Middle class shame is real: "Squeezed" author Alissa Quart on why the American dream is crumbling

Alissa Quart talks to Salon about why we need to get honest with each other about how we're making ends meet

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 27, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)

"Squeezed" by Alissa Quart (Harper Collins/Ann Fox)
"Squeezed" by Alissa Quart (Harper Collins/Ann Fox)

It is not in your head. You're overwhelmed and scared, feeling just one layoff or accident away from total economic free fall. This isn't the American dream you grew up believing in. You're working harder and longer because the very idea that you wouldn't have a side hustle is impossible. You assume you'll be paying your student loans forever. You are getting by on less and less, and you feel like it's a personal failing.

I think about this a lot. I think about it when I'm offered a freelance writing rate that's the same — or often significantly less — than the standard dollar a word that was considered the baseline when I started out 20 years ago. I think about it when my spouse finally got a new job several months after being laid off, and the salary was in the range he was earning 15 years ago. I think about the embarrassment that my friends and colleagues — fellow gen Xers, boomers and millennials alike — all seem to share over how exhausting and insufficient our lives seem to be. A 2017 study revealed that millennials are earning roughly 20 percent less than boomers did at the same life stage, but plenty of us of all ages who aren't in the 1 percent are feeling lost and are hurting.

The truth is that the deck has been badly stacked. In her new book "Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America," author and Economic Hardship Reporting Project Executive Editor Alissa Quart ("Branded") explores the circumstances that got us here, the deceptions that keep us held down and the tools we need as individuals and a nation to crawl out from under. In it, she shares familiar stories of economic frustration as well as hard evidence for the causes of it. It's an often tough but deeply empathetic call to action, one that exists in the real world of family, work, debt and even dreams.

Salon spoke to Quart recently via phone about our brutal economic realities and why we need to start getting honest with each other about how we're making ends meet.

I love that you very much, front and center, in this book talk about shame.

It's bizarre. It's the thing that people don't talk about. Everyone's talking about all these other things, but they're not talking about what I see with my friends, which is this stigma that they're carrying around: Why can't I figure this out? That as members of a liberal or left class, we think we know better. We don't buy into this bootstrap mentality. We understand that. But there is a lot of sense of individualism run amok still, and competition, especially if you're middle class and you're a professional class. You've been trained to compete in certain ways, and I think the shame can be really overwhelming.

For me, one of the basic solutions is to get people to talk to each other more openly and share their stories, to explain their social positions. There's this unwillingness in a lot of schools right now to talk about class. It's getting much better about talking about race — although not great — but still, people don't talk as openly about class. I think it's because class is always stigmatized. We could speak about that as opposed to assuming that every time we talk about class we're talking about shame.

When I was in high school in a lower class neighborhood, we had Vo-Tech. We had part of the class that was prepared to go into the workforce with skills and training, but not college. But now instead of going to a trade school, it's why don't you get yourself $100,000 in debt?

A lot of the for-profit colleges could have more regulation. We could have more oversight. There have been some good campaigns trying to build awareness about the corrupt practices of some of these for-profit colleges but not really for certificate programs or all these retraining programs that many middle-class people do. I tried to talk about that. I think that's, again, like the liberal version of the Trump University, right?

You can get these certificate programs. You can just find these "Grab this brass ring for your second act or third act." A lot of people wind up in debt after they grabbed that brass ring or attempted to. Then they feel like they've done something wrong in a whole other way. "How did I wind up here? Why can't I get myself out?" I think part of fixing that is better oversight with these certificate programs and better awareness about their limited value.

A lot of us feel like, am I taking crazy pills here? I tried to do all the right things and it's just the numbers don't add up.

We've been taught to do what we love, to love this dream. This dream has an auto-destruct label in front of it. Awareness is a huge way forward. When you start doing research, it is really empowering to start knowing what your circumstances are better. You feel less like you're being determined from the outside and more in control, even if you realize that it's a system that's controlling.

On social media, on the one hand, it is this incredibly aspirational world, where it seems like everybody else is on vacation all the time, and it seems like everybody else's house is beautiful and well-appointed. But the other thing is I see people having honest conversations about the struggle.

I write about this. I thought it was fascinating, like the wealthy selfies, like the pictures parents post of their kids on these expensive trips in Guatemala. There was a study done where people were constantly posting pictures of themselves in places that were much more affluent than where they actually lived.

One thing that we can do to be kind to another is maybe not post those pictures or be more honest in social media, trying to disrupt these falsified happy stories. People are posting only the best of their life. Because everybody's assuming everyone else is doing great.

