Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America
June 25, 2018
Alissa Quart's new book explores how high child care costs, changing economic realities, and harsh workplace policies are squeezing an already benighted middle class.
There is a paragraph in the Alissa Quart's Introduction to her new book, Squeezed, that struck me immediately. In it, she discusses how her and her husband's years of doing what they loved "had finally exacted a price" when their first child was born. Doing what they loved, I'd like to point out, is helping keep people informed about what is going on in the world and contributing to the nation's intellectual life through in-depth reporting and penning books. And they were, by all accounts and appearances, successful at what they did—award-winning, even. Quart has published four previous books, and has a regular column in The Guardian. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her husband has two books to his name, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Foreign Policy and The New York Review of Books. And yet, they still found they had to hustle to pay the $1,500 bill that came due after their daughter's birth. And having been freelance writers most of their careers, they found it necessary to "search for jobs with regular pay, regular hours, and health insurance." Once they found steady gigs, Quart found that:
Eventually, my earnings … flowed to my daughter's cheerfully boho day care (even though, paradoxically, all the caregivers there 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.
How is it possible that our society exacts a price on those who do work they love, work that is so fundamentally important to our society, when they decide they want to bring a child into the world and into that society?
It is a conversation happening around kitchen tables everywhere in America. As an expectant parent, you worry about so many things—getting your home and heart ready, hoping that mother and child make it through labor unharmed and in good health. But most new parents aren't prepared for how damned expensive it's going to be in the first few years of a child's life, paying off hospital bills and finding decent, affordable child care—if there is such a thing, and if child care can be found at all. According to a study done by The Center for American Progress, nearly half of all zip codes in the U.S. are child care deserts. It's also bad for business. According to Child Care Aware, "U.S. businesses lose approximately $4.4 billion annually due to employee absenteeism as the result of child care breakdowns." Most couples I know with young kids have come up against the hard reality then one of their paychecks is going almost entirely to child care, as Alissa Quart's did, and even then it often isn't enough. Quart and her husband were able to piece it together, but she was left with a thought that is sadly not uncommon among new parents confronting this financial reality: "we had not planned ahead."
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. … The problem is systemic.
Taking personal responsibility is commendable, but so is recognizing when a problem is bigger than you, and mustering the political will necessary to address it, a process I hope Alissa Quart's book can help with. Because the reality is that, while parenting has never been easy, it now costs more than ever before, and the changing nature of the economy and the increase in income inequality isn't helping an already, as Quart puts it, "benighted order of things."
The data is pretty damning:
According to a Washington Post/Miller Center poll, 65 percent of all Americans worry about paying their bills … One reason for this anxiety is that middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was twenty years ago; in fact, in some cases the cost of daily life over the last twenty years has doubled. And the price of a four-year college at a public college—one traditional ticket to the bourgeoise—is nearly twice as much as it was in 1996. The cost of healthcare has almost doubled in that twenty-year period as well. And rent, not to mention homeownership, has also become substantially more expensive, though not quite to the same horrifying level as education and medical care.
The data is even more damning for women and people of color.
Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America explores this all through the stories of individuals and families navigating this new reality, many of them in care-related professions themselves, including "a professor on food stamps in Chicago" and "pharmacists who lost their jobs to a robot in Pittsburgh." In the process, she offers strategies to help in the every day, pontificates on some potential societal solutions, and considers philosophies that can help us change the dialogue, in both our inner lives and in our communities.
We have 20 copies available.