'Squeezed' Explores Why America Is Getting Too Expensive For The Middle Class

Jun 26, 2018
Originally published on July 2, 2018 11:14 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're middle class and feel like you're having a hard time staying middle class, you are not alone. In fact, you're the kind of person my guest, Alissa Quart, writes about in her new book "Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America." She reports on how the costs of housing, child care, health care and more have far outpaced salaries and how that's changing the lives of middle-class Americans, as well as life in American cities. Quart is the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Alissa Quart, welcome to FRESH AIR. So the mantra of your book is it's not your fault. And that's something you had to convince yourself of. Tell us what you felt guilty about that exemplifies what you think others feel guilty about too in terms of being able to maintain themselves in the middle class and provide for their child or children.

ALISSA QUART: So when I got pregnant with my daughter, both my husband and I were freelancers, and we didn't have that much security. We had savings. We were better off than many people, but we didn't have, you know, pensions and all the things that people used to have. And very quickly, we were going through our savings, and I did feel a lot of shame about that. I said, you know, what could I have done differently? Both of us being journalists was probably not the best choice, I thought. So that started to feel to me like a kind of stigma that I have had to work to get over. And part of the book was me communicating with a lot of other people who also felt that shame and stigma.

GROSS: You write middle class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was 20 years ago. And in some cases, the cost of daily life has doubled. What do you define as middle class for that statistic?

QUART: Yeah. So I'm defining it according to a 2016 Pew survey with a yearly - those with a yearly household income for a family of three ranging from $42,000 to $125,000. And in 2014, that was 51 percent of U.S. households. I mean, I go up the scale in one of the chapters, and I go down the scale in two chapters. So I'm trying to show mostly people who are making that much but then also how even when you make more than that in, you know, Palo Alto and San Francisco and New York, it doesn't feel like you're upper-middle class. It feels like you're middle class. And if you make less than that and you're trying to get into the middle class, you can't accomplish that either.

GROSS: So what do you think are the main expenses that have gone up for American families?

QUART: Expenses that have gone up starts with housing and the cost of real estate, of homeownership. And then, it continues on with health care, which is, as everybody knows, astronomical and then schooling. A public university cost double what it did in 1996. And that's not a fancy private school. So I think that's kind of very telling, and a lot of the people I spoke to were sort of weighted down by educational debt. If we think about what it means to be a professional, it often means having, you know, at least college and then potentially graduate school. So a lot of what these people were struggling with was, like, $140,000 in law school bills and that kind of thing.

GROSS: You didn't have a child until you were 38. How much did the cost of having a child figure into waiting that long?

QUART: You know, I'll be honest. I think for me some of it was that, but most of it was other sorts of things that I actually talk about in the book as well. And we also know that, you know, mothers are estimated to make - there was a survey of employers who were thinking of hiring mothers versus childless women, and they wanted to offer the mothers $11,000 less per year. And you're supposed to make 7 percent less per child. So, I mean, it wasn't even necessarily the money that we had but what I knew it could potentially do to my earning power.

GROSS: So those surveys that show that women with children make less money, what's the explanation for that?

QUART: I think it's, you know, employers' prejudice that, you know, there's a lot of sense that, oh, they're going to be less productive. We have such limited maternity leave. Paid family leave is - something like 13 to 14 percent of Americans have paid family leave in their jobs, so that's very small. And, you know, I think these employers feel like, oh, once I hire somebody who has a kid, this is going to be a cascade of latenesses and absences - things that are really often untrue and just bias. I mean, in fact, there was a Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis survey that found moms were more productive in their jobs than women without children. And they got those numbers by surveying 10,000 academics.

GROSS: Were you still a freelance journalist when you had your child?

QUART: Yeah, I was a freelance journalist. And, you know, part of the thing in our industry in journalism is that since 2004, newspapers have lost 50 percent of their jobs. So, you know, it was a real concern. Everyone I knew was suddenly earning after, say, 2006 or '07 less per word than they did in the '90s and - you know, I mean, except for the 1 percent, top 1 percent of journalists, that was kind of the case. And I knew that on top of having - being a contingent worker - right? - which makes us more vulnerable being freelance, my own industry was really under siege.

GROSS: So let's talk about child care, and child care is so expensive. I'm talking about, you know, day care. And working women - I think the number of working women that we have in our society today, it's a relatively new phenomenon. And I don't think our society has adjusted to it yet in terms of having an infrastructure that makes it possible for two parents to work and be able to afford child care. Child care is just so expensive. What are some of the figures for the cost of day care that you've come up with, both as a parent and as a researcher for this book?

