Even before the Great Recession and the slow climb out of it, many people expressed angst over their economic situation. As long as I can remember, and likely for all of human history, most people have expressed a sense that they can’t get ahead and that true financial stability is just out of reach. One thing that has shifted in the last few generations, however, is that people have argued that having a family is financially out of reach because of their current economic situation.
A desire for economic stability is leading many young people to delay marriage until their late 20s or early 30s. Then, once couples do get married, they often decide to wait to have children “until they can afford it.” The frequent, repeated news articles that tell people it costs a quarter million dollars or more to raise a child tend to entrench such arguments.
In her recent book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, Alissa Quart attempts to make these arguments in a book length format. She uses a journalistic-style, with supporting statistics interwoven with sympathetic anecdotes to make her case. The style itself is useful for convincing either (a) non-critical readers or (b) those already convinced. For those skeptical that centralized government solutions like UBI are the best solution for people’s feelings of dis-ease, the content of Quart’s book tends to make quite the opposite case that Quart intends.
There are certainly problems within our current economic system. Some of the cases that Quart outlines help to show what those problems are. For example, the injustice of our broken immigration system is evident in Chapter 5 of Squeezed and, in some ways, represents reality. However, what Quart actually shows is that consumerism is a miserable disease and that, in general, life would get a whole lot better for people if they turned off their televisions, got off the internet, and focused on living the life they can afford and loving the people around them.
A couple of the stories Quart highlights show the main problems with Americans that keep them from feeling they can afford a family are (a) a lack of permanent commitment in marriage and (b) covetousness.
The Damage of Impermanent Marriages
Quart begins the book with her own story. She and her husband were freelance writers living in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City when they had their first child. She describes the burden of paying $1,500 for the medical care she and her daughter incurred during delivery. Subsequently, they experienced “financial vertigo” because, “We first hired a nearly full-time sitter and most of my own take-home earnings as an editor went directly to her. Eventually, my earnings also flowed to my daughter’s cheerfully boho day care . . .” (pg. 3). The financial pressure they felt was primarily self-induced fear of “tumbling out of [their] class position.” (pg. 4) Contributing to this is the apparent sense that one must maintain one’s career even if it is financially unwise to do so.
Though it is not clearly defined, “middle class” in this book appears to be defined as living above your means without fear of financial repercussions. So, for Quart, it was essential for her to be able to fund a nanny so she could retain professional pride and independence from her husband, no matter what the financial burden or social cost to her offspring.
There are several cases throughout this volume that illustrate that fear of being left or getting divorced is what drives a lot of the financial pressure on her subjects. In other words, when a spouse fears that his or her marriage is impermanent and the spouse and their income may disappear at any moment, then there is terrific pressure to maintain a career at any and all costs. Quart does not identify this fear explicitly, but it is an obvious undercurrent throughout the book for those with eyes to see it. This is why the supposed 70% gender pay gap is so insidious in the eyes of many progressives.
If couples both valued and were committed to the permanence of marriage, much of the angst that Quart describes about finding suitable and cost-effective child care would diminish.
The other major problem illustrated by this book is not injustice, but covetousness. This is apparent in Quart’s story again, as she requires a personal baby sitter and then “boho daycare” for her child.
A more striking example of the problem of economic myopia and covetousness is documented in Chapter 2. Quart describes a case of “modest oppression” of a couple who made a combined household income of “around $160,000” as the department chair at a college (wife) and a part-time music composer, director of a music organization, and church organist (husband). Even given the high cost of living in New York City, it is hard to describe a couple making north of $150K as being oppressed in meaningful sense. Apparent in Quart’s description is that their unhappiness was largely due to the existence of people that appeared to be more comfortable and have fewer financial worries. Absent from Quart’s telling of their story is the idea that they might consider making different decisions (e.g., having the husband stay at home with the kids) that might alleviate the problem and result in better outcomes for everyone.
Similarly, in the same chapter Quart tells the story of an adjunct professor whose PhD was in avant garde poetry. She has a disabled son, conceived in a fling with a member of an indie rock group. There are multiple commendable aspects of the story: the adjunct was willing to work hard and she was committed first to not killing her child in utero and then to seeking proper care for him. The covetousness in this story is apparent because the adjunct believed herself to be entitled to the career of her choice––that is to be fully supported through adjuncting––because she had chosen to get an advanced degree in a particular field. There is some hope in this story because the chapter closes noting that Bolin had decided to pursue more regular employment.
Quart’s telling of these stories is intended to illicit the response that there is obvious injustice in the struggle of both of these families. However, it is clear to the casual reader that the greater portion of the financial distress in both these situations is a desire for something that is just out of reach: the idealized existence as a career advancing professional in the exact job one desires. The underlying assumption is that the world owes everyone their personally preferred lifestyle and existence. As long as people base their happiness on hanging on to social positions that are just above their income level or seeking the perfect working situation, their covetousness is destined to enhance their unhappiness.
Positives of the Book
The general premise of Squeezed is flawed, but there is value in the book.
First, there are multiple anecdotes that illustrate how significant the family and community are for financial stability. Though Quart does not draw the conclusion (instead calling for government intervention at nearly every level), it is apparent that stronger nuclear families and mediating institutions like the local church are essential to the flourishing of society. In many of the examples Quart provides, the reader can see how a strong connection to a local congregation that is functioning as the body of Christ could alleviate a great deal of stress.
Second, as noted above, the permanence of marriage tends to alleviate a lot of cost and stress. Both spouses need not pursue their careers full-bore if they trust each other to remain around. Additionally, the cost of living can be substantially reduced when both parents and children live together in the same house.
Third, in Chapter Ten, Quart highlights the work that television (or other versions of video entertainment) does in making people believe they are not well-off. Supposed “middle-class” families in SitComs are really incredibly rich. Everything on the set is in perfect condition, no one is really struggling for money, etc. The old puzzle about how the characters in Friends were able to live such apparently lavish lives in New York City is still a real phenomenon. Part of the work of the Church, then, should be to disabuse people of the fantasies of contemporary entertainment.
Ultimately, this is a popular-level book that will tend to convince the already convinced that a bigger government is needed to fix supposed injustices in the economy. What it really highlights is that much of our ongoing social misery is self-induced. If we readjust our expectations toward reality and focus on enjoying the relative wonders most of us experience on a daily basis, our satisfaction in life is bound to be enhanced.
NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.