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Families from the Missing Class
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November 2, 2007

In her recent book, THE MISSING CLASS: PORTRAITS OF THE NEAR POOR IN AMERICA, Katherine Newman followed nine families over a period of seven years:
"You see their lives changing. So the person that you knew eight years ago is different eight years later. And the trajectory of their lives changes, in part, because opportunities change. The economy gets better. The economy gets worse. They're waiting there to grab the brass ring. And if you watch them long enough you'll see how their interior characteristics display themselves when the opportunity presents."
Newman discussed the necessity of such long-term work to really get inside the numbers often offered up by economists and sociologists: "I'm very interested in getting to know people very deeply. But to communicate to the people who I want to read these books, you can't just present them with a forest of numbers. You have to give them a sense of the real people behind these numbers. And I think we know very little about the real people who constitute or the near poor in our country."

Read the stories of four of the families Newman profiled and find out more about the challenges facing the near poor.

The following descriptions are excerpts from Ms. Newman's interview with Bill Moyers

Julia Coronado
Julia Coronado came to the mainland US from the Dominican Republic when she was about 19 years old. And she didn't speak any English at all and was in pretty desperate straights. She found a job working in a factory where she cut her fingers everyday because it was a leather working factory. And had two children that she was then responsible for almost entirely, because her husband turned out to be not such a good egg. She was on welfare for a time with her children who were dependent on it. But Julia had tremendous determination. She went back to school. At a time when we allowed people on welfare to go back to school, and we helped to cover their expenses that way.

She got some training in computer programming. And eventually landed her dream job, a white collar job working at a doctor's office here in Manhattan. And these doctors were apparently not so good at scheduling their patients. So it wasn't a very efficiently run office. But Julia is very efficient. So she organized an entirely new system for booking these patients and organizing that doctor's office.

And she became the most valued employee they have. And they have promoted her. And she knows she's valuable. So she, every so often, threatens to walk, and they pay her a little bit more. So today she earns about $32,000 a year. So she's doing better than she ever thought she would. But, at $32,000 a year, and four people to support, her two kids, her mom and herself, $32,000 actually doesn't stretch all that far. What's more, Julia has higher ambitions for her standard of living.

She's working so many hours. She wants something to show for it. She'd like a new dress occasionally. And so all those credit card applications that roll into her mailbox every week, she tends to exercise them in ways she really shouldn't. ...She cut those cards in half during the period that I was- studying her life intensely. And is trying to work her way out of debt. In that she, like millions of other Americans, have abused the privilege, shall we say, or credit cards. But the most impressive thing about Julia Coronado is she started off with nothing, with no English, with no skills, and she worked her way up into a job anybody would be proud of.

The Floyd Family
John Floyd and his wife are grandparents who take are of nine people in their household. Their own children have had some serious drug addiction problems. And, basically, they've zeroed out and left the grandchildren on the steps for the Floyd grandparents to take care of.

They once owned a home that is more or less across the street from where they live now. They inherited that home from Mrs. Floyd's mother. But they couldn't keep the home in good repair. It sprung leaks in the roof. The plumbing was out of whack, and they just didn't have enough money to fix it. So a contractor came along one day and said, "All you have to do is sign on this dotted line and I'll fix your roof."

And they did. It sounded like a good deal. But, of course, it was not a good deal at all. It was a predatory lender who subjected them to exorbitant interest rates. And the first missed payment, that paperwork they signed gave him the right to put a mechanic's lean on the house, and they lost the house. The only asset they actually had, and they lost it. And, today, they can more or less look across the street and see it. It's in the hands of -- a much wealthier family because that contractor basically turned it over and resold it.

It's a neighborhood that's gentrifying. And you can find plenty of people happy to buy that house. But the Floyds ended up in this little one room apartment taking care of seven grandchildren. The oldest of whom, Rasheea, is a very gifted student. Again, she was the top student in her elementary school. She's won all of these prizes. The Floyds are incredibly proud of her. Her certificates for academic achievement are the wallpaper in their living room. But Rahseea really needs a stronger school if she's going to do better than her, certainly than her drug addicted mother. But even more than what her solid grandparents have done in life. She needs a more challenging school that can really boost her up. And they aren't able to provide that for her.

Valerie Rushing
Valerie Rushing is an African-American woman who has one child. And who has taken care of her nephew from her sister's family, because her sister fell apart. And that's true of a lot of missing class parents, by the way. They not only take care of their own kids, they take care of the children from their extended families who may be in trouble and need somebody to help support them. They may be the best off person in their extended family.

Valerie was on welfare at one time. Ended up extracting herself, all by herself, from welfare. Found a unionized job working for the Long Island Railroad cleaning cars at night. Because it's a unionized job she has benefits, she has retirement, she had health insurance. And she earns a pretty decent living for someone who's not very well educated.

