Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Alissa Quart: The American Middle Class and the Rise of the Precariat

The "Squeezed" author examines our runaway income inequality and the possible solutions offered by democratic socialism.
Alissa Quart. (Photo credit: Ash Fox)

Scheer and Quart discuss the middle class and why it is turning into the Precariat, or as Quart puts it, “the hypereducated poor.”  They discuss how capitalism and social factors have pushed people to live paycheck to paycheck and unable to afford basic necessities, such as childcare.  Scheer directs the conversation at what big corporations are doing to their employees and how the “delusion of a middle class is supported by the people who basically control the narrative… And they’re not experiencing the extreme anxiety of the precariat.” 

The interview concludes with Scheer and Quart discussing why people are turning to Democratic Socialism and how this can help make political changes. “For me,” Quart says “saying that it’s not your fault over and over again… is radical self-help, because… when we stop blaming ourselves and accusing ourselves of not doing something right, that’s when we look outward, and that’s when we can start to organize.”

Photo credit: Ash Fox.Credits

Robert Scheer

Joshua Scheer

Full transcript:

Robert Scheer: Hi, I’m Robert Scheer, and this is another edition of Scheer Intelligence. My guest today is Alissa Quart, who’s written a really important book called Squeezed: The High Price of the American Family. And I just have – Let me just be presumptuous and sort of give an overall thesis, the way I read the book. You’re basically saying that the DeToqueville dream of an ever-expanding middle class of opportunity and stakeholders, that was sort of the basic assumption of the American republic and democracy, is really over. And we have a new class, the precariat–I don’t know if you coined the term or it’s been around before–of people who think they’re in the middle class, and they have the education, very often, and the skill set that used  to be associated with a rising income and opportunity, and they find themselves in this incredibly precarious position of living paycheck to paycheck, and depressed, and having children is a disaster because you have to pay for child care and you can’t afford it. And you actually have a concept of the class ceiling. And I think it’s an interesting use of language. Why don’t you tell us what you mean by the class ceiling?

Alissa Quart: What I saw again and again when I was reporting this book was the place where gender intersected with social class and money and earning power. There were women who had been victims of pregnancy discrimination, whose careers, maybe they weren’t derailed, but they were in some ways taken to a place that they didn’t want to go. They had to leave the jobs they were working at, they had to, in one case they got into lawsuits with their employer because they didn’t feel like they could breastfeed on the job, and they had no spaces for them. In other cases they’re paid a lot less; you know, they didn’t get the kind of promotions, or they didn’t get hired in the first place. So those moments of kind of often invisible discrimination, intersect with social class in the sense that these people are not wealthy, so I mean, they’re women and they have to work, and they have to, you know, support their families. And yet they’re being held up on two counts; they’re being held up because many of the jobs that they once would have gotten relatively easily, like teaching or being paralegals or being accountants, are harder to get, and there are fewer and fewer options. And they’re being discriminated against because they’re mothers and women.

RS: Yeah. But let’s talk about this notion of class. Because you know, the whole assumption of a middle class has always been a confusing one; is it aspirational, does it mean opportunity, the meritocracy gets involved with that. And what you’re really talking about here are people who did work hard, and they played by the rules, and what happened was that they got degrees in subjects that should be important, or got jobs that just don’t pay enough to live on.Meritocracy today doesn’t mean being good in school and having a good skills set; it means servicing and providing skills that Google wants, or some other large corporation. Isn’t that the reality here? The very idea of a meritocracy has broken down. So being good at poetry, or the English language, or knowing history–that won’t cut it anymore.

AQ: No, absolutely. I mean, I wrote about some school teachers who were making, you know, $69,000, one of the teachers, and some of them were making a little less than that. But in the San Francisco area, where $117,000 for a small family is considered lower income–that’s just in–that’s impossible to live comfortably on that. So they wind up driving Uber or Lyft on the side, so they’re grading papers at stop signs and traffic lights. And that’s just not, you know, what we’d envision for what we’d want from the people who are sort of tending the minds of the next generation, right? That they’re distracted, that they have to do side hustles and so forth, and they’re not able to focus on curriculum. So that’s, that’s part of it. And yeah, I mean, I’ve read a little bit about the degraded place of the humanities, as well; I experienced it firsthand. I was in graduate school, I was going to be a professor of literature, and I started adjuncting. And I realized, this is going to be unsustainable. You know, you’re making so little per class; you know, you have no health and no job security. And so I just sort of took a different turn, I went into journalism.  But you know, it took 20 years for what was going to happen in academia to happen in journalism. Now, I’m in my early middle age, and it’s–we’ve lost 50 percent of newspaper jobs in the last 12 years.

