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Reimagining the Middle Class

In her new book, Alissa Quart chronicles what happens when capitalism and families collide

As the economic status of many in the United States has declined over the past several decades, journalists have often focused on the challenges faced by the working poor. In her new book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, Alissa Quart writes about how economic inequality has also drastically changed the middle class, destabilizing what was once considered a secure class and sending families into the tailspin of debt, overwork, underemployment, and precarious financial states. Squeezed demonstrates that inequality is not just a problem of those left behind in the lowest financial brackets, but a feature of our current economic system characterized by working professionals who are unable to pay for child care, declining job salaries, shifting work hours, and unaffordable housing. Families too often wrestle with “penalizing” factors, like women’s depressed salaries and unaffordable health care, making success unattainable for a formerly comfortable, educated, and skilled demographic of society.

Many in the middle class are too ashamed to acknowledge their economic plight and too belabored to politically address it.

The book challenges us to reimagine our prior understanding of what it means to be middle class, even as legislators champion “traditional values” that contradict the needs and responsibilities of families—and erode a safety net that once supported U.S. workers. Some of the factors that have upended the middle class are obvious—declining salaries, for instance—but others remain masked by corporate and social portrayal of them as a benefit to today’s workers. The gig economy, which, we’re told, gives workers young and old more flexibility and independence, turns out to be a contributor to what Quart calls the forever clock, a twenty-four-hour schedule that has usurped family and free time by keeping workers on constant call. Squeezed recounts the lives of the teachers who work second jobs, the professional mothers who struggle to pay for day care, the paralegals and adjuncts who have to moonlight to pay the rent, the well educated who never found a job in their intended profession that provides a livable salary. And the book causes us to ask why so many suffer in isolation, too ashamed to acknowledge their economic plight and too belabored to politically address it.

Quart is executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit organization founded by Barbara Ehrenreich (a contributing editor for The Baffler) that supports journalism examining economic inequality, its causes and solutions (EHRP has funded my own work and that of others published at The Baffler). Quart is the author of four previous books: Branded, Republic of Outsiders, Hothouse Kids, and the poetry book Monetized. She also co-writes, with Maia Szalavitz, a column for The Guardian titled “Outclassed.”

This month, Quart stopped by The Baffler office to talk to me about Squeezed. We’ve known each other for several years and I read the book in manuscript, so our conversation was casual, touching on individuals in the book, our own squeezed lives, how we can counter economic decline, and a necessary new definition of self-help.

Ann Neumann: Squeezed straddles the Trump election and very often people on the left—and the right, to be honest—are using this as a clear demarcation. I think one of the things the book does really well is point out that the mechanisms in place that harm working class families have been long in coming.

Alissa Quart: The reason Sanders and Trump could tap into anger are the numbers of those economically squeezed; it’s what I was seeing anecdotally. And you can feel that. You can feel when you go sit in people’s living rooms, when you talk to them on the phone. I went to a conference called iRelaunch that was all about helping people to start their careers over and the room just rippled with shame and fear. And acidic humor.

AN: How did the election change this book project?

AQ: I think it gave it new urgency for me. Just as it gave urgency to the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, the organization I run. I think everyone in journalism felt like we have to tell these stories. The Trump effect has made me feel like I have to keep a laser focus on the things people are ignoring and try to find a way for readers to pay attention to them. We’re all focusing on Ivanka and whether she’s the c-word or not, which is fine, there are all kinds of things happening around us and in our own lives politically that have nothing directly to do with what Trump is tweeting, but the effects of his administration and long-term trends are real and we just need to keep looking.

We just published an article at EHRP about a journalist who lives in a $17 a night Airbnb, places below what you usually scroll to. But this person was a working journalist who was getting six-figure advances fifteen or twenty years ago. There are all these human examples that constantly show this decline. Fine, maybe the job numbers are up, but how many jobs are people working and are they jobs in the professions? Are they jobs that pay enough for people to live in cities? Or they’re working three different jobs which leads us to things like, as in this book, twenty-four-hour day care.

AN: Day care centers that are open twenty-four hours to accommodate parents with nontraditional work hours or multiple jobs.

A lot of the issues I address in the book are really about time and how we spend it.

AQ: And they are growing in number. I wrote a piece on this; I called it the dystopian social net. I feel like that’s part of my life’s work. I love dystopian fiction and science fiction, probably because it seems a few clicks away from the life we’re leading. It’s a markedly different life and childhood than the one you and I had. It may be horrible, or maybe not, but we’re seeing a palpable transformation in what childhood can be in the course of twenty years.

AN: And that’s really just the decline of income?

