I looked forward to reading this book, because income inequality has become an important topic in America. I see firsthand the deterioration of the middle class, with professionals often working second jobs in the evening; families with two working parents struggling to pay for day care or patch together a network of relatives and friends to provide it because they can’t afford it at all; and people in their 20s and 30s held hostage to student debt or living with parents or roommates due to housing prices. Wages haven’t kept up with inflation, while the price of education and medical care is skyrocketing and the price of housing is climbing steeply as well. The current generation of young people is expected, overall, to earn less than their parents, and people with respectable jobs will tell you they can’t afford to have kids. This is a mess that certainly deserves a book.
Sadly, this is not a good book. It’s overly focused on the very expensive New York City and San Francisco, which the author discusses as if they were representative of the rest of the country. The human-interest segments are lacking, spending too little time with any individual to tell their story or get readers invested; instead the author summarizes their financial situation and feelings about it and then moves on, generally never to revisit the same person again. It’s poorly organized and feels rushed to press, with egregious copyediting errors like random words stranded between sentences, repetitive figurative language (she describes parents and day-care providers as “like nesting dolls” twice in two pages, and then again at the end), and poor word choice (stating, for instance, that a law “argues” something – a statute mandates, prohibits or permits something, it doesn’t argue).
Meanwhile the factual portions are marked by generalizations, odd tangents, questionable leaps of logic, and conclusions with no factual basis provided. She’ll call something a “racket” or a “myth” when first introducing a situation, rather than leading readers to draw conclusions ourselves. And it’s hard to take her word for it when she uses overheated language: “As of 2004, nearly 40 percent of Americans had experienced nonstandard work lives, if by ‘standard’ is meant the (now semi-mythical) eight-hour daily shift of the past.” What’s “semi-mythical” about a schedule that’s all that 60% of Americans have ever known? She also does a poor job of bringing her own emotions home to the reader; for instance, she meets an overnight day care child “two years older than my daughter” who feels she can’t rely on parents. Okay, so how old is Quart’s daughter? And she feels like she needs to pay rent to go for a walk – wait, what? Why?
But let me summarize the book for you; I read it so you don’t have to!
Chapter 1: “Inconceivable: Pregnant and Squeezed”
Employment discrimination against pregnant women is on the rise; some pregnant employees are fired, while those looking for a job hide their pregnancies in interviews. The author believes this is because employers want to deny human biology.
Chapter 2: “Hyper-Educated and Poor”
Adjunct professors are only paid about as much as grade-school teachers, and may have to patch together classes at several different colleges to make ends meet. This chapter focuses almost exclusively on adjunct professors, even discussing a charity set up to help them with bills.
Chapter 3: “Extreme Day Care: The Deep Cost of American Work”
Employers increasingly expect employees to work unusual hours, so some day cares are now open round-the-clock. Day care is incredibly expensive while at the same time day care workers are poorly-paid; I wish she had delved into this apparent contradiction.
Chapter 4: “Outclassed: Life at the Bottom of the Top”
This chapter makes reference to “keeping up with the Joneses” but then, perhaps realizing that’s a common and not terribly sympathetic phenomenon, shifts gears to talk about how many more lawyers there are these days than actual legal jobs, due to the proliferation of law schools and the assumption that a law degree equals financial security. Seems like this belongs in Chapter 2, since underemployed lawyers aren’t exactly almost-rich. It’s hard to tell from the book how many people are actually affected though, because she gives random statistics like “56% of lawyers in Alaska don’t work in law!” Okay, so why are you talking about Alaska rather than giving nationwide statistics? And this is meaningless anyway without stats on how many lawyers worked in other fields pre-recession; law has always been a gateway to other fields, whether in business, politics, government administration, nonprofit management, or more unusual choices from police chief to novelist.
Chapter 5: “The Nanny’s Struggle”
There’s a decent story in here about a Paraguayan immigrant working as a nanny/cleaner and trying to raise her son, though I’m not sure why it’s here as she’s working poor, not middle class. This chapter segues into discussing the complexity of the educational system in New York, spending a full 12 pages on the difficulty of figuring out which New York public school to request, and the fact that middle- and upper-class folk pay educational consultants for this. As a solution, the author suggests providing free educational consultants to all parents. This seems minimally helpful as presumably there are schools virtually all parents would prefer to avoid, and anyway, I doubt it’s that difficult to choose a high school in most of the country, if you have any choice at all.
Chapter 6: “Uber Dads: Moonlighting in the Gig Economy”
This chapter is focused on Uber, and in particular Uber’s pitch to teachers, and the fact that teachers feel they need to moonlight at a second job at all. This is a real problem, but there’s a lot more to the gig economy than ridesharing, though you don’t see that here. Quart even theorizes that men are more likely to drive for Uber because they constantly have to prove their masculinity, so feel more threatened by loss of class status. No doubt this is a factor in some men’s decision to moonlight, and it seems appropriate to say something about issues affecting men in a book that’s generally much more focused on women’s issues, but Quart overlooks the fact that women typically don’t work as taxi or rideshare drivers due to fear of sexual assault or robbery, and that the demographics of Uber drivers aren’t representative of the gig economy overall. Look at second jobs in retail, hospitality, child care, or pet care, for instance, and you’ll see different demographics.
Chapter 7: “The Second Act Industry: Or the Midlife Do-Over Myth”
A lot of for-profit colleges are scams, making money on students’ federal loans, but not providing good education and landing their students with debt. The author doesn’t really support her assertion that a mid-life career change is a “myth,” though she writes about a lot of people making money off of others’ desire to start over.
Chapter 8: “Squeezed Houses”
This is where I thought we’d get more on housing prices, but this chapter mostly talks about the fact that some parents have decided to move in with other parents and “coparent” their kids together although they’re not related or romantically involved.
Chapter 9: “The Rise of 1 Percent Television”
Quart wants to tie people’s love of watching TV featuring the rich into her narrative somehow. She doesn’t really make the case that this is a new phenomenon, though, and her analysis of the shows in question is doubtful. (She points out that in Downton Abbey the rich Crawleys are mostly good while a couple of servants are the villains, neglecting to mention that the servants Anna and Bates are portrayed as practically angels in comparison to everybody else.) She also claims that people posting pictures of “adventurous vacations” and even attractive spouses on social media are doing so to advertise their class status.
Chapter 10: “Squeezed by the Robots”
The final chapter has some legitimate points about jobs being lost to automation, but Quart takes it to an extreme and spends most of the chapter creating a false dichotomy where robots shuttling linens about the hospital means that future patients’ post-op care will somehow be done entirely by machines, with no “human touch.” She romanticizes care work here – I’ll bet a lot of patients would find more dignity in being lifted by a machine they can control than by a busy, tired low-wage worker – while championing what she admits is an apocalyptic view of robots. Then she advocates for a universal basic income, which she doesn’t really seem to have thought through because, first, why pay people not to work when there’s all-important care work to be done, and second, she suggests both that it would probably be set at the poverty level and that it could replace programs like Medicare. As if any elderly person at the poverty level could afford health care out-of-pocket.
There – now you’ve as good as read the book. I went in expecting to agree with the author, and still thought it was bad; hopefully someone else will tackle this topic with more intellectual rigor and emotional depth, and with a better editor and copyeditor.