We see the charts and hear the statistics, but what does economic data really mean in the day-to-day lives of American families?
In search of answers, sociologist Marianne Cooper, Ph.D, spent two years interviewing and shadowing 50 families in California’s Silicon Valley. The families’ incomes ranged from $21,000 to several million, and their experiences provide a unique insight into the daily realities of life across the economic spectrum.
These families laid their lives bare for Cooper, revealing their finances and anxieties, kids’ struggles and even marital woes.
The findings, compiled in a new book, “Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times,” present an intimate portrait of American life (identities of the families were changed for confidentiality), one that challenges assumptions and reveals that wealthier families are just as anxious as the middle-class, albeit for very different reasons.
Here, Cooper discusses the distinct burdens on women, explains why affluent families are pushing their kids so hard, and shares her thoughts on individuals taking responsibility for events far beyond their control.
Your approach here was to explore how economic shifts play out in people’s lives, not just financially but psychologically and emotionally. What drew you to that approach and what do you consider its distinct value?
What I had seen in reading a lot about growing inequality and growing economic insecurity, was a lot of data and a lot of statistics. All of that is really important to understand how and why inequality is growing, which groups of Americans are more effected than others, and how we’re pulling apart. But I felt like the human face on this story was really missing, and somebody needed to go out and actually interview and talk with people, from rich to poor, to really understand what this means in people’s everyday lives and how they’re coping with such powerful forces.
I felt like the human face on this story was really missing, and somebody needed to go out and actually interview and talk with people, from rich to poor, to really understand what this means in people’s everyday lives...
The biggest question, from many stand points, is: How are people surviving all of this? We know it’s happening to people, but how are they dealing with it? From that perspective, we really didn’t know that much. So the value of it is really documenting how people are living with inequality and insecurity, and not just with surveys and going through their tax records, but really, on a day-to-day basis, how are they emotionally weathering these storms.
Many would assume wealthier families have far less anxiety than middle- and working-class families, but you found anxiety just as prevalent, it was just about different things. Were you surprised by that?
Yes. You don’t expect going into a project like this that the people who objectively have the most would be just as worried as people who have objectively have the least. It’s not what I would assume or what I figured was going to be the case. But what I found is that in hard times we’re all dealing with something similar, which is the anxiety generated by such high levels of insecurity. So, across the class spectrum, we’re all feeling these feelings of insecurity, we just feel it and deal with it in different ways.
The wealthier parents’ anxieties focused on macroeconomic trends like globalization and how it would effect them and their kids; middle- and working-class families were not thinking about that or didn’t feel it related to them. What did you make of that?
I think, one, it’s a complicated story and it’s a historical story: many changes and transformations have occurred economically, politically, socially. I think all of us are familiar with some pieces of it: that there’s a shrinking middle-class; that unions have declined; that we no longer get pensions; that not all jobs come with health care. And I think all of us have been on the receiving end of these larger transformations. But what’s caused it, and why it’s occurred, is a really complicated story.
I think that for families who are busy just trying to put food on the table, they’re focused on the here and now and what needs to get taken care of so their families can survive.
I think that for families who are busy just trying to put food on the table, they’re focused on the here and now and what needs to get taken care of so their families can survive. Thinking about these issues and trying to figure out what’s happening, requires a lot of time and energy that many families just don’t have between trying to go to their job and taking care of their families. The other part is, depending on your educational level, there’s different ideas and things that people are exposed to. Some of us might better understand these issues than others, but we’re all suffering from the consequences of it. So people might not be able to talk about the specifics of why unions are declining, but they can certainly speak to the reality of what that means in their paycheck.
Children often stand at the center of these families’ financial tensions, either because of education costs, or the expectations of wealthy parents determined their kids succeed. How were the kids dealing with all this?
I think for a lot of kids at the more affluent end of the spectrum, they’re in a pressure cooker, is how I would describe it. I think they certainly feel loved, and they certainly feel invested in, but it’s also the case that they realize how well they have to perform to attain these goals and expectations that affluent parents have set for them. It’s not like it’s OK for them to go to a middle-tier university; they know their parents want them to go to an elite university, and all of their friend’s parents what the same thing for their friends. I definitely found affluent children who were dealing with the stress of that; many were on anti-depressants and talked about how difficult it was to maintain that standard and to meet all those expectations.
I think for a lot of kids at the more affluent end of the spectrum, they’re in a pressure cooker...
For children in middle-class families and working-class families, there was less of a pressure cooker sense on them, but their families were under much more day-to-day economic pressure. So, their parents definitely cared how well they did, and definitely had big dreams and goals for them -- almost every parent that I talked to regardless of their class background wanted their child to go to college -- but the expectations on them were more normal, shall we say. If they just did well in school and tried hard, that was sufficient; parents weren’t losing sleep at night if their kids didn’t have a straight-A GPA. But they certainly were dealing with other kinds of stresses because of economic instability: parents losing jobs or suffering from pay cuts. That created its own kind of pressure that they were dealing with. They definitely were exposed to what we would consider really adult-like issues of making ends meet from a very early age.
Many connected their misfortunes to their own behavior rather than to economic shifts such as pay cuts or not having benefits. Where does that come from?
It comes from America’s focus on individualism. We have a long history of believing in individuals and individual rights and that’s the way we think about things. And so when mistakes or accidents occur, we believe individuals are to blame; that is the ideology and the filter through which most of us look at the things that happen to us.
We believe as a society that individuals control so much of their destiny, and so if misfortune happens to you, then something you did has to explain it or account for it.
