Squeezed - A Review

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.

Covetousness

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.

Conclusion

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.

Start a Tradition of Giving This Year

Now that the wreckage of Christmas morning is now settled into piles of colored paper, with loose scraps skulking in the corners and under the couch, and the food-induced coma from a hefty lunch is beginning to wane, the children—ever energetic—are beginning to come down off their dopamine high from the frenzy of gift opening this morning. The widget that seemed so enticing at 8AM is now, perhaps, stuck in a couch cushion and the thrill of the hunt—the search for the last present under the tree—has faded.

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Before the boredom of the day sets in and the squabbling over taking turns with the gifts of another, consider taking the time to reinforce the power of giving on Christmas.

Of course, in all likelihood, this was planned before hand with kids picking out trinkets for loved ones in the store or helping to wrap the presents for Mom and Dad. But so many of our gifts are from people with much to people that have much. Though there are certainly exceptions, Christmas tends to be a day of excess, where some of that excess flows over in generosity for those with little real need.

To help combat this, several years ago we started a tradition in our family. It certainly isn’t earth shattering or worthy of high esteem, but it is a method to help all of us, and especially the kids, remember that our abundance is far from universal and, within the broader history of humanity, is an extreme rarity.

Our tradition is to assign a certain amount of money to each child for the purpose of giving through a charitable organization. For consistency and because I believe in their mission, we use the Compassion gift catalog.

For those of you who aren’t already on their mailing list, consider clicking here to go to their online gift catalog. Pass the tablet to your children or bring them alongside you as you look through the options.

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Given that the average American household who gives any gifts on Christmas planned on spending $962 this year, another $50 or even $300  that will help those with legitimate needs is not an overly large gift. One practice that I’ve heard commended is giving the amount of the largest single gift for a person or group to some missions or aid organization.

More significant than the actual gift, however, is the act of giving. I think there is power even in clicking on one’s choice of gift for someone really in need, even while the aroma of ham, turkey, and mashed potatoes permeates the space of you abundance.

NOTE: Images on this page are courtesy of the International Mission Board: https://www.imb.org/photo-library/

Patrick's Corner - A Review

Poverty today is something like leprosy in the Middle Ages. Most of us are aware of it, but we’re uncertain how it is contracted, terrified to come in contact with it, and hope it stays quarantined geographically so that it doesn’t spread.

For many, the concept of deprivation at any level causes them to lobby against “income inequality,” without acknowledging that the removal of natural incentives for productivity that enforcing income equality would need might well destroy the goods of society they wish were shared more equally.

The Silence of the Poor

To many on the political and economic right, poverty is the divine punishment of losers and lazy people. To many on the left, it is the result of defenseless people being taken advantage of (consider that the most common epithet for those in poverty from the left is “the oppressed”). Both are, at various times. Both positions, when seen in the extreme, are also exceedingly condescending. Seeing poor as perpetrator and poor as victim both do a great deal to undermine the fundamental humanness of those in poverty.

One reason why the poor are often dehumanized is that their voices are seldom heard. Unlike those of us with extra resources and time to host blogs, often the poor are more concerned with hustling to survive. When we hear from them, it is often after they have arisen from poverty. In those cases, they have often been assimilated into the political patterns of the right or the left. It is often hard to hear the real human stories of the poor, unless you are in regular contact with people in poverty.

As a result, balanced memoirs like that of Sean Patrick are helpful. In his book, Patrick’s Corner, he documents the humanity of his large family in Cleveland. It’s the story of the survival and flourishing of six boys and their widowed mother in an ethnically Irish neighborhood. It’s a collection of tales that offer a vision into the real poverty of a real family. While it is certain we don’t get the full weight of the struggles of poverty in this memoir, the overall thread is realistic, hopeful, and compelling.

The Story

The story, which is well told in a journalistic style, is a fundamentally human one about a family’s pursuit of survival, goodness, and joy:

The Patricks, left by God as a family with one parent––a matriarch, at that––shortly after the birth of the youngest child, existed in material poverty. They inhabited for many years, a small, two-bedroom apartment in the tenement district of a major northeastern city on the shores of one of the Great Lakes. Their neighborhood, like most neighborhoods of such cities, was identified by nationalities. (11)

Neighborliness and a sense of place is an essential element in this story. Sean Patrick, as we see in the chapters of this volume, benefited from the geographic limitations of his world. He knew and was known by those in his neighborhood, which enhanced the richness and moral formation of his childhood. This sort of limitedness is, in our world, something foreign, and this is much to our detriment:

The compressed neighborhood of Sean’s childhood has given way, through the miracle of modern transportation and technology, to the expanded world of the shopping mall, the computer, and the television set. Sean’s world was bounded by the distance one could comfortably travel on foot or on the city streetcar. (11)

Because the Patrick’s were limited in their travels, the cast of characters in this volume is rich. There are intergenerational connections that can only form through casual sidewalk contact over time. Poor men who invested a dime into the Patricks each week by getting a shoeshine they couldn’t entirely afford. Old men who needed a bit of help from time to time from the Patricks, but in return who gave them love and spiritual concern. This sort of community would be a miracle in our day.

