I was a bit early. Sitting in a mid-century diner which had the fortune of both a business-viable location over the last several decades and a loyal, local, elderly customer base, the surroundings were all familiar enough: the ‘brownish’ interior, the aging but generally affable staff, a menu seemingly created before modern and freely available graphic design tools, and food remarkable chiefly for uncannily consistent mediocrity; ‘Boomer fare’ which saw but salt, pepper, and liberal applications of butter and/or sugar (eschewing the risk of any flavors alien to those most egregiously plain of mid-Western palates). I had sat in myriad diners just like this before, but they stirred no comfort in me. Mostly, it feels like sitting in one of the many husks of a long-gone age, those often-fabled halcyon days of ‘New Deal’ lore.
I was awaiting a friend of mine from back in my bachelor’s degree days at Western Illinois University, a time in my life when forebodings of the future were far more ambiguous yet emotionally no less acute. I recalled the days leading up to my graduation as a countdown to a sort of madness – those old, societally ubiquitous pals of wretched anxiety and overwhelming depression, and all as the birth of my child was rapidly approaching to align with the week of my partner and I’s graduation, no less.
Thinking on those days, I had realized at some level, even back then, that I had been hurled into a mountain of student debt via a pathologically disingenuous sales pitch: this idea that on the other end of a ‘proper’ university education you will be employable, that there are indeed jobs available for every degree program the university offers, and that sometime during your journey through education you will ‘find yourself’ and your passions and your direction and your meaning and all that other bullshit. I thought about how students are sold this phony bill of goods only to end up in a ‘career counselors’ office a few weeks before graduation as they print out Indeed job search results before hurrying you out the door into a world where your $20-$60k piece of paper has oversaturated the job market, no longer in any semblance of demand.
In those last days you might also think about your teachers, how they seemed worn out themselves, not particularly better treated than the often-unqualified students shoveled at them as the university’s burgeoning administrative staff continued to suck up every spare bit of tuition money, running the institution into the ground akin to so many hostile takeovers and high-interest loan buyout tales in the private sector. It was that same class of administrator who shoved those Indeed print-outs into your face, who hired consultants to help the university’s ‘sales pitch’, who underpaid and overworked their teachers, who refused tenure, who pilfered in short-term contracts and/or by-the-class pay agreements, and who decided to crassly admit students shoved out by the American public school system (effectively illiterate in spite of their high school degrees and at a woefully higher risk of dropping out).
It’s the same willfully dishonest sales pitch pining for grotesquely inflated tuition money that American liberals are generally content to rest at the feet of for-profit post-secondary educational institutions rather than the university system as a whole (e.g., Obama’s attacks on select for-profit colleges, a half-measure which served as a politically expedient way to appear as if he was ‘doing something’ about the student debt crisis). My friend and I – after a period of ‘no communication’ which was largely the result of projecting our anxieties about the future onto each other in irrational fits of frustration and anger – reunited primarily over the borderline existential nihilism we found in the wake of our education’s utterly failed promises, over a sense of overriding alienation. I had a sense of what I wanted to talk about, what I wanted to try to say, and I hoped, above all, that maybe we could find a way to communicate some things to each other which were honest, which hurt, which maybe served to reduce the alienation just a bit through greater-than-usual commiseration.
He arrived, we sat together perhaps somewhat awkwardly, and as we waited for our food (self-medication, to be sure) I began in a rambling sort of way. To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of what I said. I had a hard time saying it. The one thing that really sticks out is the one thing I was really trying to say without getting unduly emotional (since we aren’t generally allowed to get emotional when talking about what our lives are really like, right?): after two degrees in political science (an ostensibly safe or ‘stable’ degree path), after an incredibly challenging year spent at University College London where I somehow managed to temporarily move my family to another country, adapt to a different style of education, and then perform academically beyond even my most optimistic expectations – in other words, after doing so much so well just as I was supposed to in reaching the class status all of these steps are meant to provide – that nothing seemed to have changed upon my return to America, and that I had resigned to this in a deep, burrowing way which generally manifested as a monstrous self-loathing.