She's a working woman. She can pay her own bills. She's not dependent on anyone else. She can take care of her kids. And she feels pretty good about that. But it's not a completely secure existence. If somebody gets sick in that household, somebody needs to be taken care of during the day. If Valerie started missing work because she doesn't have anybody else to call on to help care for those kids, that job won't always be there unless she can stick with it.

Tamar and Victor Guerra
Tamar and Victor Guerra are of Puerto Rican descent. Tamar packs perfume bottles in a factory in New Jersey. It takes her about 90 minutes to get to work, where she works for a sub minimum wage....They only belong in the missing class because Victor works as well. And, together, they earn enough to pull just above the federal poverty line.

They have three children. The oldest of whom I first met when he was about nine years old. And, at that point, he was doing reasonably well. He was never a brilliant student. He had his problems. But he was managing. And then Tamar began to get deeper and deeper into the workplace. And Omar, her son, began to go off the deep end. And, unfortunately, Omar is, today, in an upstate prison in New York.

The middle child in that family was doing so well in school when I first met him that his teachers recommended he skip a grade. And this is, again, coming from a family where the parents don't speak any English at all. Could never help him with his homework. But I saw the reports from his math teacher who said, you know, "This kid is fantastic. He should skip a grade." Two years later he was getting warning notices that he would likely fail the high-stakes test and was going to be held back in school because he just began running off the rails. He wasn't very well supervised during the day. The family life was unraveling under the pressure of these two parents who were working so hard. The youngest child was four years old at the time that I first new him. And had been the victim of lead poisoning. He had attention deficit disorder.

So this is a family that was sort of hanging on by the threads to their position in the missing class," says Newman. And their story points out some of the challenges facing those in the missing class: "The moral of this story is if we could do better in terms of the kind of public supports we provide, better schools, better healthcare, so that we didn't wait four years to find out this kid had lead poisoning problems, maybe he wouldn't have lead poisoning. Maybe he wouldn't be in so much trouble. We don't want to stop these parents from working. You know, we just want to level the playing field so that their children have a shot at a better future. Instead of being condemned to perhaps repeat the parent's early experience in poverty. Which is what I fear will happen to them.

Published on November 2, 2007

Related Media:
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Bill Moyers talks with Barbara Ehrenreich, author of NICKEL AND DIMED: ON (NOT) GETTING BY IN AMERICA about inequality in America.

Payday for CEOs
Overpaid Airline Execs? While high-flying executives from the nation's top airlines get big compensation, workers and retirees are seeing cuts.

References and Reading:
Katherine Newman

"The Missing Class,: THE NATION, July 26, 2007
In an interview with Eyal Press, Newman discusses the plight of the near poor: "The near poor are people with household incomes between $20,000 and $40,000 a year for a family of four, or 100 to 200 percent of the poverty line. And there are actually almost twice as many of them as there are people under the poverty line — 57 million in the US. They represent, on the one hand, an improvement, forward motion, the promise of upward mobility. But their lives are not stable. They truly are one paycheck, one lost job, one divorce or one sick child away from falling below the poverty line."

"The Wages of Fear," Katherine Newman, THE NATION, posted February 26, 2004 (March 15, 2004 issue)

"Exposing the Truth about Minimum Wage," OPRAH
Katherine Newman and Barbara Ehrenreich talk about the real life of low-wage workers on OPRAH.

Additional Information

"America's 'Near Poor' Are Increasingly at Economic Risk, Experts Say,"Erik Eckholm, THE NEW YORK TIMES, May 8, 2006

"The American Dream Foreclosed,"
Ford Fessenden, THE NEW YORK TIMES, October 14, 2007

"Haves and Have-Nots: Income Inequality in America"
A NPR series on income in America.

"Toward a New Understanding of American Poverty" by Mark R. Rank
Article adapted and modified from part of Rank's ONE NATION, UNDERPRIVILEGED: WHY AMERICAN POVERTY AFFECTS US ALL.

"In US, fewer are poor, more are working,"
Alexandra Marks, THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, August 29, 2007

"U.S. Poverty Rate Drops; Ranks of Uninsured Grow," N.C. Aizenman and Christopher Lee, THE WASHINGTON POST, August 29, 2007

Also This Week:

BILL MOYERS JOURNAL reports on the real-world consequences of media policy through the lens of how it affects minority media ownership in America.

Moyers interviews Katherine S. Newman, author of THE MISSING CLASS: PORTRAITS OF THE NEAR POOR IN AMERICA, about the millions of near-poor in America, who are just one disaster away from poverty.
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