AQ: It’s people working different hours, it’s corporations using algorithms to find out what times of day are most profitable—when they’ll have the most foot traffic in retail, for instance—and demanding that employees work those times. It’s increasing nightwork. Nontraditional could mean 11 to 3 or it could mean working in the evening, or working in different jobs, hither and thither. That alone points to a huge transformation in things like time. A lot of the issues I address in the book are really about time, how we spend it. In the twenty-four-hour day care section I use the term the forever clock. But that’s true of the upper middle class too, they feel squeezed because they’re also on a forever clock. They’re working in IT, for instance, and they’re working unusual hours and they have the expectation that they should be better paid for it. 

AN: Your work has been focused on economic inequality for a long time.

AQ: Every single one of my books is in some way about economic inequality. I used to teach at Columbia J-school and I always told my students that every writer has a central question they spend their career trying to answer and your job is to find out what your question is. It’s like a parlor game. So I think mine is: what happens when the family—or childhood—hits capitalism? What are the deformations and the formations? I read so many nineteenth-century novels as a kid that I’m fascinated by that intersection. Naturalism is ascetically but also politically and intellectually appealing to me. I think I just like the texture of family, love, money, and how they all meet.

AN: That comes out in the writing of the book because, I’ll tell you, there are economics books that I have no interest in reading because they’re a slog, a data dump. You also coin terms that give us a way to think about worker’s plights. You just mentioned the forever clock but there’s also the middle precariat.

AQ: I was trying to explain the shift in the middle class as an imaginative category. The middle class used to equal solid, fixed, stable. Temporally it was about gratification later, but your life wasn’t miserable while you were waiting for it. It wasn’t like OK, total slog, but you’re going to get that pension. We have to now think of it as a shaken category, an unstable category, and that’s a big shift. When we visualize the middle class, we’re visualizing the white picket fence, like the blue sky on the cover of the book. But it’s really this truck being squeezed between two houses.

It’s an unsettled identity, and you can fall out of it, you can barely get into it, you certainly can’t rise above it very easily. Guy Standing coined the term precariat in 2011 to describe the proletariat, which is a Marxist way of understanding the working class, crossed with precariousness. And people get that. Every time they ride an Uber or they have a gig economy Task Rabbit person come to their house they’re like, OK, that’s the precariat. But I was seeing the same thing among paralegals or those who have law degrees but were still doing temporary work.

AN: Getting a law degree can be like selling your soul to the banks.

AQ: All these people are in debt. Some of it is because they went to for-profit colleges and those colleges were really expensive and they didn’t have a good rate of placement. Which can be traced to for-profit colleges and grad schools that have very little oversight—and are sometimes indeed federally funded. It can also be traced to fewer law jobs overall and too many people imagining that law is a secure profession. This is about reimagining. Once you can reimagine a profession, even if you choose to do it—you choose to be a journalist, you choose be a lawyer—we should understand that we’re choosing something unstable. Awareness is a huge part of survival and I guess part of what I want with this book is to increase awareness. This is your self-help: Don’t blame yourself. We have to come alive to this recognition. You can still do what you love, so long as you know what it can mean.

This is a personal journey for me too. When I was younger, as a freelancer, I had some recognition that journalism was starting to fragment. It was around 2006 or 2007—but it was before that too, the’90s. The word rates used to be consistent and for freelance writers those rates became lower or stayed the same while inflation rose. I remember talking to someone and they said, “just think about us as post modern.” Now you do lots of things, it’s a hustle here and a hustle there. That person was a boomer who had a steady job, who would get social security. I remember feeling an incredible resentment.

AN: So precarious employment has been described to us as a beautiful thing. We’re not chained to a factory job, we get to think and move around, but it doesn’t pan out.

AQ: I personally came from a middle class background. As I describe in the book, my parents were college professors, originally community college professors, and they could afford to send me to a private school. They didn’t have any inheritance or anything. That’s the sort of the world I thought I’d be living in. All of us, our generation, Generation X, had an idea of the world we thought we’d be living in. The generation after us has come to understand some of these things.

AN: That they’re fucked? So do you think this is a moment in capitalism, as we watch continued market decline over the next years, when we either do something about it or devolve into a disordered society?

AQ: Yes, I think so. But this book isn’t depressing because it points to some solutions—not in a pat way, but things that will work. It’s a way to think about what kind of family safety net, federal and local, we need to make sure people aren’t falling through. For instance, a few of the people I write about in the book are on food stamps and other kinds of support, but many of them are a little above that in terms of earning power and they can’t get help. There’s a labor organizer I spoke with who tries to lower her salary to be able to get some sort of subsidized day care, some sort of health insurance program. It’s that edge: people who are middle class in terms of education, but working class in terms of earning. They’re on the edge of being working poor and not being able to access any of those services. That’s most of the people in this book. Once we understand that they’re precarious we need to find a safety net for them.

