Early in Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times, Marianne Cooper’s revelatory book about family life in an age of insecurity and inequality, the author describes a photo she took of her husband and newborn baby in the fall of 2008. Cooper thought she was preserving a cute father-daughter moment. But when she looked at the picture later, she realized she had captured something else entirely. The two are sitting together, and her husband appears worried. “On the computer screen behind him,” Cooper recounts, “is an image of the S&P 500 falling off a cliff.”
Cooper’s book offers an unusual picture of post-crisis America, in part because it asks an atypical question. The quantitative view of our economy is familiar to anyone who reads the news: The median household income is now lower than it was in 2008, and the assets of the wealthiest sliver of the population are soaring in value. But what does this divergence feel like to ordinary Americans? Are they even aware of how it has made their lives more challenging and uncertain?
Almost a decade ago, Cooper set off to answer this question—to discover how income stagnation, growing inequality, and economic insecurity were impacting family life, and how these conditions have affected Americans’ self- perceptions, expectations, and anxieties. For her fieldwork, she chose to focus on one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing areas of the country, California’s Silicon Valley. Between 2005 and 2007, Cooper, now a sociologist at Stanford University, interviewed and observed 50 families, including people she met in superstores, at Little League games, and everywhere in between. She then followed up with them in 2012 and 2013.
Cut Adrift (University of California Press), unsurprisingly, is not a happy tale. Almost everyone Cooper interviews, with the exception of certain upper-middle-class families, appears to be relying on debt or money obtained via strategic home-refinancing efforts to get by at least some of the time. And no one feels safe or secure—not the forever-falling-downward Delgados, nor the wealthy Mahs, nor the immigrant Faleaus, nor the middle-class Calafatos.
What’s fascinating is how their emotional coping strategies vary. Many of the families who are falling down economically deny or make light of their struggles. To use Cooper’s terminology, they “downscale” their expectations and their definitions of security and stability. Laura Delgado, a sales clerk, is barely getting by as a single mom. Bill collectors call her ceaselessly, and she is constantly under threat of having the electricity turned off. Her kids huddle in sleeping bags because heat is too expensive. She says they look “cute” and calls it “camping.” Sam Calafato, a college dropout who has earned about the same salary for two decades in his job fixing ATMs, claims he “can’t remember” whether his daughter, Mindy, got into her first-choice college, New York University. She did, but he couldn’t afford to send her.
Cooper’s affluent families, by contrast, “upscale” their definitions of success, their expectations, and their senses of insecurity. They turn sources of minor—even comically minor—stress into obsessions. They worry about globalization, education, and keeping up with child-rearing families in Beijing (per capita GDP: $14,000). When Brooke Mah, whose husband, Paul, is a high-ranking technology executive, decides that her 10-year-old son’s school is not offering a challenging enough math curriculum, she contemplates relocating the family to India or Singapore for several months. The plan is foiled only by the refusal of Paul Mah’s employer to permit him to telecommute. Another dad tells Cooper he once attended a cocktail party where Bill Gates (net worth: $82 billion) expressed fear for his children’s future in the globalized economy.
Downscaling and upscaling are, in Cooper’s telling, twin coping mechanisms for living with uncertainty. And they fall squarely into an American tradition of looking inward rather than outward for the causes of and solutions to our troubles. The self-help industrial complex does well in troubled times. The Great Depression brought us Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. More recently, surging inequality and the economic crash of the 2000s made The Secret, Suze Orman, and Sheryl Sandberg famous. Cooper says Delgado cultivates the habit of “positive thinking all the time” and reports that Gina Calafato turns to meditation, acupuncture, and yoga. It doesn’t matter. They’re still falling behind. (As it happens, Cooper herself served as Sheryl Sandberg’s lead researcher in producing Lean In, the Facebook executive’s mega-best-selling book of advice for women in the workplace. But leaning in—which mostly involves being more assertive—doesn’t seem to help Cooper’s families much.)
Not on the list of approved American methods of dealing with stress are anger and old-fashioned rabble-rousing. Two other new books make useful companions to Cut Adrift, and examine why today’s widening inequality hasn’t translated into more political action. In American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction (Princeton University Press), Cornell political scientist Adam Seth Levine provides evidence that financially anxious people respond to their stress not by grouping together for action but by becoming less generous with their checkbooks and personal time. Fear makes working people protect their own short-term well-being, at the expense of fighting for change that could help them.
In The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (Little, Brown), the financial journalist Steve Fraser attempts to put our inward-looking response to inequality in historical perspective. He compares the placidity of our current gilded age to the turmoil, strikes, and violence of the first one, and observes that many factory workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were a mere few years or generations removed from a pre-industrial, rural life. They viewed themselves as working-class, and understood readily that their economic interests were not the same as those of their white-shirted bosses. In the present day, however, our hyper-financialized world is assumed to be the natural order of things, billionaires wear shirtsleeves instead of top hats, and financial setbacks are viewed as personal failings. We’re told that anyone can succeed with gumption and grit, and the stock market is relentlessly celebrated as a way of getting ahead. The result, Fraser says, is a “profoundly disempowering” way of viewing our personal situations.
Cooper’s subjects, for their part, reserve their disapproval mostly for themselves and their fellow sufferers. They are convinced that they should somehow be smarter or more virtuous, but rarely can they say what that might realistically mean. They seem to believe that their occasional extravagances—a dinner out here, an ill-timed home-renovation project there—are the source of their woes. When Cooper asks her subjects how they feel about our increasingly income-stratified way of life, the reader feels her subjects recoil. “If you don’t like your circumstances, do something about it,” snaps an administrative assistant. In many cases, the responses sound suspiciously like denial or wishful thinking. One man, not a rich one, says he’s sure his children, when they grow up, will “do pretty much whatever they want.”
After Laura Delgado suffers a seizure while driving, spends a week in the intensive care unit, and—lacking insurance—emerges with a $25,000 bill, she resolutely refuses to declare bankruptcy. “We should have been saving instead of living on the high life,” she tells a stunned Cooper, who notes that Delgado’s definition of extravagance includes using appliances and paying day-to-day household expenses through credit-card debt.
The wealthy and successful are, in Cooper’s experience, the ones most likely to acknowledge that inequality is a problem. But that just makes them worry more about their children. Paul Mah tells Cooper that his “security benchmark” is $10 million. The dad who heard Bill Gates worry about his children claims he only “kind of felt secure” with $25 million in cash in the bank and a paid-off mortgage. For these wealthy people, inequality is motivating. It spurs them to do more to protect their privilege. The great irony of Cooper’s, Levine’s, and Fraser’s books, and of our age, is that the people who suffer most from inequality are the ones who are least likely to do much about it.