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'Squeezed' review: Alissa Quart's wrenching portrait of American middle-class insecurity

Alissa Quart, author of

Alissa Quart, author of "Squeezed" (Ecco, June 2018) Photo Credit: Ash Fox

SQUEEZED: Why Our Families Can't Afford America, by Alissa Quart. Ecco, 312 pp., $27.99.

In the wealthiest U.S. cities, public schoolteachers are moonlighting as Uber drivers to make ends meet.

Adjunct professors are drowning in so much student debt that they rely on food stamps.

And across the United States, children are spending their days, and nights, in 24-hour child care centers designed to accommodate the erratic schedules of their overworked parents.

In “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America,” Alissa Quart lucidly recounts these and other wrenching stories of economic hardship, while deconstructing some of the prevailing myths about middle-class life in the United States.

Quart takes readers inside living rooms and workplaces across the nation and shows how even highly educated workers — lawyers, academics, journalists and nurses — have become trapped within a system that reinforces economic injustices and inequality.

They are members of what she calls the “middle precariat”: people who thought that an advanced degree and years of work would lead to status and success but who instead find themselves barely able to scrape by amid stagnant wages and rising costs for child care, housing and education.

Quart introduces us to Dee’s Tots Child Care in New Rochelle, one of a growing number of round-the-clock day care centers filling the “parenting vacuum” created by unconventional work schedules. Caregivers at Dee’s Tots tuck in children as their parents start their night shifts, and then scramble to prepare breakfast before the morning rush arrives at 6 a.m.

The rise of such centers — what Quart calls “extreme day care” — reflects deeper changes coursing through the American workforce, resulting from the disempowerment of labor unions and the expansion of “just-in-time” scheduling by companies. Only a minority of Americans now have a normal five-day, 40-hour workweek. At least 17 percent have unstable work schedules, meaning they are assigned to work on-call or rotating work shifts, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

At times, “Squeezed” can feel like an anxiety-inducing plane trip marked by nonstop turbulence. The stories of injustice build, one on top of another, until the reader feels claustrophobic — walled in by the anxiety, debt, overwork and isolation so vividly described.

While a number of cities have adopted paid sick leave policies, enabling workers to take time off to tend to family medical needs, the American workplace remains largely hostile to families, Quart argues. Only 13 percent of private-sector workers get paid family leave through their employers. One recent study found that even if women aren’t harassed or pushed out of their jobs for their pregnancies, their salaries are reduced by 7 percent per child. “It can seem as if we are being asked to work jobs we hate to support families we rarely see and therefore don’t really know,” she writes.

Quart, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper and executive editor of the nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project, does not produce a grand theory explaining the growing precariousness of middle-class life. Nor does she offer an emancipatory alternative to the economic prison she describes.

Yet “Squeezed” stands out for its insightful analysis of class dynamics in the United States. Drawing from social science research, she points out that people’s perception of wealth, poverty and status is shaped by the local environment they are in and those around them. There is a class-based alienation that comes with living in overpriced cities, where even people with upper-middle-class incomes can feel priced out of their own communities.

They are likely to blame themselves (and not global market forces or the fast-changing labor market) for the fact that they will not be able to pass on their social status to their children.

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