of Real Change. She can be reached at editor (at) realchangenews (dot) org
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