That was the long of it, anyway. The short of the sentiment is what conveys it best: I had lost the narrative of my life – and I wasn’t really telling anybody.
My friend was no stranger to what I was talking about. A few years my senior, he spent most of his 20s in a deep and abiding depression. In the last few years following his own graduation (with honors), he found both his wife and saw the birth of his daughter, but ended up ‘stuck’ working for a gaming company which pilfered in the kind of slot-machines you’ve seen pop up in every gas station, bar, and diner across the state of Illinois (and many states elsewhere). Not too long prior to our meeting, I also worked there; indeed, he got me the job. After a thoroughly demoralizing stint at a non-profit which treated its employees like so much corporate garbage, I was between work that had any ‘meaning’ for me; fearing both further financial hardship for my family and wading back into another sea of consuming unemployment guilt, I took his offer to come aboard the company. I lied through my teeth at every stage of the interview process and the dolts were simple enough to not look at my resume and read between the lines.
I did this in spite of knowing, full well, that companies which deal in gambling are evil. I know there are many out there who will disagree with me about this, who think that concepts like ‘evil’ have become cliché in the modern world, but they’re wrong. Look, at this point, I’ve worked in the industry. I’ve seen the numbers behind the machines. I’ve seen the customers and the marketing ploys. Listen to me: the gambling industry is and always has been one of carefully orchestrated addiction and utterly ruthless working-class exploitation. The industry rather openly seeks to exploit any weakness to make a buck, literally counting on human error – as the worst industries do – to make a profit. After getting two degrees the philosophical impetus for which were ‘finding a career which helped to enact my principles onto the world in a material way’ (in other words, ‘doing something decent for the world’), I was now actively aiding and abetting the financial rape of poor neighborhoods in the south suburbs of Chicago by maintaining these god-awful fucking machines which sucked up the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of so many working poor like so many wasted student loans.
I was miserable. More than usual. I hated myself. Hated myself. Having a regular working schedule had its benefits for my health (as did worrying less about money), but my sense of alienation was only grander, digging too greedily and too deep. As I write about it now, I find it difficult to maintain the ongoing structure of this essay just because it is still so raw to write about. Writing about it feels like the spiral that it was. Indeed, I did get out after enduring it for nearly half-a-year, but my friend, who sat across from me now, was still there, still laboring, no less aware than I about the evils of the job and no less alienated. We were two deeply miserable sods tripping over words and odd pauses to express the very feelings we wrangled with every day.
His general response to my loss of narrative was that the career avenues which were promised – the kind which were creative, challenging, permitted personal growth, and allowed one to make a reliable, stable living without wholly selling their soul – were largely, well, gone. Rapidly receding from the world. Systematically dismantled, degenerated, and dissolved, in tandem with the ongoing discursive repression of the humanities and social studies as respectable avenues of study and vocation. It wasn’t that I didn’t already know this, it was just that he was recognizing it and saying, in his own way, that it wasn’t all my fault.
It was a message I was learning, little by little, to listen to. I was miserable because I was more the product of my class background that I realized, more the product of my environment and social capital than I could be aware of no matter how much I read, and that the barriers to this were grander than I had any way to be even somewhat prepared for prior to, in my case, my late 20s. I was alienated living in a thoroughly alienating society, and slowly I was seeing the strings and accepting, little by little on an emotional and existential level, that I wasn’t just a piece of shit.
“Trapped in Their Own Skin”
Allisa Quart’s Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America is in large part a series of stories not unlike mine above; many of the sentiments expressed in my own story – the alienation, the nihilism, the existential uncertainty – are core thematic elements within Quart’s capable reporting. Introducing her work in a similarly personal manner, Quartz moves on to a series of individual working-class stories and anecdotes wrapped in capable reporting replete with supporting accounts from academics and relevant data.
