Book of the week
Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America
“It’s not in your head,” said Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon.com. If you’re a member of the middle class and you’re feeling dangerously overstretched, working from paycheck to paycheck at best, perhaps saddled with monstrous debts and not always able to cover basic costs, you don’t have to blame yourself for having played the game poorly. Journalist Alissa Quart wants to spread the word that a whole lot of people are in similar straits—because the deck is stacked. In just the past 20 years, as middle-class incomes have continued to stagnate, the cost of middle-class living has increased by 30 percent, mostly owing to dramatic rises in the going rate of housing, college, and health care. “You are getting by on less and less”; you need to stop being too ashamed to talk about it.
Quart has no grand theory to explain why basic costs are outpacing Americans’ means, said Rana Foroohar in the Financial Times. Still, “Squeezed does deliver color,” introducing us to adjunct professors dependent on food stamps, to public school teachers who moonlight as Uber drivers, and to two-income couples who rightly conclude they can’t afford to have children. Quart’s class portrait is “particularly sharp” on how and why people feel guilty instead of enraged about such challenges, even though their gravest strategic missteps were often “doing what they love,” say, or starting a family. Quart self-identifies as a member of the struggling class she describes, and “her book succeeds and suffers accordingly,” said Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times. She’s very good at getting people to share their stories and worries, but she can be “a distracting presence,” prone to making weak jokes and misaimed bids for lyricism.
Quart’s book, though, is “full of useful, good-sense ideas,” said Eric Liebetrau in The Boston Globe. She supports exploring a federally guaranteed universal basic income for all Americans—slim as its political prospects may be—and also suggests such small-bore fixes as having colleges and universities rated according to how many grossly underpaid instructors are working in their classrooms. Even so, she seems able to offer “only faint counter-measures” to a problem that’s one of her primary concerns, said Steve Donoghue in CSMonitor.com. The costs of child care, health care, housing, and education are making having children a luxury only the wealthiest can afford. Whomever you wish to blame, it’s easy to agree on one thing: “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” ■