The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Why Our Families Can't Afford America
by Alissa Quart

Paperback (7 May 2019), 272 pages.
Publisher: Ecco
ISBN-13: 9780062412263

Families today are squeezed on every side - from high childcare costs and harsh employment policies to workplaces without paid family leave or even dependable and regular working hours. Many realize that attaining the standard of living their parents managed has become impossible.

Alissa Quart, executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, examines the lives of many middle-class Americans who can now barely afford to raise children. Through gripping firsthand storytelling, Quart shows how our country has failed its families. Her subjects - from professors to lawyers to caregivers to nurses - have been wrung out by a system that doesn't support them, and enriches only a tiny elite.

Interlacing her own experience with close-up reporting on families that are just getting by, Quart reveals parenthood itself to be financially overwhelming, except for the wealthiest. She offers real solutions to these problems, including outlining necessary policy shifts, as well as detailing the DIY tactics some families are already putting into motion, and argues for the cultural reevaluation of parenthood and caregiving.

Written in the spirit of Barbara Ehrenreich and Jennifer Senior, Squeezed is an eye-opening page-turner. Powerfully argued, deeply reported, and ultimately hopeful, it casts a bright, clarifying light on families struggling to thrive in an economy that holds too few options. It will make readers think differently about their lives and those of their neighbors.


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 day care, 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 ten pounds, thirteen ounces, 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 103 degrees 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 were different colors. They demanded payment now or legal action, in screaming capital letters. She saw herself on trial, in court, explaining why she had nothing in her account. 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 into a career of certitude—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 she and her husband paid $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. When I first spoke to her, 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 antiromantic 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 the financial perils that many of the people you will meet in this book experienced—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 day-care costs and hospital bills. We started to search for jobs with regular pay, regular hours, and health insurance.

Full Excerpt

Excerpt from Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America by Alissa Quart. Copyright 2018 by Alissa Quart. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Do you think it's harder to be a middle class parent today than it was when you were growing up? How does this make you feel?
  2. Which people or characters in the book do you identify with and why? Who don't you identify with? Why? Did anyone's story move you? Did you feel like some people could have tried harder or taken different paths to achieve greater stability and success?
  3. Quart argues that America per se doesn't care about care. What does that mean to you? Do you think caregiving—by parents, guardians, daycare workers and babysitters or even teachers and nurses—is undervalued in our country? Why are they paid so little and given less respect than other professions?
  4. Quart questions the "do what you love" philosophy that has led a number of parents in the book to not be able to support their families. Is it better to be alienated from one's work yet pay the bills? Or love what you do and not be able to earn your keep? Which path reflects your own experience?
  5. Why do you think many European countries do so much better with paid maternity leave and childcare than the U. S. does? What countries does the book mention? What prevents the U.S. from resembling them? How has this near-absence of paid leave and government-supported childcare in America impacted your life?
  6. Do you feel comfortable discussing your economic situation with your friends and colleagues? With your children? What do you think about Quart's ideas for talking with your kids about social class and financial instability? Would this work with your children or do you have another way to explain poverty and wealth to them? What kinds of questions do they ask?
  7. Middle class life is 30% more expensive now than in the mid-90's. Why has the middle class in America floundered according to Squeezed? What does "middle class" mean to you? Were you surprised to learn that college professors, trained lawyers and IT workers sometimes struggle to get by?
  8. Should companies and corporations and other institutions better address their employees' childcare needs and child-rearing lives, providing nursery and daycares for their workers? Or is that individuals' responsibility?
  9. Quart writes about parents that attempt to hack the system through co-parenting collectives, retraining programs, and bartering and trading among other smaller fixes. Which of these appeal to you personally? And what are your families' hacks so you can better survive economically?
  10. Quart also writes of what she calls the motherhood advantage, or parents discovering their leadership and workplace skills through parenting rather than in spite of it. How has your work life gotten better and worse since you became a parent? What things has your child taught you that you bring to work each day?


