‘Middle class’ doesn’t mean what it used to. Owning a home, two cars, and having a summer vacation to look forward to is a dream that’s no longer possible for a growing percentage of American families. So what’s changed? That safe and stable class has become shaky as unions collapsed, the gig economy surged, and wealth concentrated in the hands of the top 1%, the knock-on effects of which include sky-high housing prices, people working second jobs, and a cultural shift marked by ‘one-percent’ TV shows (and presidents). Alissa Quart, executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, explains how the American dream became a dystopia, and why it’s so hard for middle-class Americans to get by. Alissa Quart is the author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America
Alissa Quart: So, we used to think of the middle class as this safe category, it was 40-hour work weeks, pensions, people worked who were teachers, professors, lawyers even. And now it’s a shakier category and that’s why I called it the “middle precariat,” as in precarious.
Now to be middle class you might not be able to have a summer holiday. You might not be able to own your home. You certainly wouldn’t have two cars. What interests me is also we have this idea of the middle class as this solid thing, and now it’s a shaky thing.
We also have this idea in the middle of the 20th century of it as a hum-drum boring thing that we wanted to escape, kind of like Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates; and now it’s everybody just wants to get into it, into the American dream of the middle class that’s now so unstable.
So one of the things that happened was unions weakened. It used to be that 30 percent of employees were in unions in the '60s, and now it’s seven percent in the private sector, and that’s a pretty huge drop-off. And at the same time you’re seeing a lot of workforce become gig-ified or turned into freelance contingent, et cetera, not stable, not with healthcare, not with the promise of security and long-term employment.
There are other reasons why the middle class has been under siege. One is the concentration of wealth. Since 1997 the income of the top one percent has grown 20 times the rest of us.
They’re an “ownership class” so they tend to own many of the corporations that are, say, creating the Uber economy, are hiring people to drive part-time or the companies that employee people at [odd] hours, which means that they can’t take care of their children, hours in the middle of the night or odd hours in the early morning, as I write about that in my book.
So that kind of wealth concentration also empowers people to have multiple addresses and to not really invest in their neighborhoods. The fact that they’re able to pay so much more than the rest of us for houses and apartments raises the rents and the cost of homeownership astronomically in fashionable cities.
Another one was 'one-percent TV', which describes people, including myself, who watch shows like Billions or Downtown Abbey or even Mad Men that sort of extol the wealthiest kind of ethically challenged wealthy people.
There’s something about one-percent television that I find pretty harmful in that we are asked to identify—and we do identify—with the very richest in this country rather than middle-class people or struggling people. And that does show our ethical problems—in Klieg lights, as it were.
And I think one of the things that one-percent television does is it makes a case for the deserving ultra-rich. Like these are people who are brilliant or talented like a show like Empire with the hip-hop mogul, they could have terrible, terrible values, “but they work hard,” and they have some kind of genius so they “deserve” to have this excess and this wealth and be drinking champagne out of flutes.
A lot of reality television shows work on the same principle. Of course, what exactly they’re doing that makes them deserving is always questionable, but the shows are making an argument that yes, they are the deserving ultra-rich.
And in fact our president, I think, is very much a product of one-percent television if we think about The Apprentice, which I think started in 2004, and that was sort of venerating this kind of empty wealth and harsh edicts to employees, “You’re fired!” and that in itself was the beginning of venerating that wealth without any criticism on reality television.
So my book is very much about a divided society where we’re just not in touch with one another. And one of the drivers of that is something I don’t really write about but I work on in the organization I run called The Economic Hardship Reporting Project and that’s spatial inequality, which is that people in cities and in rural areas and all kinds of places are very divided from each other by class, that it’s very stratified, and so you’re very unlikely now to run into people from different walks of life in big cities. You’re far less likely than you were in the past.
I’m optimistic in certain ways because I’ve started having conversations with people, partially around the book about self-blame, about them saying to themselves “what’s wrong with me” and feeling stigmatized.
And I feel like if this book achieves anything or these conversations achieve anything it’s de-shaming people scrambling to stay in the middle class, say “it’s not your fault; this is happening to other people.”
The job numbers may look like they’re up but first of all they often speak to how many jobs people are having, multiple jobs, which is not a great state of affairs for a lot of people. People now have more jobs. Each person has more jobs than they did in 2016 like individuals; it’s up by two percent or something like that so it’s substantial.
You can be looking at these job announcements and you could be thinking what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I figure it out? Why can’t I get that second or third gig? But the point is, why should we have to have all the side hustles? Why should we have to have second acts then we’re 42?
And so I’m optimistic that the conversations people could have can start to bring about self-awareness, solidarity, a better sense of themselves.
And I’ve already heard from people saying “I’ve read your book and it said ‘no stigma,’ and I told my husband when he couldn’t get his second assignment as a freelancer—his second job, not his first job—‘no stigma.’” And to me that could be just, at least, instead of a gloomy revolution, which as I write, kind of an emotional mini revolution where people talk more honestly about their situation.