‘Working-class’ isn’t really specific enough, though, as Quart’s accounts consist of what she identifies as the ‘Middle Precariat’, members of a dwindling middle class who find themselves “burdened with temporary, low-paid, and part-time jobs.” (p. 6) Indeed, several of Quartz’ stories center around working professionals who comfortably make a household six-figure wage (though typically in places like Silicon Valley, with its unlivable rents); to boot, very nearly all of Quart’s studies, it seems, hold at least a Master’s degree, something which unsurprisingly struck me rather resonantly.
This selection is no doubt in part due to Quart’s own familiarity with her subject’s woes, establishing reporting relationships with them which often read like friendships over the course of the accessible-yet-substantial read which is Squeezed. Quart, after all, has her own squeezed story as a serious professional writer and reporter who decided to have a child in one of the world’s most expensive cities (the location rather unavoidable, she admits, given the limited professional opportunities of a journalist). In fact, one of the most powerful and effective elements of Quart’s work is the manner in which she rather vigorously dives into what is increasingly known as the ‘motherhood penalty’, or more broadly speaking, the ‘care penalty’ visited upon care industry workers and parents of either gender, whether in the form of reduced/non-existent wages and workplace abuse, or the ‘barbaric’ (p. 257) lack of support families receive from government agencies in accessing affordable, quality daycare.
As a husband to a remarkably hard-working woman who has and continues to work in the ‘care industry’, these accounts also struck rather hard, both in the sense that I often found myself as a stay-at-home father and, primarily, in the abuse I know she has endured simply doing essential work which takes care of the lowest in our society. During much of the time where I found myself cripplingly depressed following my undergraduate years and the birth of our daughter, she was able to reliably find work through a combination of her degree in psychology and her experience as a certified nursing assistant (CNA). Her experiences were almost universally underpaid, overworked, underappreciated, and deeply stressful; no matter how intensive the care, how challenging the case, how ambiguous and yet meticulous and detailed the work, the pay remained laughably low to go along with the abysmal benefits.
Even as but an expectant mother, she had work experiences where the burdens of pregnancy were ignored, working in a café in our college town which expected her to lift too much weight while the owner ‘relieved’ his own baristas of the tips customers had left of them. In a much later experience in the care industry, she would work freelance for a woman whose elderly, ill mother needed significant attention, seeing to her job dutifully only to be fired after a few months because she had to miss a day of work to attend her own grandmother’s bedside as she lay dying of cancer.
It is the sort of thing which is simply inhuman, yet for care industry workers, Quart argues, this mistreatment and even invisibility is the de facto norm. Even male workers who enter into care industries, Quart notes, become subject to poor wages; I argue this helps to open the discussion on gender wage disparities. The oft-cited stat that women make roughly 79 cents to a man’s dollar tends to come under fire from the right (and even fellow Leftists) for not comparing ‘like-to-like’ (in other words, isolating for industry-to-industry comparisons). Other explanations have frequently arisen, such as the reaching and presumptive assertion that ‘women refuse to negotiate as much as men’ (many jobs today give nobody of any race or gender the clear opportunity to negotiate their pittance wage), when the much plainer and more explanatory reality is that care workers are fundamentally undervalued. The types of professions my wife and so many other millions of women have taken on – caseworkers, nurses, home-care professionals, cleaners, nannies, day-care workers, and so on – are viciously and systemically belittled by a society which seems to equate care with weakness. It’s a stubborn and seemingly intractable sickness in American socioeconomic life which we will be touching on again later.
As my wife’s stress mounted and as the primary burden of care was left with her for months moving into years, I felt like I was melting. A part of me knew what I was ‘supposed to do’, but I’d sit in the washroom each morning, staring at my feet, knowing for reasons beyond my emotional comprehension that I was not able to ‘move’. This went on for a while. The burst of energy which allowed me to get my degree abroad subsided into the background radiation of more career failure and general existential confusion following my return to the United States.
