There are a lot of signs that the economy is doing all right. There’s record low unemployment, gross domestic product is generally growing and wages are finally starting to rise. But those headlines don’t reflect the economic reality for millions of American families. Alissa Quart is executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. In her new book “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America,” she tells the stories of lawyers, adjunct professors, daycare workers and teachers who are all trying to hang on to their place in the middle class. She talked with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal about reframing the way we think about struggling families. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: I need you as a way to, it’s not really establishing your bonafides, because they’re real, but I want you to tell me your story and how you came to this project, because they are connected.
Alissa Quart: Right. Well, I was pregnant with my first child seven and half years ago. And I was really ill, like many women. It was a hard pregnancy and I couldn’t work. So my husband and I had been freelance writers, and we were no longer able to make the same living that we had in the past. We were living off of our savings. But it gave me a portal into the lives of many Americans who were spending 30 percent of their money on daycare. It was a real wake-up call for us as a family.
Ryssdal: Yeah, you sell yourself short here. The line from the book is “We did go through a few years of fiscal vertigo,” right? It was tough for you guys.
Quart: Yeah, it was fiscal vertigo, and it was a recognition I had of what I saw amongst my friends in New York and then further out into the rest of the country, this kind of self-blame that a lot of new parents are experiencing: Why can’t I make ends meet? Why can’t I make this math work?
Ryssdal: Let me circle back to one of the themes that comes up again and again in this book, which is the value of care work. What does that mean for for the strains that families come under in this economy?
Quart: I guess one of the conclusions my book was, it’s really necessary for us to reframe care work societally. Only 14 percent of U.S. workers have paid maternity leave. There’s still a sense that the motherhood piece of the equation is seen as a real liability.
Ryssdal: And it’s no mistake, just picking up on that, it’s no error, I guess, that most of the people profiled in this book are women.
Quart: Yeah. Yeah, they are, but I kind of saw in my reporting and also just in my life, amongst my friends, something else. I called it the motherhood advantage. And there’s been research on this too that mothers were more productive in their jobs than women without children. And they surveyed 10,000 academics and found them a lot more productive after they had children.
Ryssdal: I was going to ask you the solutions question, right?
Quart: Yeah, I got a bunch.
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Ryssdal: I know you do. And they are in the book, and they’re codified and organized, and I recommend this book to people who are interested in this topic because there are answers at the back end. But the more challenging question is: Yeah, great, you’ve got the answers. But how do we get from here to there in a society and an economy that is polarized, that is seeing a huge wealth and income gap, and where we can agree on on many fundamental definitions of what life is in this country?
Quart: I mean, look, it’s depressing, and I don’t want to lie about this. I mean, I think it’s a real uphill battle. But I also think that we could have a different relationship to maternity leave, pregnancy discrimination, universal pre-K. There’s sort of small ways in which things start to change and it’s not just thrown back on the people like “Here, make yourself healthier emotionally or figure out a DIY daycare network” as some of the people in my book do. I think this is part of the self-blame that especially women have internalized a lot of shame around having to separate their caring for their families and their labor in the workplace. And that division between work for money and our love for our kids I think needs to be rethought.