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book review

The painfully shrinking middle class

In a nation beset by income inequality and riven by social and cultural conflict, the traditional conception of the quiet contentment of middle-class American life appears to be on the wane. In this suitable match of author and subject, Alissa Quart, executive editor of the nonprofit Economic Hardship Project (founded by Barbara Ehrenreich), lucidly demonstrates that for many, the dream of such satisfaction is increasingly out of reach.

“The middle class is endangered on all sides,” she writes, “and the promised rewards of belonging to it have all but evaporated.” As the author of The Guardian’s “Outclassed” column and three previous books of culturally- and socially-aware journalistic investigations, including “Hothouse Kids,” Quart is well-positioned to study the crumbling landscape of middle-class America. Unlike recent books that are similar in spirit — e.g., Michael Desmond’s “Evicted” — Quart’s narrative focuses not on the bottom levels of American poverty but rather on the segment of the population that many of us would be surprised to learn are struggling to keep their heads above water.


“[O]f course the psychological burden on the upper-middle class isn’t anywhere near as dangerous or even as anxiety-producing as it is for the less solvent families you have met,” she writes. “But there is a specific pain [for educated, experienced workers] who live or lived in American cities now dominated by the 1 percent.” These days, Quart argues persuasively, the quaint-seeming old goal of “doing what you love’’ is not feasible for even highly educated workers who may carry multiple degrees but still can’t keep up with rent or mortgage and other payments. It’s no longer true “that a graduate degree in a stable and ostensibly sensible field is the path to personal betterment,” and the sad reality is that many “professors may be more likely than their students to be living in basement apartments and subsisting on ramen and Tabasco.”

Consequently, nurses, lawyers, and other supposedly “white-collar” workers are now “moonlighting in the gig economy,” particularly in more affluent regions of the country. In fact, as Quart shows in a series of memorable profiles, many teachers are now having to spend their evenings and weekends driving for Uber. In wealthy areas, “residents happily shell out for custom-built houses with swimming pools and ‘super basements,’ but are rarely willing to pay higher taxes so their teachers can afford to pay rent.” As one of her interviewees noted, “no amount of education can guarantee that a person will sustain their chosen professional identity, or even an identity that fits.”


Quart is especially good with the psychological dimensions involved in this pervasive problem, sharing with readers her own attempts to work through her “omnipresent and corrosive” self-blame for ostensibly not planning ahead or somehow dropping the ball along the way. “I felt juvenile,” she notes about her career choices, “but also suspected that the game was rigged — that unlike me, the very wealthy . . . didn’t lacerate themselves for small missteps.”

Most readers will likely agree that the game is rigged, and Quart accessibly lays out the mechanics of the game — and the many inherent flaws — primarily as they relate to the areas of pregnancy (“in this country being pregnant . . . can be a professional hazard”) and child care availability (“Only 14 percent of American workers have paid family leave.”), debt (especially student debt), day care costs, health care, real estate, returning to work from retirement, and the plight of the adjunct professor, a position that lacks benefits and offers little job security.


Refreshingly, the author is unrelenting in her criticism of this country’s lack of affordable and accessible child care. “The lack of adequate federal support for child care illustrates the devaluation of care work in America,” she writes, and corporations must do more to address the day care needs of their employees.

Though she doesn’t offer sweeping agendas for change, the book is full of useful, good-sense ideas that legislators and other leaders should heed: One is to label colleges and universities that qualify as “ ‘fair labor’ institutions,” in which one of the factors of college rankings include percentage of adjuncts and how they are paid. Another is the application of a Universal Basic Income, certain to be a nonstarter in today’s political climate but worth considering. Sadly, many of the issues Quart investigates are likely to remain on the sidelines within our current state of affairs; what makes it even more infuriating is that, as she points out, many of our peer nations have already figured out elegant and humane solutions to nearly all of these problems.

But in the United States circa 2018, the path to real progress seems fraught, and any solution will involve frank conversations about societal values. The author closes with an important warning: “If we don’t challenge today’s stigma around speaking of familial class status, it will warp a new generation’s experience of an even more important class — the classrooms where they learn. And that’s a distortion we simply can’t afford.”



Why Our Families Can’t Afford America

By Alissa Quart

Ecco, 312 pp., $27.99

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Eric Liebetrau, the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus.com.