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Ecco. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Sharp, intelligent, compassionate and timely, Squeezed is a document of contemporary America that demands to be read.

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At thirty-five, Brianne Bolin, an adjunct professor at Columbia College with a Ph.D in English, never dreamed she'd be shopping for clothes at Goodwill or relying on food stamps and Medicaid to support her eight-year-old son, Finn, who has paraplegic cerebral palsy. But she, like a lot of people Alissa Quart chronicles in Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America, is a perfect example of what Quart calls the Middle Precariat, "extensively trained and educated workers" who are saddled with "debt, overwork, isolation, and shame about [their] lack of money."

Quart backs up this reading with statistics. Compared to twenty years ago, contemporary middle-class life has become thirty percent more expensive and college has almost doubled in cost. Daycare eats almost thirty percent of one half the earnings of a two-salary household. And while the middle class is feeling the squeeze, working class people of color and immigrants, unable to obtain affordable housing, education and well-paying jobs, are being frozen out completely.

Behind these sobering facts are stories of people caught in an endless plunge from the economic ladder. Quart exhaustively investigates their plight, combing through Silicon Valley's shadow economy, where teachers and journalists moonlight as Uber drivers or strip-club bouncers; sitting in on classes for downsized middle-aged workers as they retrain for a younger and lower-paid job market; and chronicling Blanca, an overworked and underpaid Paraguayan nanny, and her near-Herculean efforts to get her son into a decent school in New York City's convoluted public school system.

While the struggle hits both genders, it is women who fare worse. As the aforementioned Blanca attests, they often work in fields–domestic and childcare work, nursing, teaching–that are increasingly undervalued and underpaid. One of seven child-care workers, many of whom are women of color and immigrants, live below the poverty line. Nurses face the threat of automation. Pregnancy discrimination has risen twenty-three percent from 2005 and 2011. And when former black journalist Courtenay Edelhart looks for more lucrative work in public relations, she encounters the triple hardships of race, gender, and age. Men who work in traditionally feminized jobs, like Uber-driving teacher Matt Barry, are also boxed out. Stripped of their earning power, women, particularly women of color, and their families are the biggest economic losers.

Despite the bleak outlook, there are solutions. Quart gives much needed attention to issues like universal basic income (see Beyond the Book), which would provide a basic income to all citizens regardless of employment, universal public Pre-K childcare programs for working families, like the one championed by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and generous parental paid leave laws.

Most of the problems Quart addresses are deeply systemic and require social and political movements to resolve, something she could have addressed more since they are the result of long-stemming political choices. Still, Squeezed has much in common with works like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed about minimum-wage workers, for her sympathetic portraits of people deeply affected by these issues and that makes it more than an important work for people concerned about economic inequality.

Quart, who admits to dealing with some of the same insecurities, empathizes with people who blame themselves for the challenges they face in a system that is rigged against them. More than just a scathing moral indictment of a country that pays lip service to the interests of working families, Squeezed is also a compassionate argument for creating an economy that prioritizes people over profits.

Reviewed by Cynthia C. Scott

Publishers Weekly
[Quart's] ambitious, top-tier reportage tells a powerful story of America today.

Library Journal
Reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, this straightforward work will resonate with those feeling squeezed , and inform those who are not

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Vital to understanding American life today.

Author Blurb Arlie Hochschild, author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
A vivid prose stylist, Quart makes powerfully real what happens when those who were once middle class can now only window shop for the American Dream. She also offers crucial collective plans to get us out of our anguishing binds.

Author Blurb Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed
Brilliant - a keen, elegantly written, and scorching account of the American family today. Through vivid stories, sharp analysis and wit, Quart anatomizes the middle class's fall while also offering solutions and hope.

Author Blurb Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls & Sex and Don't Call Me Princess
What Alissa Quart does so beautifully is weave together textured, compelling portraits of individual families with big ideas. Read this important book to understand the challenges your own family faces in parenting, housing, planning for the future - and read it to find out what to do about them!