We believe as a society that individuals control so much of their destiny, and so if misfortune happens to you, then something you did has to explain it or account for it. That’s just the cultural lens through which Americans often view what happens to them. I definitely found that in talking with families. Even though they knew they had experienced something outside of their control, like not having health insurance and having a medical emergency happen, or being laid off, they still tried to interpret that experience through this belief that somehow they were responsible for it, or somehow they could have done something different or, after these things occurred, that they were on the hook to fix it: to pay back the money or to deal with the economic insecurity that the event created for them. There was very little sense that these were forces that were unfair or unjust, or that we could do things differently as a country so that people didn’t have to experience these things in the first place.
In wealthier families, moms had walked away from careers to focus on the kids while dad focused on providing. You call this gendered division of roles “neo traditional” and mom’s new role “quasi-professional.” Can you talk about that?
Among affluent parents, there was a realization that their kids can’t be middle-class because being middle-class no longer means having a good, prosperous, stable life. It actually means being exposed to tremendous insecurity, and they don’t want that for their children.
Among affluent parents, there was a realization that their kids can’t be middle-class because being middle-class no longer means having a good, prosperous, stable life.
They realize that in order to provide their children with security in their futures, these kids have to go to college, they have to go to graduate school, and they have to enable them to have the skills and experiences that will make them competitive in what they see as an increasingly globalized labor market. So part of that adjustment is positioning children to be able to compete, and that’s actually a really, really big task and a really big project and it requires a lot of focus and energy.
I think that seeing women decide to step away from their careers and focus on positioning their children, is the way in which affluent mothers are adapting to that reality. It’s hard to do all of these things, but it’s especially hard if what it takes to position your child seems more than just saying: work hard, go to the right school, and you’ll go to a good university. So, it’s really the anxiety among parents, and the anxiety that women kind of internalize about all this, that it’s somehow their responsibility to make sure that their child is on track.
In middle- and working-class families, you saw women often taking on the role of designated worrier. Can you talk about this second shift for women and the toll?
It took a tremendous toll on them. These forces and these transformations that Americans are encountering take a toll on all of us but these women in particular were the ones who were in charge of maintaining their family’s security. And because insecurity is on the rise, that task has become harder, more unpredictable, and more demanding for a larger number of American families. And so they were really on the hook because many times they were more educated and/or out-earned their husbands or their partners.
Women in particular were the ones in charge of maintaining their family’s security. And because insecurity is on the rise, that task has become harder, more unpredictable, and more demanding...
The toll that it took is that they felt this huge psychological burden to be the providers for their families, to make sure their kids are on track, to renegotiate the budget all the time when things popped up, whether that’s property taxes being due, or an unexpected bill, or getting a 20% cut in their pay. They were the ones on the hook to figure out how they were going to manage this. And they were often alone in that burden. Their husbands were more focused on being the one in the family who was optimistic and would just say things are going to be fine; but they left it to their wives to really figure out how they were going to be fine, and that was an unequal division of burden.
Among the middle-class, we see this slow drip of debt: unexpected costs pop up that fall outside the monthly budget and end up on the credit card. One middle-class dad says, “Everyone is two weeks away from being broke.” Can you talk about that?
I think debt is a safety-valve for working-class and middle-class families. I’m sure it has been always, but because insecurity is on the rise and we know that when household income drops it drops much further than it used to in the past, debt, credit card debt is like a lifeline for families.
I think debt is a safety-valve for working-class and middle-class families...people took on debt to pay basic living expenses, and it became a way for them to weather these bumps in the road, so to speak.
So, the perception may be that families are just going out and spending it on frivolous things that they really don’t need, and that people should just live within their means, but the reality that I found was that people took on debt to pay basic living expenses, and it became a way for them to weather these bumps in the road, so to speak. The problem is, because insecurity is increasing, there wasn’t just one bump in the road, there’s multiple bumps in the road and often within very short periods of time. And so what one month is $1000 on the credit card, six months later can be $7000 on the credit card, and the debt ramps up pretty quickly.
You say it has become rational for some to expect and ask for more and others to expect and ask for less. And you talk about how that reinforces the inequality of the status quo. What breaks that cycle?
It’s true that the way people are coping with inequality -- affluent families wanting more and more, and middle-class and working-class families trying to get used to less and less -- does make inequality worse. But this is also a question of values. When we came out of the Great Depression, we decided as a society that we were better off standing together and ensuring that Americans had security in both good times and bad. This led to things like Social Security and then a relationship between employers and employees that was about mutual loyalties and mutual benefits: employers provided good jobs with good pay and good benefits and in return employees worked really hard and used their talents to help build the company.
We need to have a conversation about what we all owe each other as citizens, as Americans, as a country.
These solutions provided economic security but they also provided a kind of emotional security because they were based on a set of values that we all share: if you work hard you can get a good job, and that job will enable you to live a good, secure life. I would say that in policy, and in the ways that companies started to change what they felt they owed employees, that whole set of values began to unravel, and really it was replaced with this idea that everyone is on their own to knit their own safety net, so to speak.
So the way we fix the situation, is to start talking about what values we’re going to hold dear. We need to have a conversation about what we all owe each other as citizens, as Americans, as a country. And that leads you down certain policy decisions; that we’re going to have a standard where when people work full-time they are not in poverty; that is just a value that we as Americans share. And other values, like we don’t believe that if you get in a car accident, you should be so burdened with medical debt that it destroys you financially, not just you in your lifetime, but your ability to help your children and their future economic trajectory. These are values that we have to return to, of sharing risk, of sharing security, of standing together, as opposed to everyone standing on their own.
This interview has been edited.
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