Going for Broke, the Middle Class Goes Broke

Going for Broke, the Middle Class Goes Broke

It’s as if the apocalyptic thinking that Ehrenreich diagnosed in her 1989 book, “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class,” has finally gained a purchase on reality. The people Ehrenreich depicted were anxious and self-absorbed, terrified of downward mobility; the ones in Quart’s book are anxious too, but now that they know firsthand the kind of profound vulnerability that used to be the domain of the poor, they may be on the cusp, she hopes, of pushing for genuine policy change. Even lawyers, a traditionally risk-averse bunch who tend to choose their profession for its stability, are getting caught in the vise between increasing law school tuitions and decreasing job prospects. Precarity, Quart suggests, can translate into solidarity.

Only, that is, if people stop blaming themselves first. Quart repeatedly indicts a system that allows comfort and security to become exclusive perks for the extremely rich (“rigged” is the word she keeps using). “The mantra of this book,” she writes in the opening pages, is “It’s not your fault.” Based on the diligent people she meets, it’s hard to disagree.

But then this reassurance is the kind of platitude that feels simplistic in a fully reported book. It still casts the discussion of financial hardship in familiar terms of who deserves help and who doesn’t. People make imperfect, and often just bad, decisions. A truly humane system wouldn’t only accommodate the blameless but would also make room for error — mistakes that, until humans are entirely replaced by robots, are inevitable.

Quart knows this. But aside from some sharp points about how workers are expected to “deny their biology” and “how little American businesses and legislators care about care,” the analysis in “Squeezed” is thin and altogether unmemorable. Quart herself can be a distracting presence, telling us how much iced coffee she drinks and cracking flat jokes (“When I write the dastardly word ‘domination’ here, I do not use the word in either the sultry or the not-safe-for-work sense”). At other moments, in what seem to be strenuous bids for lyricism, she comes perilously close to malapropism: “a miasma of physical tasks,” “a palladium of the thoughtful,” “hot aquiline wives.”

Her reporting, though, is reason enough to read “Squeezed,” especially as she brings to light how parents try to cope with the financial strain of caring for children. For all that legislators like to sentimentalize family values and hard work, they’ve largely abdicated their responsibility toward families, who are left to navigate a job market that prefers its employees childless and unencumbered. The result is that hardworking parents resort to creative (but complicated and demanding) coparenting arrangements or, as detailed in one unforgettable chapter, 24-hour day care.

“Jeans-clad, juice-box-wielding,” Quart writes, “we are trying to find our way out of the maze of our country’s idea of parenthood.” Spare me the jeans and the juice box, but I’ll take the rest; we could all use her expert guidance through the maze.

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