I recently read -- get this -- a non-churchy book! Before I got too impressed with myself, though, I soon realized the book has everything to do with stewardship in Christian communities. Below you’ll find my review of Alissa Quart’s new book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America. As you’ll see, in many ways it’s a tough read, but definitely worthwhile for anyone in church leadership.
Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders
There is much debate about the status of the U.S. economy these days. Does wealth sufficiently trickle down from the top levels to the bottom? How easy is it to move from the bottom to the top—or, the middle, for that matter? In her book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America (Ecco, 2018) author Alissa Quart takes a different approach. Rather than aiming for wide-angled conclusions, Quart focuses her lens on particular subjects: families and individuals struggling to afford life in in the U.S. Her book is a grim, though ultimately quite helpful account, of the financial challenges many of our church members face today.
Quart is a journalist in the tradition of Barbara Ehrenriech (Nickle and Dimed). In fact, she is the executive director of Ehrenriech’s journalism nonprofit, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. In Squeezed, Quart’s main aim seems to pique the conscious of those of us who would assume today’s middle class is doing “just fine.” Quite the opposite, she argues, inventing a term, “the Middle Precariat,” to describe those among us who are just scraping by.
Quart cites research that paints a bleak picture: 65% of Americans worry about paying their bills, childcare costs regularly siphon 30% of family income, and younger generations do not anticipate living better lives than their parents’ generation. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning healthcare costs. Can you believe the average out-of-pocket expense for childbirth is around $5,000?
I can’t help myself from painting with a broad brush, but the book is actually at its best when it considers the individual stories, weaving them together to bring the full piece into view. Quart tells the story of Carla Bellamy, a professor of anthropology at a good university who, with her husband, struggles to afford day care, feels financially isolated among her peers, and is resigned to never feeling that she has made it financially. In another chapter, Quart covers a day-in-the-life of a 24-hour daycare center and the parents’ realities of multiple jobs, late night shifts, and lack of support.
My favorite chapter, however, is Quart’s exposé of the life of Uber and Lyft drivers. I hadn’t realized that these companies actively recruit teachers, since many of their salaries do not cover the costs of family life these days. One teacher Quart covered, Barry, said, “Teachers are killing themselves…I shouldn’t be having to drive Uber at eight o’clock at night on a weekday. I just shut down from the mental toll: grading papers in between rides, thinking of what I could be doing instead of driving -- like creating a curriculum.”
On the one hand, services like Uber are an example of our “sharing” and “gig economy” at work. Certainly, I enjoy the ease of a ride here and there myself. On the other hand, as gigs and “side hustles” have proliferated, have we quietly moved to an era in which the basic expectations around employment have shifted? Do we expect a teacher to be able to pay for childcare, health care, save for retirement, and purchase a decent house without running a small business on the side?
Of course, Quart’s book is not perfect. At the end of each chapter, she suggests potential solutions for the economic reality she’s describing. I found the jump from hearing people’s individual stories to fixing the corporate reality a bit jolting at times. Indeed, stories of the lived experiences of those in the Middle Precariat is what will stick with me as I put the book back on my shelf.
For these reasons, I certainly commend Squeezed to any stewardship leader. While there are plenty of good books out there about giving, Quart’s book considers the other side of the equation. She shows how difficult it is for many Americans to earn what feels like a decent wage. May the church engage these stories with ears to hear.
Adam J. Copeland is the Director of the Center Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary.
Purchase Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America by Alissa Quart (Ecco, 2018) here.