Life is getting more and more expensive for the middle class

BY DR TOM ODHIAMBO

The campaigns for the Democratic Party leader to take on Donald Trump at the next elections in America have taken an interesting turn. Bernie Sanders, he who shook the world of American politics by making socialist sounding policies appeal to the masses is suggesting that he would tax the middle class in order to fund programs that help poor Americans including healthcare for all. His opponents don’t think that that would be a good thing. They argue that the middle and working class are overtaxed. But what about the poor, Sanders seems to be asking. If the middle class and the workers are overly taxed, how much are the lower class and the utterly underprivileged taxed?

The question of the state and status of the middle and working classes should interest many Kenyans today. Why? Because one working family in Kenya supports tens of others – be they relatives, friends or the kiosk businesses that a majority of Kenyans rely on either for supplies or as workers. So, what happens when the few Kenyans who earn a regular salary can’t balance their accounts? And why aren’t they able to pay for goods and services and remain creditworthy? Why are many working class people today living from month end to month end? This is one big global problem. Study after study seems to suggest that the upper class – or the superrich – seem to be getting richer whilst the rest of humanity is barely managing to survive socio-economically. Alissa Quart has added her voice to research and debate on the fate of the middle and working classes in her book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America (ecco, 2018).

Combing a journalist’s eye for details and an anthropologist’s chase for empirical evidence, Quart examines the lives of tens of Americans in her study. The genesis of her study was her own life. As someone who considered herself middle class, she discovered that her family – despite her and the husband working – couldn’t pay their bills and save. They couldn’t afford to live a decent life – a life without the worry of penury knocking at the door any one morning because medical bills have exhausted the family’s savings or because the cost of taking a young child to school eats more than half the family income or because rents have just risen but one’s pay has stagnated or reduced.

Quart speaks to journalists, lawyers, nurses, truck drivers, university professors etc, professionals who either are underemployed, have lost jobs, or have to work more than one job to pay for the basic needs of life. These are professors doubling up as Uber drivers or waitressing at restaurants. These are men and women whose jobs may have been taken over by robots or self-drive trucks or computer applications or whose salaries have declined over a period of time simply because the society values them less. For instance, driverless trucks simply mean that millions of American truck owners and drivers will lose jobs and incomes. The thousands of motels and workers in these diners and pubs who serve the drivers will be shut down or out of jobs. Did you know that there are apps that can generate newspaper stories? She writes about robots dispensing drugs in hospital pharmacies and replacing nurses. Well, as this decade closes, it is estimated that China alone will have over 10 million robots at work. Where will all the current workers go?

As the inevitable world of robots and apps approaches, human beings, especially the working and middle classes, will have to be more inventive in looking for self-serving solutions

But most shocking, especially for Kenyans, is a situation where university professors can’t find work or when they have work, it is simply undervalued. Quart shows in Squeezed how untenured university teachers in America are overworked and underpaid. She argues that these junior professors probably work more than their tenured colleagues but work under poor terms of service, such as low salaries, lack of health insurance and no job guarantee. This is a very familiar sounding scenario for Kenyan part-time lecturers – women and men who sometimes work without pay for months on end only to end up being sacked without their dues. In the Kenyan case it is nearly impossible to sue the concerned institution because some of the ‘contracts’ are entered into verbally. And so the cycle of exploitation with even worse conditions continues.

The one reason Squeezed should interest working or middle class Kenyans is in the title – squeezed. This state of being boxed in is not only metaphorical; it is real. Think about how hemmed in our neighborhoods are. Smaller apartments. There isn’t space for children to play or adults to relax. Office space is no better, with little room for staff to work in; there isn’t even opportunity to socialize and feel to belong to the workplace community. The chaos of public transport and the endless vehicle jams mean that workers are strained on the road to and fro work. But the one most significant of these squeezes is the work compensation.

Wages continue to decline in this country, in real terms. Although many Kenyans earn higher salaries than they did about fifteen years ago, and there are seeming overt indicators of improved life, these salaries cannot offer the ‘quality’ of life that such an amount of money would have afforded those fifteen years back. In other words, rents, school fees, doctors’ fees, cost of food etc have risen faster than salaries. A worker today is likely to be unprotected at work from arbitrary job loss, they probably don’t have medical insurance, they don’t live near a public school (which is more affordable) because they can’t afford the rent in the neighborhood, the quality of their life will generally decline when they retire because the pension is too little etc.

What is the quality of life of such a worker? What is their state of mental health? How does the constant fear of losing a job or having to live in a poorer neighborhood or take a salary cut to retain a job or being unable to take care of the family affect such a person’s self-esteem? What is the overall effect on the society when the majority of its citizens are simply ‘hustling’ – a side hustle isn’t necessarily something to be proud of – and only a few can afford the ‘lifestyle’ that glossy magazines and real estate billboards advertize in Nairobi? With little or no social security at all, how do Kenyans survive these economic challenges?

Definitely the government is less likely to improve the lives of the millions of working class and underclass Kenyans. Public services continue to be poor or where resources are allocated they end up in the pockets of politicians or civil servants. Kenyans are left to their own devices. Can Kenyan workers organize better at the workplace? One doubts considering that trade unions in this country are getting weaker by the day either because of internal wrangling or due to mismanagement of resources. Can Kenyans rely on the cooperative movement and chamas, which have helped many to acquire property or educate children or pay medical bills? Probably yes. But these chamas have to be improved; they need to work smarter. They need to look into the future and have better agendas, such as encouraging their members to save more today for a rainy day or retirement; pool more resources together and own property through shareholding; reference each other when work is available; work towards better communal living etc.

There is no doubt that as capitalism invests more in machines to replace human beings at work, as the inevitable world of robots and apps approaches, human beings, especially the working and middle classes, will have to be more inventive, more aggressive in looking for self-serving solutions, more engaged politically so that they are not left behind or simply ignored by politicians and policymakers on decisions that affect their lives such as replacing human beings on the work floor with machines. It is only through collective intervention that such proposals as universal basic income could be achieved, as Quart suggests in Squeeze. But even where everyone is afforded some basic pay, how do the rest of us compel the government to make schooling, medical care, care for the elderly etc affordable and available for all? How do we create some space in the socio-economic squeeze we live in today?  

Writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. 

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