There’s a Reason Why You Can’t Afford to Live in America
Michelle Belmont’s debt haunted her. It was almost unspeakable, but it was a raw relief when anyone asked her about it. She wanted people to hear about her life as she lived it, how her debt trailed her like a child’s monster, how it was there when she went to the supermarket, to her son’s daycare, and home to her one-bedroom apartment.
It began, as it often does, with the student loans for the college her parents back home in Georgia thought would ensure the right future. Then there was the money she borrowed for her master’s of library science degree. A bit later, when baby Eamon came along, she and her husband owed over $20,000 in hospital bills as well. What was shocking were the price tags, just for normal things, like Michelle’s labor and her overnight stay.
She had required a few days extra at the hospital: Eamon had been born weighing 10lb 13oz, and she had pushed that hefty creature for five hours.
“I thought that insurance helps you get by,” Michelle told me. “But my husband had a really cheap insurance, and you get what you pay for.”
Then the debt shadow monster just grew. Eamon developed a fever of 103F (39C) and had to go back to the hospital.
There were two years of surgeries. The bills piled up on the kitchen table. Michelle tried to pay them off, for fear of getting refused treatment later, but then she stopped opening the envelopes. They demanded payment now or legal action, in screaming capital letters. Her debt was six figures and growing.
The couple had struggled before they had their baby, Michelle said, but then “it got astronomically insane after Eamon was born. We always had money for food before, but now it’s, ‘How are we going to eat?’ I’ll borrow from one credit card bill to pay that other credit card bill. I can’t find rent money each paycheck, and we make a decent salary between us.”
Michelle Belmont was fighting to stay middle class. She hoped to train herself – to become a technological librarian, to set up her future. But the costs were beyond what she ever imagined, and she grew more vulnerable. Meanwhile, the squeeze tightened. The Belmonts lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis that cost $1,300 per month to rent. Minneapolis, with its supposed hipster status and so-called Midwest Modern food and furniture and textiles, was only getting more expensive for Michelle.
It seemed unlikely that the Belmonts would ever be free of debt.
“That requires nothing bad to happen,” Michelle said, almost laughing.
But bad things do happen.
When I first spoke to Michelle, her concerns were not abstract to me. Back then, I had recently given birth to my daughter. And it wasn’t until I had my own child that I quickly realized that I too had entered the falling middle-class vortex. My girl was born face-first – sunny-side up, as they say – her unblinking stare promising new joy and terror. Her cries soon became the soundtrack of the anti-romantic comedy of our lives. My husband and I wound up with an unexpected $1,500 bill after her birth that we hustled to pay; most Americans owe even more, an average of around $5,000.
Although we managed to avoid true financial peril – partly because of the wonder of having a New York City rent-stabilized apartment – we did go through a few years of fiscal vertigo. We had been freelance writers for most of our careers, but by the time my daughter arrived this was no longer a stable line of work for the majority of its practitioners, including us. And now we had daycare costs and hospital bills. We started to search for jobs with regular pay, regular hours and health insurance.
My husband was already 50, and it turned out that our years of relative liberty – of “doing what we loved” – had finally exacted a price. When our daughter was four months old, it got even worse. We first hired a nearly full-time sitter and most of my own take-home earnings as an editor went directly to her. Eventually, my earnings also flowed to my daughter’s daycare (even though, paradoxically, all the caregivers were most likely themselves just scraping by). Again, given the larger field of suffering, our family’s worries were relatively low-key. Still, we yearned for more of a social mesh to keep us afloat. At the time, we felt like startled nocturnal animals.
Eventually, my husband found a full-time editorial job, and so did I. Perhaps not so coincidentally, mine was as director and editor of a journalism non-profit devoted to supporting reporting on inequality by a good number of reporters who had themselves fallen on truly hard times.
Through these full-time positions, our family was saved from tumbling out of our class position – at least for now. But even after we found ourselves in momentary safety, I couldn’t shake the self-blame. Despite our encroaching middle age, we had not planned ahead, I thought. I felt juvenile, but also suspected that the game was rigged – that unlike me, the very wealthy who now filled the city of my birth didn’t lacerate themselves for small missteps.
This personal experience was partly how I arrived at what was to become the mantra of my investigation into economic insecurity: it’s not your fault.
It seems key to me – to recognize that feeling in the red or on the edge isn’t all your personal problem. And while some psychological analysis or boosts may help, the problem of not being able to afford to live in America can’t be cured by self-help books. The problem is systemic.
To be “squeezed” is to be bound by a very American psychological and socio-economic predicament. Being squeezed involves one’s finances, one’s social status and one’s self-image.
The middle class is a group defined by more than just money: it also leans on credentials, education, aspirations, assets and, of course, household income. According to a May 2016 Pew survey, the US middle class, defined as working people with a yearly household income for a family of three ranging from $42,000 to $125,000 in 2014, make up 51% of households.
Michelle Belmont and her family were in the middle class, and they were squeezed.
The many other middle-class families running furiously and breathlessly just to find themselves staying in place are a large and varied coterie. It includes highly educated workers like lawyers, professors, teachers and pharmacists, professionals who never expected to be in this situation – often feeling cast aside by a system that seems stacked against them. Their prospects for the future, given the rise of robots and automation within their professions, are likely to dim even further.
According to a Washington Post/Miller Center poll, 65% of all Americans worry about paying their bills – as the parents I’ve interviewed, murmuring anxiously at their dining room tables, can attest. One reason for this anxiety is that middle-class life is now 30% more expensive than it was 20 years ago; in fact, in some cases the cost of daily life over the last 20 years has doubled.