RS: The breakdown, it seems to me, is it goes to this word meritocracy–we no longer think it’s important to educate the population, including the young. We no longer think the arts are important, literature is important, understanding your political system is important. And really, what we have is an extension of this free-market, libertarian model that the merit you’re looking for is merit to be able to work for some very successful cartel or corporation like Google or Apple. And the rest of it, what society needs, is gone.And so these twin forces of an economy that favors certain jobs but not others, and a society that no longer has a respectable civic responsibility to take care of people and provide education–isn’t that, I mean, isn’t that really the tinderbox that your book is describing?

AQ: Oh, absolutely. But you know, you were pointing out tech companies and so forth, but honestly, I talked to some IT people who–or people who were working as tech meteorologists and so forth–who were also not doing so great. So it’s not only–you know, the tech people, tech is extractive, right? It’s turning whole cities into campuses for these companies’ interests, monetary interests. But some of the people working there, at the bottom of the top, as it were, are not doing so great either, you know. This guy worked three jobs and lived two hours away from the jobs he was working. So basically, the lack of a social safety net is affecting people of many different walks of life. And then it’s also leading to people overworking. So that’s something I write about a lot. Seventeen percent of the U.S. workforce now has unpredictable hours, and they have these variable schedules that are at employers’ discretion. So I write in one very disturbing chapter about something I call “extreme daycare,” where you have kids now in 24-hour daycare facilities that are open at night and in the early mornings and on weekends. And that’s because, you know, nine percent of all daycare is now evenings and weekends. And you have a lot of people who just need to work all the time to make up for that lack of a social safety net. And for the people who say, how do we pay for this net? You just look at every Western European country, you know, not just Norway and Sweden, but many of the less lauded European countries–they all have this.  They all have paid leave, they have daycare that’s subsidized, pre-K. So I think we need to start thinking, what kind of country are we living in where only 14 percent of workers have paid family leave. And this can be fixed; these things can be fixed, they’re not–I mean, in New York City, universal pre-kindergarten was implemented in two years. And New York City is enormous. So you think, why couldn’t it be put into practice throughout this country?

RS: Well, that’s a basic question to ask. And your book addresses illusion, really.  And you raise this question of, we tell people–do what you love. And you ask the question, is that woman who’s assembling the coffee maker, is she doing what she loves? And isn’t this really a dangerously deceptive notion, to hold out the illusion that there’s meaningful work, meaningful jobs? When in fact, yes, there could be, if you paid teachers a living wage, but you don’t. Right? If you paid people taking care of children in a child-care center a meaningful, decent wage–yes, that you could love that. You know, or people doing writing and other things. But the fact of the matter is, we’ve bought into a free market image of what’s important. And we’ve destroyed, you know, going back to Reagan, who you mentioned; but you know, one of your themes in the book is the great shock of the last recession built on what Reagan had started and left people, you know, really in a disastrous situation.

AQ: Yeah, absolutely. And the “do what you love” came out of, you know, a seventies, sixties sensibility, you know, follow your dreams. I really believed that growing up. And now I don’t know what to tell my daughter. You know, should she follow her dreams? Should she do what she loves and be an artist or a writer, as she’s already asking to be at seven? You know, this is not–I know what that means, because I’ve written about it. I run an organization called Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and we exist because writers are so badly paid. We give people grants, and some of our writers are low-income, and that’s why we exist, because it’s such a scary profession in some ways right now economically, journalism. And so how can I say, yes, just go ahead, you’ll be, you’ll ascend, you’ll transcend these limitations.  Most of my career has been as a writer looking at illusions. You know, from my first book onward, my first book was called Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. And I was looking at the ways in which adolescents were being sold products, but also a whole self-conception. And I think in this book, I’m also looking at how our middle class was in some ways bamboozled, and there was a masquerade or a narrative that we were told. And the narrative emerged in the sixties and seventies, before 1979; it was the story that we could be who we wanted to be. It was also a story that the middle class was humdrum and boring and comfortable, something that existed as a stable entity that we would want to escape if we were wise. And now what, I guess what I was hoping this book would do is tear that veil a little and say, we couldn’t be The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit if we tried. And, yeah, so Revolutionary Road doesn’t exist anymore; it’s been knocked down, and they’ve built up McMansions.