The Goodness of Work

One of the significant themes in these stories is the goodness of work. The Patrick boys were all pressed into work of necessity, because of their economic station. However, that work was not pure drudgery. It was an opportunity for marketplace engagement with the surrounding world. It provided a chance for entrepreneurial growth and imagination. In short, the work the Patricks did enhanced their humanity, it did not detract from it, as some so often depict.

All of us worked almost as soon as we were able. The positions we held were not exactly what one would consider real jobs by today’s standards. But, for us, it was work and we did it with a vengeance. … As each of us reached our two-digit birthdays, we became Associate Breadwinners. We had to if we wanted a little money to jingle in our pocket or to spend at the neighborhood movie theater on Saturday. (13)
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From shoe shiner to newspaper boy to working in the poultry shop, the Patrick boys progressed through various jobs. These jobs were managed around their studies and their sports. It did not crush their childlike spirits or diminish the goodness of their waking hours.

Unfortunately, so many of these opportunities have been legislated out of existence. For fear of bringing back the oppressive child labor of the early Industrial Revolution, we have largely made it illegal or financially impossible to allow kids to do the sorts of work they are able to meaningfully do. There are many fewer opportunities to be delivery boy or shop assistance because well-meaning laws have prevented the good in attempt to weed out the evil. It has made the path to adulthood much more difficult for children to follow.

One thing is clear, though the author does not state it overtly, and that is the Patrick boy all benefited from the work they did. Not just financially, but also personally.

Conclusion

This is not an academic treatise, but a book that tells stories about poverty, family, faith, and hope through all of the above. The stories are beautifully written, but more importantly, they expose a beauty of experience even amid the struggles of poverty. This book is valuable (certainly much more than its sales numbers likely allowed) because it humanizes poverty, showing that the best forms of poverty alleviation involve personal contact rather than simply writing a check.

Patrick's Corner
By Sean Patrick

The Poverty Industry

Perverse incentives woven into the fabric of systems have the tendency to undermine positive outcomes and exacerbate abuses of the most well-intentioned programs. In his 2016 book, The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens, Daniel L. Hatcher, a law professor, exposes the manifold perverse incentives of our various contemporary aid systems.

From the start, it should be clear that Hatcher is not an angry Republican bemoaning money wasted on the bottom end of the social scale. In fact, the book is published by New York University Press, which is not known for being a bastion of conservativism. Also, Hatcher especially highlights as many as Republicans who are abusing the intent of various Federal aid programs, while being much less intrusive and accusatory toward Democrats. Toward the end of the volume, he makes it clear that he is not calling for an end to the Federal programs or a reduction in their expenditures, but rather a deeper look at abuses that prevent the programs from achieving their ends.

There are several examples, but Hatcher spends a great deal of time walking through abuses that are endemic in the child protection systems. In an attempt to recoup funds, these government departments often confiscate property from their wards, seek ways to maximize streams of income from the Federal government, and fail to use the resultant funds for the benefit of the children. It becomes advantageous, given the current arrangement, for agents to terminate parental rights from poorer kids, refuse to place them, and lengthen adoption processes because the lower the income the child’s parents have, the larger the aid income stream the state can harvest.

Similarly, Hatcher highlights Medicaid programs in which states transfer large sums of money to hospitals to garner matching grants from the Federal government. The state “expenditures” are then funneled back into state coffers via bed taxes or ledger transfers. This means that the state actually does not spend the money that the Federal government was intended to match. It also means that the intended recipients of the redistribution—the poor—do not receive the intended benefit.

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Clearly, Hatcher is highlighting abuses, which may be representative, but likely are not normative. Much of the social work done by agents of the state is heartbreaking and hard, so we should not read his book in a condemnatory manner. However, there are fundamental systemic flaws and, more significantly, failures of virtue in the people overseeing the systems.

The vast majority of the abuses Hatcher cites are, in fact, legal. If a hospital is owned by the government, then a ledger transfer is a legitimate means for it to transfer excess funds back to the parent government. However, when such transfers are examples of playing shell games with money, since money is fungible, then it undermines the sense of fair play and incentivizes everyone to misuse the system.

Some of the systemic failures Hatcher highlights can be remedied by law. For example, the practice of the state receiving child support on behalf of its wards and then attempting to collect debts from often poverty-stricken “dead beat dads” can lead to the permanent estrangement of fathers from their children and warrants for the arrest of men and women who simply cannot pay the demanded support. This is, in one sense, the criminalization of poverty, which may lead to parents in arrears on their support payments fleeing from officers and, perhaps, being shot repeatedly in the back. Welfare is an indication of a failure of our economic system, so at some point, the law should simply recognize that much of that money is sunk and stop trying to claw it back from the poor.

