In Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America, journalist Alissa Quart describes what's changed in her country over the past few decades and what has stayed the same.
Childcare costs, health-care fees, postsecondary tuition (and student loans), and the price of housing have all changed quite a lot. Across most of the United States, all four have increased—drastically so, in many areas.
What's stayed the same? Wages, Quart notes. At least for the vast majority of workers who can't count themselves among the one percent.
"Middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was twenty years ago," Quart writes in Squeezed (Ecco, June 2018). "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 health care has almost doubled in that twenty-year period as well. And rent, not to mention homeownership, has also become substantially more expensive.
"The ongoing decimation of unions and employees' rights continues, with pensions and minimal benefits fading," the author continues. "Unstable working hours are increasingly common too, making child care...all the harder to arrange and even more expensive while further testing family cohesion."
Meanwhile, the American economy is booming.
"Unemployment rate falls to 3.7 percent, lowest since 1969," reads an October 5 headline in the Washington Post.
What's going on?
"Measuring things like GDP and employment can be misleading," Quart said in a telephone interview.
"The Soviet Union had full employment. That doesn't make it a model. People used to talk about quality of life and standard of living. And they don't anymore. That's a problem."
Quart, executive editor of the nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project, was speaking to the Straight about the United States. But just about every word she said applies to Canada, and perhaps nowhere more so than Vancouver.
In 2008, the average weekly wage in B.C. was $779.76, according to provincial-government data. In 2017, it was $936.41. That's an increase of just a little less than inflation, which means that wages in B.C. have remained stagnant for a decade.
The price of a postsecondary education and child-care costs have increased by significantly greater margins. Housing costs have soared into the stratosphere.
According to Statistics Canada, the cost of tuition for an undergraduate degree in Canada has increased from an average of $4,747 in 2008–09 to $6,618 in 2017–18. That's an increase of 39 percent. The price of a law degree in Canada increased 66 percent and tuition for a business, management, and public administration degree increased 49 percent. "The amount owed to the Canada Student Loans Program has reached over $19 billion and is increasing by nearly $1 million per day," reads the Canadian Federation of Students website.
In Vancouver, the median monthly cost for full-time childcare for an infant is $1,360 per month and for a toddler is $1,292 per month, according to a December 2017 report. These amounts rank Vancover childcare among the most expensive in the country.
Finally, there is every Vancouver millennial's favourite reason to drink alone in the dark: housing.
In September 2018, the benchmark price for an apartment in Greater Vancouver was $687,300, up 88.8 percent from 10 years earlier, according to the region's real-estate board. Even on Vancouver's relatively affordable East Side, the benchmark price for a single-family detached home—once the very definition of the words "middle class"—now exceeds $1.5 million.
The wrong response
The divide between how much most of us earn and what we need to spend is growing. In response, one might imagine a resurgence of organized labour and a push for more progressive taxation. Instead, North America has met these challenges with the creation of a digital "gig economy".
Are you putting off starting a family because you can't afford a two-bedroom apartment on you and your partner's salaries as teachers? Take a second job driving an Uber at night. Is your wage as a journalist or elderly-care provider no longer putting food on your young family's table? Sign up for Handy, a mobile app that connects you with richer people who are looking for someone to clean their home, help with moving, or install a television for them.
You will earn a few extra bucks. But that's not all that happens when one enters the gig economy, Quart warned.
"You don't know when you're working or when you're not," she explained. "You can get a lot of money one day but not the next. That limits the kind of planning and plotted life that we associated with the middle class in the 1950s and '60s.
"It's a little bit psychological but more existential: what does a life look like now? How do people plan who they are going to be? How do they see themselves?" Quart asked. "With the gig economy, with irregular hours, you are not able to plan or project into the future. That changes what it means to be a normal American."
In Squeezed, Quart ends each chapter with a short list of solutions to the problems she describes in the preceding pages. But the overall picture is gloomy.
"A lot of people are like, 'Oh god, this is a dark book', " she conceded. "But I didn't think it was [when writing]. I see it as radical self-help. I used it myself as radical self-help."
A 30-something with a master's degree is increasingly likely to find themselves working as a server and living in their parents' basement. But that is not their fault. The reasons that growing numbers of people are falling short of life goals we once considered realistic are largely structural, Quart maintained. This is the result of calculated and sustained attacks on unions and organized labour, the automation of manufacturing, rapid advances in artificial intelligence, and the creation of taxation and welfare systems that favour the wealthy and punish the poor, she argued.
"Once you start seeing things as patterns, and once you start seeing yourself as part of a class and a caste and a historical formation, you are less likely to blame yourself and hate yourself," Quart added.
Reasons to be angry
Refreshing for a book about labour and economics, Squeezed mostly recounts the stories of women.
"A lot of books about class...aren't about women's experiences," Quart said. "They conflate the working class and being male....With this book, the thing that interested me was to do a female-centered (although not entirely female) class analysis."
This was not the result of Quart consciously applying a feminist lens (not that that would have been wrong). It is largely because it is professions and industries that are largely or traditionally dominated by women that are most acutely affected by the forces that are driving inequality today.
"The closer that people get to care in terms of labour, the worse paid they are, and the more kind of bias there is against them," Quart said.
Examples in the book include daycare providers, teachers, and nurses. "This also effects women who are in non-caring professions who are mothers. They are tainted by their proximity to care in the eyes of the marketplace."
Quart argued this does not mean that men are less affected by the issues presented in Squeezed. This economic attack on women strikes at the entire middle class, she noted.
"Professions that have a care element are often paid pretty badly right now," Quart said. "And many of those were once the standard-bearing professions of the middle class."
Quart added she therefore hopes that Squeezed serves as a starting point for people to push back against the political systems that continue to exacerbate inequality today.
"Right now is a great moment to be angry," she said. "I think it is incredibly productive, at this moment. Especially for women."