The price of a four-year degree at a public college – one traditional ticket to the bourgeoisie – is nearly twice as much as it was in 1996. The cost of healthcare has almost doubled in that 20-year period as well. And rent, not to mention homeownership, has also become substantially more expensive, though not quite to the same horrifying level as education and medical care. Meanwhile, the ongoing decimation of unions and employees’ rights continues, with pensions and minimal benefits fading. Unstable working hours are increasingly common too, making child care, always a high personal expense for families, all the harder to arrange and even more expensive while further testing family cohesion.
And the squeeze on the middle class has an element of gender bias as well. It’s no accident that many of the people I’ve come to know during my research are female. Although there are other contributing factors, there is one quite simple reason: motherhood is a disadvantage in the work world, with mothers statistically earning less than their male or childless peers. But fathers are harmed too: if they strive to more evenly balance their careers and their families, they may be stereotyped at work as “weak”. And if they go into traditionally female caring professions – where most of the employment growth is these days – they may receive the “traditional” female lower pay.
I call this just-making-it group “the Middle Precariat”, after the precariat, a term first popularized six years ago by the economist Guy Standing to describe an expanding working class burdened with temporary, low-paid and part-time jobs. My term, the Middle Precariat, describes those at the upper end of that group in terms of income. Its membership is expanding higher and higher into what was traditionally known as the solid bourgeoisie.
These people believed that their training or background would ensure that they would be properly, comfortably middle class, but it has not worked out that way. Their labor has also become inconstant or contingent – they do short-term contract or shift work, as well as unpaid overtime. They also do unpaid shadow work, like adjunct professors putting together packets for their classes off the clock, in contrast to their tenured colleagues. And it’s worse for the Middle Precariat of color, which typically has much less retirement security and ability to pay college tuition.
There are many culprits for the straits in which they find themselves – most crucially growing income inequality, or as the business TV shows like to call it euphemistically, as if to deny their role in creating it, “disparity”. The United States is the richest, and also the most unequal, country in the world. It has the largest wealth inequality gap of the 200 countries in the Global Wealth Report of 2015. And when the top 1% has so much – so much more than even the top 5 or 10% – the middle class is financially and also mentally outclassed at each step.
Behind the proverbial velvet curtain – or mid-range eggshell-colored Roman blinds – these parents are desperately holding on to their status and trying to keep up appearances.
This is a true historical shift. According to a 2016 study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, Americans born in the 1940s had a 92% chance of making more money than their parents did at age 30. Those born in the 1980s have around a 50%t chance of earning more than their parents. (In the midwest, as the New York Times reported, the odds are less than half.)
When I was a young child, professional aspiration was synonymous to me with the clatter of my mother’s high-heeled boots as she went off to teach each 1970s weekday morning, carrying her graded blue books under her arm. Each day was concluded when my exhausted mother picked me up late at the very end of after-school and took me home for a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs.
Yet despite the evident effort they put in, my parents, college professors, had health insurance and the promise of pensions and social security. In their younger days, there were ample employment opportunities and cheaper rents in metropolitan areas. They could afford some extras that would strain a similar family today: out of their wages from teaching at a college, I received ice skating lessons. I was sent to a New York City private school, and we went on long vacations at the shore, where I could buy a kite in the shape of a butterfly and maybe collect wild plums on the dunes.
They weren’t alone. “Middle class” used to mean having two children and sending them to high-quality public schools, or even occasionally to private schools. It meant new brown Stride Rite Mary Janes with little purple and silver flowers when the old shoes were pinching the toes. It meant homeownership – not for us, but for others like us. Nothing fancy, but a proper ranch house with a garage. It meant weekends off with your family, sometimes spent at a matinee at a “movie palace”, or a play thanks to a theater subscription, and workdays that ended at six so that the family all ate dinner together. And of course, it meant saving money as well as being able to pay for the children’s college education.
For the American middle class now, these markers of middle-class life are less and less common. The middle class is endangered on all sides, and the promised rewards of belonging to it have all but evaporated. This decline has also led to a degradation of self-image. Before the 2008 crash, only one-quarter of Americans viewed themselves as lower class or lower-middle class. Even those who were struggling tended to view their problems as temporary. No longer.
After the recession of 2008 – which, though caused by the financial crash, could actually be said to have exposed or congealed decades of social class separation and downward mobility, since the Reagan era – a full 40% of Americans viewed themselves as being at the bottom of the pyramid.
For the first time since pollsters had asked this question, fewer than half of those interviewed said that they were middle class – only 44%, according to a Pew study. Meanwhile, the wealthy – with “wealth” here defined as assets minus debt – stand in stark relief to the Middle Precariat. A 2014 Russell Sage Foundation report puts the net worth of the top 5% at $1.3m. The incomes of the top 1 to 5% have grown explosively in the past three decades, while the incomes of so many others have stagnated.
For the median family of color, that wage and wealth stagnation can be pretty dire. In a study published in 2017 by the organizations the Institute for Policy Studies and Prosperity Now (full disclosure: IPS is the fiscal sponsor of my organization, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project), the median wealth – assets minus debt – of white households is now over 68 times higher than that of black households. For black families, the median was just $1,700.
If you are an American working parent dealing with all of these stresses, you may feel like you are betting against the house and the house is always winning. Yet most of the parents I spoke to blamed only themselves, not a system stacked against them.
Those I’ve interviewed include a professor on food stamps in Chicago, an unemployed restaurant manager in Boston, a nanny in New York City betrayed by the American Dream, and even pharmacists who lost their jobs to a robot in Pittsburgh. They are people on the brink who did everything “right”, and yet the math of their family lives is simply not adding up. Some are just getting by. For others, something happened and they tumbled down and never got back up.
As these families struggle to preserve, or even simply to attain, a middle-class life, they do so in spite of, not because of, today’s America.
From Alissa Quart’s Squeezed. Copyright 2018, Alissa Quart. Excerpted with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. Learn more here.
Co-published with The Guardian.