It feels like there is this constant, "Well, you dug your own hole. You chose to live in an urban environment. You chose to have children. You chose a profession that wasn't high paying." And there's this unbelievable lack of empathy. What surprises me so much about that is I always feel it's coming from people who can't be doing that much better than I am. Aren't most of us on the knife edge?

I don't think people should not be doing what they love. I think our families or parents were trying to do best by us by telling us, do what you love. On an existential level, they might have done their best by us, but I think in terms of the reality principle, maybe less so.

At least in my class and my community, it was very much encouraged to go and get some kind of an arts or liberal arts degree. That was your way of becoming a respectable middle-class person. It wasn't just, "Do what you love." It was, "Good for you, you're going to go to school and read books. That's going to be your ticket." Now it feels like, "Oh, what a patsy you are. What a bunch of suckers."

All the dire, captivating stories in the book illustrate how policy could make a lasting difference. We wouldn't have to go nuts like this if we had better subsidized pre-K, universal pre-K, subsidized maternity leave, better legal protections for pregnant workers and then things like universal basic income.

Whenever I even start saying it, I start to sound absurd, but we actually have been here before, in 1971. We almost passed a daycare bill because women were going to work and it would have subsidized for working mothers, but Nixon vetoed it and that changed everything. When I started going through this in the first chapter about pregnancy discrimination, I found there are laws on the books. There's the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, et cetera, and yet that hasn't stopped people from discriminating mightily.

I was surprised that pregnancy discrimination is actually on the rise.

The question is if this is on the rise partially because people are now more aware. More women who are pregnant are working. I think we have to factor for other stuff, but yeah.

You go through these different systemic issues, and very much at the root is the way that we treat families. The way that we treat people with children is a huge part of why we are feeling this unbelievable trauma.

The way we treat care, the total contempt. Some of my favorite things in the book were around getting to think through some of these issues. Why is there actual shame around caregiving and shame around motherhood? There's a motherhood penalty because we've been long taught things that are stigmatized about motherhood. As workers, we don't want to talk about our kids at work. We're afraid to, or that when we leave at 5:30 to relieve the sitter we're somehow going to be diminished. That's part of the conclusion of my book.

I found that there was actually sometimes an advantage for workers once they became mothers — greater focus, greater organization and greater understanding of other minds — because they're always dealing with children who think differently. Motherhood gives you access to a range of different intellectual experiences and ways of seeing the world, which in a way makes you more flexible in the workplace. But our employers, our colleagues, don't necessarily understand. I was looking at all the different ways in which we carry the shame around. Part of why daycare is so poorly paid is because the sense that they're prisoners of love, that daycare workers love their work so much that they don't need to be paid fairly. It's this sense of, "Oh well, labor and love are two different things."

The aroma of that then permeates work in general. Anyone who is creative at all — a writer, a musician, a photographer, a filmmaker, a makeup artist, a caterer — gets told, "This is your hobby. I can find somebody to do this for free. Why would I pay you for this, and why would I pay you decently for this?" People don't want to pay for work anymore because you're supposed to be doing it for exposure. The idea that these are legitimate professions has just been eroded massively.

I tried to include lower middle-class people as well because I felt that it was echoing in their work. There are side hustles in that too, but it looks different. It's like one job during the day and another job at night, and none of them are necessarily what you love. That becomes the class differential.

And then somebody gets sick. Because somebody always gets sick. Then you have high medical bills, and then it's a touching inspirational story on the news if some kid sets up a lemonade stand to pay for his brother's medical treatment as opposed to, "This is horrifying. This is shocking and an outrage."

I was really startled to find out that there are GoFundMe campaigns now for school lunch in public schools.

That then breaks down across gender, and the feelings of inadequacy that men are carrying and the feelings that women bring to it. They get translated it into, "I'm such a dummy because I had a baby," and for men it's, "I'm a failure because I got laid off from my job." The psychological toll that all of that takes.

There are all these ambitious systemic changes that we need to do to change the dialogue. But what would you say to someone who asks, "What can I do to change that narrative?" What would you tell them?

The most important policy thing and if we could do possibly is subsidized daycare, universal pre-K, maternity leave. But if we're thinking more generally about what we can do, I do think it's to adjust our personal mindset to feel less shame and participate in less and self-blame, nor blaming others. It's to talk more openly with one another about our conditions in the hopes that we can share resources and understanding.

Some of the people in my book have these small situations like childcare arrangements, co-parenting, co-housing. Or the adjunct organizing that I write about.

I think part of what can happen is both political and personal. If people start talking more openly with one another, they can start organizing better. The bigger solutions I still think have to come from outside. I don't think these are going to fix anything on a huge scale, but they indicate what could happen when people speak openly about their situations.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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