RS:This book is both depressing and energizing. [Laughs] Because it makes you want to act. And I think, I just found myself crossing this campus, and I think this is a really fine school where we broadcast from, Santa Monica College, and it has very high standings, helping kids get to college who didn’t get in the first time, or can’t afford it or what have you. And yet, you know, I saw a few Teslas in the parking lot, a few fancy cars. And then I saw a lot of cars that didn’t look so good from faculty, faculty-staff parking. And a statistic in your book really got my attention. And it said that on many of these campuses–but nationally. Nationally– adjunct faculty, the non-tenured, poorly paid faculty, I think represents something like, what, five out of six teachers at a college level. And that–

AQ: And there was another survey done that showed that 62 percent of adjuncts make $20,000. [Laughs] So–yeah–

RS: Yeah. I wrote that one down too. And I thought about that, you know. And the reason I’m raising it is because your college professors, your journalists–yes, they’re clinging by their fingernails, and many of the people who studied journalism should expect to be PR agents or something, the jobs are really not there.And I just thought about it, the people who define our reality for us–in the best sense; I’m not talking about the celebrity culture, I’m not talking about the sensationalist media, I’m not talking about the demagogues. I’m just talking about serious journalists who don’t do fake news, do serious news; tenured professors, the people who run our major academic institutions. They’re not experiencing the pain that you describe in your book. And in your book, you have a kind of a constant theme; you’ve got, you know, people have their children in some playground in New York City, and they’re rubbing up against some people who are doing very well. Right? And they’re not doing well. They can’t feed their kid except macaroni and cheese. And they, you know, they’re putting so much into child care they can’t have any leisure time, and so forth. And so it hit me, reading your book, what you’re really talking about is the delusion of a middle class is supported by the people who basically control the narrative. They write the big stories, they run the magazines, they run television. They’re the tenured professors. And they’re not experiencing the extreme anxiety of the precariat. And walking across this campus, I took your statistic, if most of the people teaching here are adjunct faculty, and they’re making $20,000 a year, what middle class are they describing?

AQ: Well, here’s the thing. Like, there are people who are tenured-track professors–I talked to this group recently who’ve reached out to me because I wrote this book, and they said, we’ve been organizing, trying to create an alliance between tenured professors and adjunct professors. Like, not just a union, but like an activist group, where they can fight for better terms for these adjuncts. So, health care–I mean, this is not a glamorous [Laughs], this is not glamorous, it’s not having some kind of chair assignment for them; it’s just adecent numbers of classes at decent hours when they have kids, and things like that. And more per class, being paid whatever, $8,000 not $1,500 like some of them are being paid per class. So, yeah, there is this kind of 99 percent vs. one percent in these industries also. And I think one of the reasons for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project that Barbara Ehrenreich, who started the organization, started it, was that she realized she was in this one percent–or maybe not one, five percent of journalists. And I don’t want to speak for her, but it feels like that’s part of what she and I are doing with this organization. We see that we’re in a better place than a lot of other journalists, and we want to make sure they’re OK, as OK as they’re going to be. So I do think it’s the job of people in some of these professions to support the people who are contingent and struggling as best they can to make sure that these Ivy League schools that are rejecting their unions, you know, to make sure they keep their unions going for their adjunct workers and their graduate students.

RS: It’s time for a break. And we’ll be back in a moment with Alissa Quart, and the book is called Squeezed: The High Price of the American Family. And it’s really an eye-opener.

[omission for station break]

RS: We’re back with Scheer Intelligence. My guest today is Alissa Quart, and we’re talking about Squeezed: The High Price of the American Family.We had this illusion that drove much of American history, which is this ever-expanding middle class, stakeholders–yes, they were white males to begin with, but they were farmers, they were rural, the reason we have land-grant colleges is to, you know, these ordinary Americans are supposed to gain knowledge about their society and become the leaders of the future, and so forth. And your book is devastating, and based on factual information, statistics and so forth; this is not a tirade, it’s an important work of scholarship. But your book leaves one with a real sense of hopelessness about the current economic situation.  You talked about people with PhDs who are in poverty. You know, I forget the phrase you have…

AQ: The hypereducated poor.

RS: Yeah. The hypereducated poor. And what’s truly depressing about this book–it’s interesting, you talk about the Great Recession we had. And one of the depressing things– and the groups that were most hard-hit were black and brown college graduates. You know, the Federal Reserve study of St. Louis and others, there’s no question about it: the hardest-hit with the lousy mortgages and everything else. And they lost 60, 70 percent of their wealth–not their annual income, but everything their family had gathered up to then. So they were doing everything right. And your book is really about the suffering of people who did everything right by the normal standards of the meritocracy. They paid their taxes, they worked hard, they went to school, they took the opportunities there. And you know what? They were conned into a life of poverty and desperation.