QUART: Yeah. So right now, two-thirds of women with kids under 6 are working. So that is a huge number. And those are kids who are often too young to be in kindergarten or even preschool. So that means that they're going to be needing day care, which at this point can cost - a lot of the people I spoke to were paying 20 to 30 percent of their income on their children's day care. Now, like, this is - varies from state to state. So the Economic Policy Institute said the annual average cost of infant care in New York state is $14,000. So a New York family with one child pays 21 percent of their income on child care on average, and for two kids, that rises to 38.7 percent.

GROSS: So, you know, you write in your book that teachers, both, like, teachers in public schools and college teachers, especially adjunct professors, are having a hard time making ends meet. So let's start with schoolteachers. Give us an example of one of the people who you interviewed who's struggling who's a schoolteacher.

QUART: So yeah - so I spoke to Matt Barry, who lived in San Jose, Calif., and he was a schoolteacher. He and his wife both teach. They earned $69,000, a combined salary, which, if we do the math, is - should have supplied them with a comfortable family life. But on the side, Matt was driving Uber, and he was - had to do so because of the cost of living in places like San Jose. I don't know if you saw, but there was just numbers released about how much it costs to live there, and it's one of the most expensive places in America right now. A starter home costs $680,000. And he wasn't the only one. I also spoke to people in North Dakota where there had been an oil boom. So suddenly, the cost of living was much higher, the rent - renting apartments and so forth. And they had made $32,000 starting salaries. And I spoke to somebody who GoFunded her teacher training program. Her name was Rebecca Maloney. And I talked to other teachers who, when we got off the phone, they went off and painted houses after the school bell. So that - you know, a lot of people are doing additional jobs.

GROSS: That's kind of bad for society because, from having taught very briefly myself, I know that evenings are usually spent grading papers, planning lessons, maybe making phone calls to parents. So if you don't have evenings to do that kind of work, when are you going to do it?

QUART: No, exactly. And this was - also there was the paradox that some of these people were driving the parents of their students. So it just created...

GROSS: Oh, like while working with Uber or Lyft.

QUART: Yeah, and driving the parents of their students. So it just kind of created this bizarre sort of secondary service economy.

GROSS: You write that teachers as Uber drivers was a thing for a while.

QUART: Yeah. And they, Uber, had a campaign. I think it was Uber teachers driving our future, or something like that. And that was in 2014 or '15. And they also had one for nurses. And so, I mean, I wrote about this. I feel like for a company like Uber, and generally gig economy companies in general, the middle class is a really valuable signifier, right? It's a symbolic category. They're like, OK, it's going to make us look better to have middle-class people driving for us. But the teachers themselves are being underpaid and neglected and not having adequate housing. I personally think that we should try to provide teacher-specific housing in these really affluent communities because that would really help offset the costs.

GROSS: You also write about adjunct professors. Would you explain what an adjunct is?

QUART: An adjunct professor is somebody who works basically as a freelance professor. They work contingently. They don't have tenure. They teach individual classes, sometimes for many different universities or colleges.

GROSS: And you write that adjuncts make up 40 percent of the teachers at American colleges and universities. I didn't realize the statistic was that high. What does it mean financially for adjuncts who get paid by the class as opposed to a full-time salary?

QUART: Yeah. Well, I spoke to adjuncts who made $1,700 a class or $3,000 a class, and so then they were teaching three or four courses a semester and then they were sometimes barely making $24,000. They were close to the poverty line. And that was typical.

GROSS: So why is it that college costs have gone up so high, yet 40 percent of the teachers at American colleges and universities are adjuncts and aren't getting paid very much?

QUART: Well, yeah. It's because college and university administrative positions have risen. It's kind of the corporatization of the university system. They've grown by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009. And that's 10 times the rate of the growth of tenured faculty positions. So, I mean, I think it's important for people listening to this, like, when you're sending your kid to college or university, I feel like these universities should say how many adjuncts are teaching there and what they're paying them. That should be almost part of the U.S. News & World Report rating system.

GROSS: Yeah. Does the high salaries of top administrators really explain what adjuncts are getting paid? Because to pay a few salaries a lot of money when you have, like, you know, thousands of kids, of students, in your university, it's not hard to make up those salaries. I'm not trying to justify or not justify those salaries one way or another, but I'm not sure that that fully explains the low pay of adjuncts.

QUART: I mean, some of it is that a lot of labor has become contingent in general. It's not unionized. You know, universities can be quasi-businesses, right? Some of them are outright businesses. And so they know that the market will bear them hiring adjuncts rather than tenure-track professors.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alissa Quart, and she's the author of the new book, "Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Alissa Quart, author of the new book, "Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America." She's also the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

So you spoke to people who - because housing prices are so high and because child care prices are so high - you spoke to people who are coming up with alternative living arrangements to deal both with the child care price issue and the housing price issue. Share with us some of those alternative housing plans that you've seen.