AN: What this book does is lay out the many ways that people are hurting at the moment and it kind of gives a blueprint as to how precariousness could be addressed. Subsidized day care, for instance. I had no idea about how expensive child care is.

AQ: Child care can be 30 percent of many salaries. Or more. I think for us it was 30 percent of our take-home pay.

AN: How do people do it? In the book you show us. We spend a lot of time with individuals, we get a look at their lives and there’s a revelation for a reader to think, Oh, it’s not just me. There are things that I go without, there are resources that I don’t have access to, there are crises that I lose sleep over or pray will never come my way. There’s something about this book that brings this issue to light and I wonder if that was what you thought you’d get out of the stories? Is that why you used a storytelling approach?

AQ: That’s the chick lit, soap operatic part of me. And there is something of that in these stories. You think, What’s going to happen next? Sometimes I was surprised because they did have the messy amplitude of ordinary life. The people I write about aren’t just symbolic though. Some of them I followed for years.

AN: I think of the co-parenting section where you spend time with families who are trying to come up with creative solutions. In some cases, over time, things were better; in some cases they were worse. But readers still get the sense that nothing is fixed, no one really knows what’s working.

AQ: Or like the nanny who was separated from her son when I first met her and it was one kind of story. It became a story about them reunited, but then it became a story about school choice, and then it became a story about a mixed outcome at the end. She was actually happy, but I think the reader would want her to have a more middle class life given how hard she’s worked and all the effort she’s made to make the right choices.

AN: The anxiety of her life stayed with me. There are so many things that thwart her from getting ahead. She just needs the smallest break, trying to bring her son here, trying to find an affordable place to live. She’s doing everything right and she doesn’t deserve to go through this. That’s what comes out in the story. So when you were doing this reporting, did you get a sense of relief that we’re all going through this at the same time?

AQ: I definitely did. I felt relief. I say that this book is self-help because it makes you realize that it’s not your fault. And that’s how I see self-help. I see it as awareness, really granularly understanding all the ways that systems have made it impossible for you personally to overcome financial challenges—so that you’re no longer blaming yourself.

AN: Thank God someone’s redefining self-help.

AQ: [Laughs] But that’s it. How do you not feel stigmatized, how do you not feel isolated? So many of my friends feel ashamed that they can’t figure out the school system, can’t figure out how to own their home.

They’re ashamed of where they are and so that becomes another debilitating factor.

AN: The various penalties—for being a woman, for having children, for having debt—stack up. Shaming has abetted this erosion of rights and financial stability.

AQ: Time, day care scheduling, and other demands mean people can’t organize. They’re ashamed of where they are and so that becomes another debilitating factor. The adjunct in one chapter feels ashamed even though she knows politically she shouldn’t. There are people like the teachers who drive for Uber, who feel ashamed even though they know they shouldn’t. And it goes on and on. I don’t want to put it back on individuals, but the personal thing that people can do is start talking openly about their monetary situation. People are startled when you do that. It can erode social norms in a weird way, but I also think it’s important that people stop fronting with one another.

I write in one chapter about the 1 percent media, about the social media where people pretend to live in more expensive places than they do. I call them wealthies, not selfies. So it’s not your imagination when you’re in any of these circumstances and you see people in a sun dappled villa. People are representing themselves in this inflated way and then you feel terrible and isolated. There are so many ways in which the stigma, the isolation, around your class position gets underlined.

AN: Has it always been shameful to be poor?

AQ: Probably.

AN: It’s not a fair question!

AQ: But let’s be clear. A lot of these people are not poor. Most of the people in this book are earning between $45,000 and $125,000. Working class is $35,000. They’re not at the poverty level.

AN: So the shame then comes from not being able to make ends meet.

I call them wealthies, not selfies.

AQ: The shame comes from having debt for the education that you got in order to be middle class. The shame comes from not doing as well as your peers. The shame comes from not living up to your potential. The shame comes from not owning your home, defaulting on your mortgage. Not giving your kids as good a life as you had. I’m not writing about the working poor. I’m writing about the middle poor.

AN: We still operate under the myth that as a society we can continue to lift people into middle class and lift middle class into other class brackets. We no longer have any of that upward mobility. We cannot anticipate that our children will be better off.

AQ: No, we cannot anticipate that.

AN: But that’s still the American dream, isn’t it? And that American dream has been tied to, say, home ownership or a vehicle or not having debt.

AQ: In New York it’s like what school your kid goes to. What college your kid goes to.

AN: You use the word reimagining; it’s a word that I don’t hear often enough in politics, particularly not applied to class.

AQ: I mean reimagining what it means to be successful, reimagining what it means to be middle class. In a dream scape kind of way, like, This is what we would like to see in this country. But also reimagining middle class in its truth, what it actually means now? Let’s tear the veil and not just say, Oh, it means stability or security. It doesn’t.