The greater problem, however, is an absence of virtue in society. (This is my conclusion, not Hatchers.) When legislators, governors, and administrators do legal, but unintended things to maximize their take from the Federal government it represents a failure of virtue. Economists and politicians can debate the relative merits of various social programs, but people should have the integrity not to attempt to game the system. Or, at least, if they do choose to milk the system for every advantage, they should pass those advantages on to the targeted recipient. Unfortunately, there is a too broad acceptance of the equivalence of legality with morality, which is intellectually sloppy and spiritually damaging.

Hatcher’s book is an important one for understanding some of the reasons the so-called war on poverty has been so ineffective. The problem of poverty is not going away, and it may be that systemic flaws and a lack of virtue are contributing as much as the oft-cited lack of funding.

Hillbilly Elegy - A Review

I’ve now read the much discussed book by J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It was promised to be a gritty read, revealing the reality of poverty in the Appalachian region that is often overlooked. The book largely lives up to its reputation.

Vance notes early on that it seems odd for someone his age—he’s in his early thirties—to write a memoir.  Unlike the biographies of young Christian athletes that seem to lurk on the shelves of Christian bookstores, Vance’s memoir is not presumptuous but worth the time it takes to read it.

So much time and effort is spent in explaining urban poverty. The breakdown of the urban family. The overloading of the urban school systems. Often the term “urban” is a code word for racial minorities.

While cyclic poverty is an issue in cities, Vance exposes the reality of rural poverty and shows that in many ways it may just as severe a problem as the urban variety. In fact, for some, rural poverty has a strong potential to be more severe. One reason for this is that many of the resources the urban poor rely upon are simply unavailable for the rural poor, or they are located too far away to be useful.

Vance succeeds in painting an accurate picture of some of the worst off among the so-called hillbillies. Having grown up in the foothills of the Appalachians, surrounded by people that fit the description of Vance’s hillbillies, I’ve heard some of the stories, seen some of the stress on kids, and smelled some of the misery he’s talking about. Thankfully I’ve never lived it, but it was close by. (I’m thinking about, for example, my friend whose dad was in jail for killing his mom with a hammer while high on some form of drugs.) Reading Vance describe what he went through gives me a bit more empathy for some of my acquaintances who were surviving bad situations.

If there is one key takeaway from reading this book, it should be empathy. It is likely that Vance’s story represents both the low end of hillbilly culture with the drug addicted mother, revolving door father-figures, and unawareness of the outside world. At the same time, it also represents an atypical result where someone was able to overcome the difficult start and had the talent to make it to and graduate from Yale’s law school. However, reading about the domestic abuse and social stigma Vance dealt with should work to kill some of the unforgiving dismissal of hicks, bumpkins, and swamp people that is common in suburban and urban culture. (I state that it is common based on anecdotal data, rather than empirical evidence)

Just as telling the stories of ethnic minorities suffering simply because of their ethnicity are part of the narrative of identity politics on the left, so might listening to stories of legitimate hardship among the many white, rural poor are a necessary part of understanding the perspective of a large swath of the nation.

Vance’s story helps explain why it took me years to be able to understand the racially stilted form of identity politics common among some of my more liberal and well to do friends at the Naval Academy. I knew that poverty, broken families, and systemic disadvantages were not solely owned by today’s preferred protected classes. Thankfully, I’ve had good people patiently explain why systemic injustice is still largely a racial issue instead of screaming at me. I’ve also known enough ethnic minorities to hear their stories to understand the biases against them and lived in the South long enough to recognize the historical proximity of Jim Crow to today.

At the same time, many more cosmopolitan Americans still fail to recognize that being among the rural poor can be nearly as socially damning as being an ethnic minority, but without the protection of the media, the judicial system, and the cultural left. Hillbilly Elegy helps explain why some people don’t believe in “White Privilege” and think that affirmative action is a form of vile racism. They feel feel like they are on the bottom of the social ladder and the zero-sum game policies of the political left keep them down. In some cases, that’s likely the case. As Vance explains, being white doesn’t grant as much social capital as those who equate whiteness with established families and well-positioned social networks seem to believe. It’s not that there is no benefit in some segments of society to being white, but that it isn’t quite the pass to an easy life that some seem to describe.

Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t answer every question about the white working class and its struggles. It doesn’t offer a master theory that will unite the nation politically after a turbulent election year. The book is not an academic treatise that considers all potential historical causes, nor does it reconcile all of the possible sociological implications of rural poverty. However, this memoir of a kid who lived rough but is doing pretty well so far helps to give a view into a world that many people never see from the interstates. It challenges racial narratives and, if read for empathy’s sake, could break down some of the bubble many appear to live in.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.