“Finely educated minds feel themselves at a loss in the new job market,” Quart explains as she conveys the story of Bri Bolin, an individual account who’s story I found the most relatable (p. 61). Bolin, a former Columbia College professor who was making less than $40k a year during her time there, is a single mother whose financial woes forced her back into her mother’s home in order to keep herself and her child off the streets.
“When so much mental activity is devoted to basic survival, little is left to engage in long-term thinking or to muster willpower—as Bolin well knew. ‘I need to smoke to relieve the pressure,’ she told me as she feverishly rolled her own cigarettes… She was self-medicating, she said: other times, she used Xanax for anxiety. She also took a daily antidepressant,” Quart relates. She continues: “Bolin’s desperation came through perhaps most poignantly when she took me to her favorite Chicago neighborhood, Andersonville. Her education had influenced her tastes, and she peered longingly [into the many shops].” Like with so many of the perspectives Quart offers up, Bolin is one of the thousands of exceptionally well-educated individuals successfully sold the ‘pitch’ of a stable, meaningful career following their education, only to find poverty, debt, and socioeconomic ruin at the other end.
‘Why!?’ is so often the reeling tone of these people’s lives, of their receding, disintegrating self-narratives. ‘How the fuck did this happen?’ As Quart shares from Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (2015, Berkley), “Being poor while working hard is fucking crushing.”
Not unlike my friend’s reminder that many of the professions we once would have pursued had disappeared, Quart uses Bolin’s story to describe the seemingly willful destruction of academia (and teaching, more broadly construed) as a sound career decision: “the core irony [of] our great teaching institutions [is that] successful academic careers are built on the avoidance of teaching… part-time instructors [denied tenure] shoulder a large proportion of the teaching… We must reconsider the long and deeply held belief that a graduate degree in a stable and ostensibly sensible field is the path to personal betterment… the withering of humanities programs as the priority shifts toward technical education…. [has had a brutal] social impact. Whole sectors of employment are dwindling away.” (p. 47) What’s left are huge swathes of indebted people educated for a society-wide promise which the nation’s elite began to see to the erosion of decades ago. People like Bolin, as Quart describes via French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, are “literally and philosophically trapped in their own skin.” (p. 157) If anything I’ve written already hadn’t made it clear enough, I knew the feeling.
“No Amount of Education”
I’ve focused on the elements which related most closely to my own story in part because Quart’s work ultimately offers up far too much to cover, admire, or thoroughly address for a single article; however, I’d be remiss to not at least outline the scope of her reporting work. The body of Quart’s work broadly begins with parents “squeezed by pregnancy and early maternity”, then proceeds to “how parents’ work hours have squeezed the time they can spend with their children, and how the cost of daycare has forced these parents to work even longer and harder to afford it.” (p. 117)
In chapter 4, Quart covers the glut of student debt, and more specifically, the degenerative slide of the once lauded law degree: a professional, middle-class path which for most of the 20th century represented a safe and sound – if not particularly exciting – way toward financial stability. She tells the story of one former library technologist, Michelle Belmont: “‘Maybe I could be upper-middle-class without the debt?’ Belmont wondered,” in the self-flagellating manner of so many of the ‘squeezed’. (p. 101) If work and class identity are ‘games’, Quart argues, “they are games we can’t win or reliably win, at least not anymore.” (p. 110)
In chapter 5, Quart relays with rather significant detail the travails of Blanca, a Paraguayan immigrant who finds herself an intractable part of the ‘global care chain’ (p. 114), individuals who, generally through remittances, are forced to abandon their own families to work in nations such as the United States so that their loved ones can survive (or simply have some basic quality of life). According to 2016 data published in 2018 by the Pew Research Center, remittance flows account for a staggering amount of all flowing capital going out of the United States, more than $138 billion in 2016 alone.
