Thursday, July 12, 2018


You know that feeling when you read a well-meaning book on a great topic, you’re rooting for it, and it just doesn’t quite work?  I had that with Alissa Quart’s “Squeezed.” It’s an examination of the increasing difficulty involved in living a “middle class” life in America.

To give Quart her due, she includes a panoply of profiles of people who are struggling, and she does so with a humanistic eye.  The underlying theme of the book, repeated throughout, is “it’s not your fault.” She cites one study showing that a middle-class life in America is 30% more expensive than it was twenty years ago.  That’s the sort of stat that invites methodological quibbling, but it certainly feels right. It captures the palpable frustration of living with Calvinist assumptions in a polarizing economy. If wealth reflects virtue, and the classes are pulling apart, then life on the bottom isn’t just difficult.  It’s demoralizing. Quart captures that.

But when she moves from people describing their lives to theorizing about causes, depth and sensitivity give way to preconceptions.  The blind spots show.

For example, in her chapter on higher education, she outlines well the damage that high student loan balances can cause, and she portrays sympathetically several adjunct faculty who struggle to make a living cobbling together courses paid a la carte.  This is well-worn territory, but Quart renders people’s lives clearly. She gets the symptoms right.

But her diagnoses are either shallow or simply false.  For example, she claims that for faculty, full-time status brings reduced teaching loads.  That’s exactly backwards; after the ACA went into effect, most colleges got much stricter about the number of classes they would give any particular adjunct.  (At my own, the modal number of sections taught by an adjunct professor in a given semester is one.) And there’s nothing unusual about tenured faculty teaching overloads.

She also claims that one quirk of our higher education system is that moving up the ranks brings lighter teaching loads as you go.  At that point, she’s applying a research university model to higher ed generally, or falling for what I think of as the Harvard fallacy.  That is not how community colleges, or most four-year teaching colleges, work. They’re almost invisible in her narrative. We don’t give faculty course releases to write books or work in labs, yet we have higher adjunct percentages than many places that do.  It’s not about displacement of tasks. It’s about institutional funding.

Her examination of student loan burdens suffers from a similar blind spot.  She portrays several people who compiled huge balances by going to graduate school, and details the constraints that those debts put on them.  Which is true, as far as it goes, but which misses the larger point. Default rates are _inversely_ related to the amount borrowed. In other words, the major student loan crisis isn’t from law school or med school graduates; it’s from dropouts from undergrad.  And, as those of us focused on these issues know, college dropout rates skew by race and class. They also tend to skew inversely to the amount of money per student that a given college has. The folks suffering the most from student loans aren’t the Ivy grads with large balances, like Quart herself.  They’re dropouts. But dropouts don’t appear in the book.

Her frame of reference is particularly striking in her discussion of public school choice.  She laments the expense of school choice consultants who help upper-middle-class families find the best public schools for their kids, suggesting instead an app that would make comparative information available to everybody.  But in most of the country, in any given location, there is no public school choice at all; you send your kids to the public school where you live. The moment of choice, to the extent that there is one, comes with the selection of (or relegation to) a neighborhood.  New York City is large and magnificent, but in this sense, it’s very much an outlier. And in most of the country, there’s already plenty of information available on school performance in various ways, complete with color-coded rankings. In other words, for most of the country, she’s trying to solve the wrong problem.  If your local school isn’t great, but you can’t afford to move, well, there’s no app for that.

The misfires are a shame, because the broad topic absolutely bears thoughtful examination.  It’s harder to be middle class than it used to be, and the frustration that engenders plays out in some damaging ways.  Real solutions -- not comparison-shopping apps -- require political organization and social vision. But they can happen.  Tennessee’s free community college program, for instance, is audacious, egalitarian, and, apparently, wildly successful. It can be done.  I suspect Quart would agree, if she addressed the subject. Maybe next time.