QUART: So yeah, so I feel like one of the things that made this project less depressing was that it pointed to solutions. And some of those solutions were really big. They involve us voting differently. They involve trying to create maternity leave across the board and universal pre-K and 3-K for schoolchildren. But they also are these sort of smaller, more bespoke solutions, and those included things like co-parenting - people who are not in a romantic situation living together and sharing cooking duties and, you know, drop-off duties for their kids for economic and also for psychological reasons.

GROSS: And you found alternative living arrangements, too, for people just wanting to share their rent. And we're not talking about people in college, or just out of college or just starting out on their own who want roommates.

QUART: Yeah. These were not kids. These were people in their 30s and 40s who sometimes had done this multiple times. They live with a roommate with a kid, and they would cook meals together. And one of the characters told me about, you know, parents were mostly first-generation immigrants, and they would buy, you know, healthy food from their home countries and they would cook it for all the kids, and then the kids would all play together. And they shared the same values around parenting. They were somewhat strict. But they were not romantically involved, but they all lived on different floors of a single house.

GROSS: You write that crowdfunding is now an essential part of America's safety net. Would you elaborate on that for us?

QUART: Yeah. So I wrote a piece in The Times about six months ago about something I call the dystopic social net. And what I mean by that is GoFundMe or other kinds of philanthropies that are coming into the fray to support us when we should be supported by the federal government or local government. And this includes fundraising for day care, which I actually interviewed people for "Squeezed" who did this, or for IVF. They do it on these crowdfunding sites. Or fundraising for school lunches, which whole school districts do. And I talked to people in Montana where the school district was now doing this. There's a whole school district area of GoFundMe. I don't know if you know that, but...

GROSS: I did not know that.

QUART: Yeah. For a range of things, from school lunches to notebooks and pencils. It's very distressing.

GROSS: So unemployment numbers are down now. So statistically, things are looking really good. So how does that figure into your larger theme of how difficult it is to stay middle-class?

QUART: Well, I think we're looking - there's a difference between long term and short term, and some of those changes in the numbers are short term, but some of the problems that we have are long term. And as I write about in my book, I mean, we're looking at automation, record amount of automation of formerly middle-class jobs by 2026, if the World Economic Forum is to be believed. And so I think that's one of the threats that is not being accounted for. I also do wonder with these numbers of - employment numbers how many of the people whose job picture looks rosier are working multiple jobs and how much job security those jobs have because many of the people I spoke to, as I said, are contingent or had a lot of job instability. They didn't have pensions, and they didn't have any kind of future career trajectory from the jobs they had.

GROSS: And a lot of people say that many of those new jobs are fairly low-wage.

QUART: Yeah. They're low-wage jobs. And, you know, sometimes they're in sectors that are actually going down, like retail work, which is eventually, again, going to be automated.

GROSS: So you are now the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. What is it? Tell us about it.

QUART: So it was founded originally by Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote "Nickel And Dimed." And I sort of co-founded its current incarnation with her four or five years ago at this point. And we give grants to writers, photographers, documentarians. We publish their work. We develop their work and publish it and co-publish with a range of places from The New York Times to WNYC to Showtime. We had a film on Showtime. And a quarter of our grant recipients are lower-income, and three quarters are sort of middle-income journalists. But it dovetails very much with what this book is about because a lot of the people that I was encountering in the course of my editing were struggling middle-class or fallen middle-class. They had gotten six-figure advances in the '90s. They had worked at newspapers. And now they were driving Uber or, you know, just living - one of them was, you know, practically homeless. And then we would support their work or I would support their work, and they'd be getting, you know, an amount for - per word from us, and that would, you know, boost them and get them back on their feet.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

QUART: Oh, you're welcome.

GROSS: Alissa Quart is the author of the new book "Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America." She's the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEM THAT GOT")

RAY CHARLES: (Singing) I've gotten down to my last pair of shoes. Can't even win a nickel bet because them that's got are them that gets. And I ain't got nothing yet. I'm sneaking in and out...

GROSS: After we take a short break, we'll hear from Frank Newsome, who sings hymns a cappella in a style that's one of America's oldest musical traditions. He's a former coal miner who now has black lung disease. His album of hymns has just been widely released. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEM THAT GOT")

CHARLES: (Singing) That old saying, them that's got are them that gets, is something I can't see. If you got to have something before you can get something, how do you get your first is still a mystery to me. I see folk with long cars and fine clothes. That's why they're called the smarter set because they managed to get what only them that's got supposed to get, and I ain't got nothing yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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