Blanca, like so many immigrant caretakers, mothers, and fathers, found ‘success’ in the US working as a nanny (often working seven days per week across more than one job), etching out a life for herself taking care of American’s children, Americans who can neither be bothered to remunerate their care workers properly, or particularly in the case of ‘live-in’ nannies, simply make the sacrifices necessary to spend more time with their own children (harsh, but so is the exploitation of immigrant labor). “Blanca was a woman working hard and in good faith to better her chances and her son’s. An aspirant to the middle class, she was having a hard time entering it,” Quart tells. In order to pursue this class mobility as well as that ‘better life’, Blanca had to leave her son behind with her mother while she worked, and lived, alone.
The hardest parts, I’d imagine, for any parent to read are subsequently where Blanca relates her feelings on the subject of leaving her son behind: “I always take care of a baby [in my work]… Maybe because I don’t have my son, I take care of children, because I miss him. I have missed his childhood.” Though for Quart’s part, Blanca’s story in Squeezed ends relatively happily — she manages to get her son to America, and he succeeds both socially and academically. As a father with a rapidly growing six-year-old, Blanca’s pain of missing those early years with her son is something that I imagine wouldn’t simply go away. It’s traumatic, and the background to Blanca’s woes is a tale of capitalistic exploitation from the Global North down to the Global South. It’s all the more absurd when you consider that entire political platforms both in the US and abroad (particularly Europe) seat themselves within the notion that Northward-bound immigration represents nothing less than the destruction of a native’s way of life as they know it (e.g., those fucking Paraguayan’s, taking our shitty, aggressively exploited caretaking jobs!).
Quart’s proceeding sections tackle the rise of driving for Uber (particularly with respect to teachers), the infuriatingly opportunistic ‘Second Act’ industry (all of the consultants, aggressively marketed colleges, and motivational books designed to help aging workers find their second career), and the rising concurrent epidemics of ‘co-parenting’ and ‘co-habitation’ (in other words, coping with the outrageous cost of rent and real estate). Sophia Boyer, one of Quart’s subjects and an educational consultant/former teacher who once owned a ‘coparenting house’ (where a group of families live together and take care of each other’s children), offers insights following her experiences in intimately shared living: “We are so isolated and lonely and feel like we don’t have community… We buy stuff to fill us but that stuff doesn’t do it.” (p. 209) Quart then proceeds to the rise of “1 percent TV”, which Quart defines as “televised narratives about a 1 percent (or close to it) that acts with impunity.” (p. 211) This is all very much part the subject of Lauren Greenfield’s upcoming documentary, Generation Wealth, and similarly, Quart speaks in no uncertain terms about the deleterious effect this is having on the American psyche: “One percent TV goes some way toward explaining where we are politically, and it also partly explains why parents like myself and the ones in this book feel so bad about ourselves, blaming ourselves rather than a system failure…” (p. 215)
Lastly, Quart tackles the oft-reported ‘rise of automation’ and the looming threat it presents to labor. Regarding the latter, Quart proudly describes herself as a ‘techno-pessimist’, casting ample suspicion at utopianists of the Silicon Valley ilk while effectively maintaining that people, labor, possess preeminent moral value: “Shouldn’t we always first and foremost defend people and their labor?” (p. 233) She admits that her stance on tech places her “far from chic” (p. 234), but I, for one, find this to be one of the most refreshing and confidently assertive positions in Quart’s reporting.
Also of particular note is the story of former journalist John Koopman. Koopman, now driving for Uber, found himself thrust out of the San Francisco Chronicle with 25 years of reporting under his belt (including time served during the invasion of Iraq). “He is representative of the many middle-class professional dads who have been sucked into the gig economy and who are also irritated, even enraged, by this fact… he was a mass of road rage over his lost career and status. Then he discovered a potentially depressing new “Zen”—the nothingness that is being an Uber driver, as he put it. It was a balance born of nihilistic resignation”. Here Quart describes a tale that strikes up with my own work as a contractual (or at several times in the past, pro-bono) development professional for non-profits; while I may not be driving an Uber (yet), the gig economy certainly doesn’t impart the kind of career identity, and confidence, promised by higher education.