AQ: Yeah, I mean, they were conned. And some of the con still continues. You know, you have $1.5 trillion student debt. You have, an income inequality thrumming under all this. You know, since 1997 the top one percent, its income has grown 20 times faster than the other 90 percent. So that’s like, ah, jeez, that’s–it’s so high now, and the gap is so great. And you have this whole world of counselors and coaches and certificate programs that, I think of them as like vultures on the carcass of the middle class.  also, when you’re talking about race, the whites’ median wealth is 68 times the median wealth of African Americans. So in the middle class, it starts to mirror that too; you know, there’s, ah.  I talked to an African American woman who had been a journalist, had been laid off, she was looking for jobs. Her colleagues were getting jobs in PR, you know, like the second act kind of thing. And she said, I’m not getting them.  She was like, what’s wrong with me, I mean–? And then I looked at the figures, and I realized white applicants were 36 percent more likely to get callbacks on job interviews than African American applicants. So there was probably implicit bias in why she wasn’t getting those job calls for the PR. And she sort of knew that, but then a part of her was like, what’s wrong with me? And this is just, this is one of just dozens, like a hundred interviews I had where I often felt like saying, there’s nothing wrong with you! Yeah, it is a long con. The thing that I am hoping will reach people so this book isn’t depressing, is that there’s a lot we can do and that people are starting to do. People are starting to vote differently. I think once you realize that you’re part of a precarious class, you might vote with others that are also precarious. Middle-class and working-class people voting together and finding common cause–that’s the hope. That through self-recognition of your state, when you stop blaming yourself and start blaming these system errors, things can change. You know, you can start talking openly with your neighbors and friends, and colleagues and your kids, and try to set up arrangements, personal arrangements. Like I talk about this, too, where people do barter and trade, all these small-scale solutions–cohousing, co-parenting–so they can pay for things. But first they have to acknowledge that they have a problem. And that the problem is not shameful. So there are things we can do politically, we can start organizing for–you know, I was saying better pre-K, daycare, et cetera. And that this, of course, first we have to change who’s in office. I mean, this is clearly one of the obstacles.

RS:And you, we were just talking about what you can do about it, and voting. And while I was reading your book, and you know as I say, I got depressed and energized all in the same moment. I got ticked off, you know, and what can you do about it. And just at that moment–and I’m not going to pick on my friend, and I’m not going to use her name–but an email arrived. And the email said, we have to be very concerned about the blue wave. And she, this woman, mentioned two races in Orange County, that we have to get behind the Democrats there. And sort of blue wave, blue wave. And it happens the friend, who I really like a lot, and a hardworking person, also happens to be extremely well-off. One of those people that you met in the playground, you know, that didn’t understand maybe what was happening with other people. And it just, the irony of it hit me. Ah, no. This blue wave–and you know, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but in your book you do say, the rise of Trump is best understood by the gap between the elite and suffering middle class, or the disappearing of a real middle class. I might have been phrasing you. But we do have this Trump phenomena. And Bernie Sanders, who did talk about class and exploitation and the need for good jobs and a good safety net, he didn’t make it in the Democratic Party. And someone who, you know, whatever you think about Hillary Clinton, she certainly was associated with carrying water for Wall Street, and her husband certainly put through the deregulation of Wall Street, which opened the gate to the great crash. And she seemed to be tone deaf on this. And so this blue wave, if it’s an endorsement of traditional democratic politics, really doesn’t provide much of a way of responding to what you have defined as perhaps the biggest crisis in the history of this country, of people being left out. Large, large numbers of people not being able to get by when you talk the precariat–you’re talking about, what, 60 percent, 70 percent of the population, right?

