Why Our Families Can’t Afford America
By Alissa Quart
320 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.
Over the months that I was pregnant, my overriding fear was that I would not be able to afford a child. How much do diapers cost? I asked a friend with a 1-year-old, as if the answer wasn’t online. She couldn’t answer; diapers were just one of countless minor recurring expenses. The cost of child care, however, she could tell me. If it didn’t cost an arm and a leg, it did seem that every month she cut off a finger and a toe and Venmo’d them to her nanny — a payment that despite its size was still inadequate to the importance of the task and to the woman’s skill in doing it. Well, my friend had a job that paid twice as much as mine and could afford it; I would go with day care instead. But day care centers were dear, too. The cheapest I could find charged a finger joint a month. For every minute you were late to pick up your child, an ounce of blood. Operating costs were kept down by letting the toddlers play in a doubtless very stimulating TV-walled closet while the caregiver worked data-entry jobs she found on TaskRabbit to supplement her paycheck, which was more of an honorarium anyway — she did it, it was said, for the kids.
The anxiety of parents like me — educated professionals without many assets to show for it — animates Alissa Quart’s new book, “Squeezed,” a dispiriting survey of the economic stress felt by families who belong to the “Middle Precariat,” as Quart calls the new middle class. As her coinage suggests, this once large swath of the population is narrowing, its members finding their financial situation increasingly tenuous. Much that middle-class professionals took for granted in previous generations, including homeownership, decent health care, a comfortable retirement, is now out of reach. Over the past 20 years, the cost of housing has risen dramatically. The price of health care and college has almost doubled. Meanwhile, wages have stagnated, unions have nearly vanished and, in some sectors, technology has replaced human workers. Many people find themselves carrying school and credit-card debt, and working low-paid, temporary or part-time jobs. Those in certain industries, like tech or finance, are forced to work long hours as a matter of course; others supplement jobs that once upon a time would have been considered full time, such as teaching, with temporary gigs such as driving an Uber.
Quart’s main subject is this generation’s attempts to produce the next. Tight circumstances may be tolerable when no one depends on you; they become quite another matter when you have kids. Among the parents Quart spends time with are an adjunct professor, the single mother of a child with cerebral palsy, who teaches four classes a semester to barely make do; and a nurse whose hospital now uses robots for certain tasks that used to fall into her purview, such as hauling linens. Diligently reporting on the troubles facing “Middle Precariat” families, Quart doesn’t offer much that is news. It is by this point a commonplace that inequality is as bad as it has been in a century, that every sector of the population save the richest is treading water at best.
What is perhaps unusual about Quart’s book is her attention to how we feel about it — specifically our peculiar willingness to take personal responsibility for problems that are not our fault. Everyone Quart talks to is acutely stressed, which makes sense. But everyone also feels guilty. Why? People have been so successfully inculcated into neoliberal ideology that nobody thinks twice about feeling bad about not making enough money. Of course, what makes the ideology persuasive is that there’s a grain of truth to it; there are people who through a combination of dedication and luck manage to overcome their inherited lot. Yet the issue is overwhelmingly structural and social, not individual or moral. We haven’t failed; Capitalism has failed us. As Quart reminds her reader — and as every story in the book is meant to illustrate — the economic bind we find ourselves in cannot be solved by personal discipline or better financial decisions. The truly wise are those born into a family in the 1 percent.
Quart has tried to write a book that is not uniformly depressing, and at the end of some chapters she describes ways people have attempted to better their situations with unconventional arrangements — for example, two families save money by living together and sharing child care. Other chapters sound an optimistic note that seems forced — say, the Paraguayan nanny who has been separated from her 11-year-old son for 10 years and is finally able to bring him to New York. Is there any point to this story other than to prevent readers from feeling devastated about the thousands of women who must live away from their own children in order to care for those of other people? More heartening is Quart’s invocation of policy solutions that until recently were seen as impossibly idealistic, such as universal health care or a universal basic income.
In May, the Centers for Disease Control released data suggesting that women were having fewer children than at any point since 1978 — 1.76 over their lifetimes, down from 2.1 in 2007 — even as the number of children they report wanting to have (around 2.2) has remained more or less the same for two decades. The reasons for the falling birthrate are no doubt complex, but the gap between desired and “completed” family size (as the lingo has it) suggests a grim and cleareyed sense of reality. Rage, grief, refusal: These are appropriate reactions to a broken economic order. Not guilt. While on assignment for this book review, I lost my job. (I’ve since taken another one.) The next day, my partner lost his. I have no reason to think we’ll have more than one child.
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