Koopman’s “extra and unlikely jobs” (p. 156) included work at a strip club, a shift which naturally brought deep shame for the formerly successful journalist. “Koopman highlighted for me that today no amount of education can guarantee that a person will sustain their chosen professional identity, or even an identity that fits. He also personified the shame and embarrassment that follow from not being able to maintain a coherent career identity at all.” Quart thereafter describes an interaction with an Uber spokesperson which directed her to an essay by David Plouffe, “Barack Obama’s campaign manager and an Uber senior vice president until 2015, when the company decided to emphasize that it was coming to the aid of America’s squeezed middle class.” (“Uber Hires the Guy Who Led Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign to Victory”, Business Insider, 19 August 2014) Plouffe, with what one can only conjecture to be either an utter lack of shame or an utter and overriding delusion, describes Uber as a rescue for the middle class, which “serves as the ‘pay raise they [the drivers] have not received in their other jobs,'” a suggestion Quart dismisses as “infuriatingly, and giddily, Orwellian.” (p. 157)
Of course, all but the most ideologically inundated neoliberals would have to agree with Quart’s condemnation of Plouffe, Uber, and each and every one of these consultants, companies, and spokespeople who seem to so eagerly spearhead the ongoing destruction of the American labor market; indeed, Squeezed is at its absolute best when Quart combines her excellent reporting, rich with the perspective of that ‘Middle Precariat’, with a willingness to more openly and sharply decry the structural conditions that are giving way to such misery. One particularly powerful aside conveys Quart’s frustration at the ‘self-blaming’ of a fellow journalist who lost her career and her self-worth, contending that her own failures were holding back her daughter’s success: “It made me want to break my journalist role and argue with her and disagree vehemently. No, I wanted to say, it’s not just you. It’s the end of journalism as we know it…” (p. 178).
If anything, I wish Quart ‘broke her journalist role’ more often if it meant more confident condemnations of the institutionalized abuses her subjects suffer under. To be sure, as a journalist, some level of ‘objectivity’ is required (to the extent that ‘objectivity’ is an intelligible concept for a human reporter, not an algorithm). On the extreme end of journalism’s modern, insincere, discursively manipulative and corporately manufactured drive toward the appearance of impartial ‘balance’ is the ‘view from nowhere’, or the theory that institutionalized aspirations toward ‘impartiality’, ‘neutrality’, ‘objectivity’, or however you want to describe it carry with them negative effects in the journalism industry.
In essence, the ‘view from nowhere’ manifests most plainly and frequently as the practice of treating ‘both sides’ in a story as equally relevant, valuable, or worthy of time and consideration even when the views of one or the other are demonstrably false and/or extreme (a frequently cited example in climate change coverage is providing airtime to individuals and ‘experts’ who deny widely accepted scientific research). Another would be to host an ‘expert’ with ties to the defense industry to detail the need for direct action in the Middle East without disclosing those ties. To be sure, Quart does not do this; as in the case of Plouffe, she does not take the time to stamp out the public relations drivel of Uber only to pretend that it bears fair and equal consideration in a story about the abused victims of the ‘gig economy’. In the sense that Quart does make open condemnations of the status quo in defense of the Middle Precariat, there are no doubt some who would accuse her of ‘bias’ (a nigh-meaningless personal attack so often slung at decent journalists as to have become quaint).
What I’m saying is that, if anything, I wish that Quart more often and more forcefully went farther in condemning the systemic abuses she so skillfully reports on.
“A Benighted Order of Things”
On the back cover of Quart’s work, HarperCollins describes Squeezed as “ultimately hopeful”. I, for one, didn’t get that sense. As with so many publications that directly address deep social, political, and economic malaise, I can’t help but feel this kind of obligation to be positive at some point, this urge, no doubt closely related to branding and marketing, to ensure that your newly published book – with all the hopes, desires, and expectations attached to it — doesn’t end up feeling like some big, unrepentant downer.