AQ: Well, you know, despite rosy employment numbers, 65 percent of Americans report living from paycheck to paycheck. I mean, we don’t know how high these paychecks are, or like why this is the case always. But a lot of it is also debt. So we need to start thinking about things like debt forgiveness, or better protection for people who are dragged into court because of being in arrears for their debt. Potentially free or cheap college; I mean, our public universities have gone up in cost double since 1996. So you know, these are real things. And yeah, I want to see candidates who are talking about that. I don’t want my daughter to go to college when this is the case. And so yeah, I mean, I don’t know if we need to dismiss the blue wave altogether, but I’m also feeling really optimistic in certain ways. Like, I just wrote about, I called it “The Pie in the Sky is Here,” I do a column for The Guardian, it’s called the Outclassed column. And you know, I was just noting that, here’s like another week of political despair and scandals involving porn stars and payoffs, and should I retreat into my Netflix account? And then, no, let’s look at what’s happening. In the last few weeks, we had Sanders proposing a bill abolishing cash bail. We had Missouri voters voting 2-1 to demolish the state’s right to work law, which is a victory for unions. You have, Fox talking about universal basic income in a positive fashion. So I feel like that and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent democratic primary win in Queens, and voters organizing and aligning together to get her there. There’s good things, there are things to feel good about that show us that there are maybe more radical and exciting things on the horizon. I mean, look, #MeToo, gay marriage, legalized marijuana, substantially raised minimum wage in many communities–this has happened seemingly overnight.

RS: Yeah. And I’m glad you brought up our new Congressional candidate, Cortez. But, and by the way, not just Queens; it happens to be my old congressional district in the Bronx as well. [Laughs] And it’s interesting, I was thinking about that, her victory. And suddenly we have this word democratic socialist. And we had it in Detroit, too, where we’ve had a Palestinian woman win the democratic nomination, and will probably be a congressman. And we havepeople actually not afraid of this language anymore. Through the Cold War and everything, the very idea of democratic socialism was discredited, and you know, free market, free market, capitalism, capitalism. What your book really is describing is the death throes of capitalism. Because the whole way you can have a stable society is what Jefferson and others did talk about, which was stakeholders, and people who, you know, have a way out and can work hard. And you’re really talking about, you know, a trap that people fall into, and they can’t get out of it. And they get desperate in how they vote. So you know, I don’t want to label you or anything, but it seems, we’re going to talk about positive developments, and you used the word “class”–class ceiling. Maybe it’s time we got to talk about class. And that people are trapped into an exploited and neglected class, even when they get PhDs, even when they do all the right things. So it’s not a question of a work ethic, it’s not a question of a right attitude. It’s a question of a rigged system, right?

AQ: Yeah, and it’s alsopeople being afraid to talk about class. So I think this is part of it, I think there’s a lot of politeness, right?  Everyone wants to be seen as middle-class, right. People don’t want to admit that even that category is a shaken and unstable one. So I think first we have to start acknowledging it and saying it out loud when things are not going well. I mean, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since 2016 the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America has gone up from 6,000 to like 43,000. You know, the reason that all these young people between 18 and 34–view socialism positively is simply because they recognize their own precarity. So somewhat older people, I think it would behoove us to start recognizing ours as well, and acting from that.

RS: Yeah. And what your book really gets into in a very deep way is self-blame andif you fail–and this is the most powerful, corrupting message this society puts out: if you fail, it’s your fault. And you better go to a self-help group, or you better have a better attitude, or embrace your inner blah blah blah. And the whole idea that maybe the game is rigged–rigged–is, you know, that’s considered radical and negative thinking. And when you mentioned the housing meltdown, the Great Recession, and debt–debt, this incredible debt that people inherited on every level–and the fact, you know, you have to pay so much to go to college now, there wasn’t public money for doing something like free tuition, as Bernie Sanders argued for. There isn’t public money for helping people get job training for the jobs that are needed. There isn’t–there isn’t public money for health care. All the things you say these European societies have, and manage to fund. And what did they do? Under Barack Obama, the great president of hope, they bailed out the banks for destroying the economy. Right? And they didn’t bail out homeowners. They didn’t do anything fundamentally to help homeowners who lost their houses, not through any failure on their part, because the game was rigged by these, basically, thieves on Wall Street. So, I mean, isn’t it really cutting to the chase the issue, are you going to blame yourself, or are you going to blame the system?

AQ: Absolutely. That is the question.  For me, saying that it’s not your fault over and over again [Laughs] is part of that. And I’ve joked that my book is radical self-help, because–and that’s what I think is optimistic and uplifting about it, is when we stop blaming ourselves and accusing ourselves of not doing something right, that’s when we look outward, and that’s when we can start to organize.

RS: That’s what really is the big message of Squeezed. There’s a lot of positive things in this book that you can get behind, so it’s not a negative book. But it’s a book that if you ignore, you’re going to ignore why we have Trump, you’re going to ignore why we’re basically an unstable society now. So check it out, Squeezed: The High Price of the American Family. The producers for Scheer Intelligence are Josh Scheer and Isabel Carreon. Our engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. And in Argot Studios in New York, Ivan provided very valuable assistance. See you next week.

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