Author Blurb David Corn, author of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump
Quart deftly chronicles the plight of Americans confronting the dangerous rise of Middle Class financial instability. Squeezed is journalism at its best: exploratory, visceral, and searching for answers. An important work to which attention should - and must - be paid.

Author Blurb Jeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars
Quart's investigation, written with the elegance of a literary novel, forces us to examine the grave consequences of an economic structure that has crushed the very people it claims are at the heart of the American dream.

Author Blurb Astra Taylor, author of The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age
Profound, a sweeping, blistering portrait of hard-working people from all walks of life. It's a rousing wakeup call that also points the way forward to a more equitable, expansive future.

Author Blurb Helaine Olen, author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry
Alissa Quart is a modern James Agee. Squeezed gets deep inside the increasingly perilous financial lives of American families showing that they are collateral damage of our disappearing government. A damning, necessary and intensely vital book.

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Universal Basic Income

Author Alissa Quart argues in her book Squeezed, that a Universal Basic Income is one possible solution for job insecurity, particularly for stay-at-home parents and domestic workers who are often shut out of the economy and for workers whose jobs may be phased out due to automation.

But what exactly is UBI? Basically, it's a program that distributes a fixed income to everyone, regardless of employment. While there are some questions as to how it should be implemented, one estimate suggests it would cost the United States up to $3.2 trillion to distribute $10,000 checks annually to every adult citizen or $1.5 trillion if means-tested to exclude those who don't need it (by comparison the National Health Expenditures in 2016 was $3.3 trillion in 2016). Funding would likely come from carbon and income taxes, a decrease in military spending, and other similar revenue-raising means.

UBI has a fair number of supporters including Elon Musk, Matt Bruenig of the progressive think tank Demos, and, ironically, the late president Richard Nixon who tried but failed to launch a similar program during his administration. However the program also has its critics. They believe UBI could harm workers by eliminating welfare programs, lowering wages, or curbing people's need for work.

It's tough to get a real assessment on whether UBI will help or hurt workers since no country has established a fully-functioning program. However, smaller scale models have offered some clues. One model, launched in 2017 in Finland, planned to distribute €560 euros (US$675) to 2,000 randomly selected recipients for two years. The program was largely designed to determine the effect universal incomes would have on the labor market.

Unfortunately UBI supporters claimed it was insufficient because it was too small in scale and duration to be applicable and was never fully supported by the ruling conservative party. Researchers were told to monitor the recipients' willingness to work, contradicting the no-strings attached nature of UBI. Concurrently a welfare reform package was rolled out by the Centre Party, delaying unemployment benefits to the chronically unemployed (half of the beneficiaries lost benefits so far). After one year, the government suspended the program, pending final review in 2019.

Other regions, however, have yielded far better results. For instance, a small village in Namibia became the site of a pilot program, The Basic Income Grant Coalition. Supported by NGOs, church groups and labor unions, the grant distributed N$100 per person under 60 years of age in monthly installments. Since its launch in 2008, the area has seen a steady decline in malnutrition, poverty and crime rates, and a 29% increase in the average earned income.

In Alaska, a version of UBI has paid out annual dividends since its inception in 1982. Called the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD), a diverse portfolio made up of revenue collected from oil and mineral leases, it has distributed annual dividends to each permanent resident of Alaska (both adults and children, with the exception of convicted and incarcerated individuals) ranging from a low of $331 in 1984 to a high of over $2072 in 2015. While still too low to constitute sustainable income, PFD has answered some concerns about UBI. Contrary to speculations about its effect on the labor market, researchers from the University of Chicago have shown that the payments haven't changed full-time employment rates in Alaska and estimates an increase of 17% in part-time work. PFD is also popular among Alaskans (71%), even when a possible increase of taxes are factored in.

UBI continues to gather steam. Other countries like Canada, the Netherlands, Scotland, and Iran are implementing or studying the possibility of pilot programs, with U.S. cities like Stockton and Oakland also implementing or discussing pilot programs either through public or private grants.

By Cynthia C. Scott

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