To be sure, Quart does point out, suggest, and even sometime detail potential ‘solutions’, but they fall into two broad camps: 1. references to Federal and Local level government-driven policy overhauls which would attempt to address the core of the systemic socioeconomic problems present for labor, and smaller, ‘more attainable’, ‘more realistic’ minor policy initiatives, co-ops, apps, and 2. other private, ‘innovative’ solutions that would ultimately only attack those systemic problems from around the edges. The former generally gets less attention because they ‘aren’t likely’, while the latter are more often and thoroughly presented. In fact, Quart doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time detailing what exactly the structural conditions she so often refers to are, though we might conjecture that these rather complex accounts were outside the scope of her intentions for Squeezed (she suggests as much when noting the need to throw weight being ‘political outsiders’, admitting that the issue is “a whole other book for someone ambitious enough to write”). (p. 261)
However, my overall impression of Quart following Squeezed is not that of the optimistic mainstream American liberal who believes we can ‘ethically consume’ our way out of these problems, nor merely ‘adjust our attitude’: “…while some psychological analysis or boosts may help, the problem of not being able to afford to live in America can’t be cured by self-help mantras. It can’t be mended simply by creating a resume that utilizes several colors of printer ink or a regimen of cleansing green juices. The problem is systemic.” At the same time (on the same page), Quart offers the explicit mantra of her book: “It’s not your fault.” (p. 4)
It wouldn’t be difficult to understand if the reader, at a glance, construed this as a muddied message. However, “It’s not your fault” succinctly conveys the emotional core of Squeezed and does indeed stand in opposition to the neoliberal tenets of many of the consultants and self-help gurus Quart describes, hacks who offer the fiction of the ‘entirely self-responsible, self-made individual’ who can ‘restart their lives’ at any time if they just ‘get up and do it’ (and I’ll tell you exactly how for my ‘reasonable’ hourly rate). (see p. 175) In that sense, “It’s not your fault” is the appropriate ‘motivational’ message for a work which doesn’t want the reader to lose sight of the whirlwind they’ve been sucked into, the structural conditions that have cut them off from the kind of capital, social or otherwise, and the promises of their better education. It’s just that, while Quart’s compelling interviews/personal accounts and compassionate, intelligent message compose the greatest strength of Squeezed, they do so in tandem with a message about the need for structural change, which I feel wasn’t fully explored as it should be.
Returning to the issue of marketing Squeezed as ‘hopeful’, however, Quart’s final chapter (which directly concerns ‘potential solutions’) ends none-too-cheerfully in either tone or content. If anything, I read frustration, moral outrage, and even resignation (like many of the lives’ detailed in Squeezed). She starts with two of the more direct, obvious policy solutions: some kind of ‘Universal Child Allowance’, and comprehensive, subsidized, quality day care services, the latter of which she woefully regards as ‘un-American’. (p. 258) Then moving on to ‘more likely improvements’, such as the manner in which wealthy former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ‘universal Pre-K’ initiative found success or the call for companies to basically decide to be more responsible toward labor (naming and shaming type stuff, the most desperate suggestion) (p. 261). Quart admits that these solutions wouldn’t really be enough even if they worked: “All of these fixes, however, are only beginnings… What to do while we wait—probably much longer than our childbearing years—for an improved social architecture?” (p. 262)
What proceeds is the final section of Squeezed, ‘Solutions of Our Own’, a call to take what little we can in our own hands via “…changes in how we feel and think about our benighted condition. Although I hate to suggest that change has to come from within… it’s true that one way to deal with our leaders’ severe neglect of us is to turn inward.” (p. 262) Quart describes the need for internal shifts, to “stop placing blame” (particularly on oneself), and for a reframing of the discussion around care.
Without doubt, changing the discussion around care workers is essential, and similarly, the need to stop all the self-loathing as a member of the poor, working class, or ‘Middle Precariat’ is crucial (as I’ve personally come to understand). Her discussion around these issues is, again, intelligent, compassionate, and necessary. If I haven’t been clear enough, the manner in which Quart fosters this discussion through the stories of real people is the true strength of Squeezed and more than enough reason to pick up her work and read it, whether you are suffering as a member of the precariat or even a member of an older, more fortunate generation who is having a hard time understanding what’s happening to their children.
It’s just that, again, I really wouldn’t call it hopeful. Squeezed is a predominantly sad tale told by an excellent reporter doing what journalists ought to be doing, and that melancholy, that rawness, is exactly what it should be. Quart concludes: “We look to our political leaders, our courts, and our corporations to help get us out of the squeeze. As we wait, we can, of course, make further shifts within ourselves… Change shouldn’t have to happen first internally and then later… societally. This is the benighted order of things. But it is what we have now.” If that right there reads to you like hope, then I’m Pope Francis.
We are living in an absurd time, in an absurd, ruthless society. We are under the ruthless boot of neoliberalism, struggling, flailing, failing to keep ourselves above water. The rise in fatalities – suicides, opioids and the like – is symptomatic of that fetid rot. The rise in rates of mental illness – anxiety, depression, OCD, bipolar, and worse – is a consequence of that society-wide pathology. We should be angry that change is not coming from our legislators, our state houses, our judges and our elite. Hell, we should be beside ourselves! Quart has every right, and we should allow her every opportunity, to give up that journalistic veneer and say to her interviewees and her audience that what is going on is just absolutely, unreservedly wrong. Immoral. Inexcusable. The best journalists don’t pull these punches, aren’t afraid to call names, aren’t afraid to say what is just, even when there may not be the greatest gain in it for them (my favorite journalist to quote, Chris Hedges, is emblematic of this courage). And indeed, in many ways, we are beside ourselves, only as this manner of self-loathing, or ‘worse’ as Quart describes it, this kind of irrational hatred directed at the most unfortunate (the poor, the immigrant, and yes, the care worker).
All of it feels so overwhelmingly insane, so utterly upside down, because the things we believe about ourselves are increasingly at odds with the-world-as-it-is. Well-educated, well-meaning individuals believe that all of their education and intellectual growth was for naught if they can’t find the kind of class mobility they wanted (it wasn’t, and as Squeezed implores, one shouldn’t beat themselves up about this, either). Many of us have dreams of a class existence which we see on the ‘one-percent TV’ but never seem able to actualize in our own lives. Even deeper, there are the lies we tell ourselves about the society at large, whether the notion that climate change is going to ‘work itself out’ or equally absurdist idea that the United States is a functioning Democracy.
It isn’t. We keep banging our head against the walls of a government which seems to so ruthlessly devalue the lives of children – whether through completely unsupported child-care, a barbaric lack of maternity/paternity-leave provisions, the children we separate from their families through immigration, or the children we murder abroad through drone strikes or vast international weapons sales – and we keep wondering why all that banging doesn’t seem to do anything. Our illusion of a free and open, functioning democracy – a place where fundamentally democratic institutions are in place and responsive to the will of the people – is in its last stages of dissolution in the face of all of these crushing realities. And it’s hurting. A lot. We struggle against that, feebly, ineffectively, in part because too many of us still don’t know the enormity of what we are struggling against (for more, I implore you to seek out Sheldon Wolin’s 2008 Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, wherein he outlines exactly how the United States is a system of ‘inverted totalitarianism’).
So when Quart concludes with that tone of resignation, with the ultimate admission that they don’t seem to be listening to us and we are left with little more than trying to put the breaks on our collective self-loathing, with this “benighted order of things”, no, I don’t feel she is being particularly hopeful. Rather, Quart is smart, realistic, honest. In the way of the best journalists. What I can only hope is that Quart continues to do what she does, continues offering these essential perspectives on American life at a time when cable broadcast news largely pretends the poor don’t exist, that the ‘Great Recession is over’. If for nothing else, we need to at least keep letting each other know what is going on, why it hurts, and that it isn’t our fault. It’s just our problem to solve, somehow.