Portraits of the Near Poor

The gospel calls us to a “preferential option for the poor” to address the conditions of the 37 million adults and children who live in poverty in the United States. But what about the “near poor”?

In The Missing Class , Katherine Newman and Victor Tan Chen focus our attention on the 57 million Americans who occupy the precarious economic rung just above poverty. They are the “near poor” or “missing class”—households that fall between the stable middle class and the impoverished. Their household incomes range from $20,000 to $40,000.

Our “missing class” neighbors don’t qualify for, in the words of Newman and Chen, the “dwindling government-provided benefits for the truly poor,” such as public day care, Medicaid, and welfare. But they also lack the means to afford their own quality child care and services. They may have higher incomes, but the stability of homeownership and significant savings eludes them. Those with health insurance are “weakly insured” and have inferior health options. While they may not receive direct subsidies, their security is woven closely to the quality of government spending and institutions—human services, neighborhood schools, libraries, policing, and economic development.

Many members of the missing class have escaped poverty, but their economic circumstances remain precarious. They are prime targets of predatory lenders and credit card pushers. They live in impoverished neighborhoods and are surrounded by relatives and loved ones who depend on them. As the authors write, “Poverty has a way of creeping back into the lives of members of the missing class in the form of relatives who can no longer manage and must lean on more fortunate kin.”

The strength of The Missing Class is its storytelling, which sets this book far above other nonfiction books about class and poverty. Through well-developed portraits and strong narrative writing, the experiences and struggles of nine New York City families emerge in all their humanness and difficulty. Common threads in these stories include heroic efforts to stay out of poverty and troubling episodes of irresponsible fathers and men, rocky relationships, and the reckless use of credit cards. Newman and Chen put a human face on the interaction of personal choices and economic and government policies.

One insightful chapter looks at the experience of “missing class” children whose parents are economically squeezed and overworked. The authors contend that the policy wonks who designed the “No Child Left Behind” education policies presumed parents would be engaged in helping their children master basic skills. At the same time, welfare reformers were aggressively pushing women into the workforce without considering the full ramifications on children. These “sacrificed children” are at risk of economic backsliding because their “near poor” families are caught between conflicting economic and social policies.

The principal weakness of The Missing Class is the scope of its portraits. While the authors offer an intriguing theory about a “missing class” in U.S. society, the narratives are about families who live in New York City only. These are gripping stories and make The Missing Class an engaging read. But the authors fail to apply insights about the “near poor” to the rest of the U.S. culture. We don’t know what the “missing class” experience is for whites, rural blacks, and others who don’t live in the unique conditions of our nation’s largest metropolis.

A fuller development of the “missing class” experience would examine how “near poor” and “poor” people are pitted against one another in political battles over taxes and public services. Unscrupulous politicians have driven a wedge between these two segments, often enlisting the resentment of the economically insecure “near poor” to vote against benefits for the poor. We learn little about civic participation and political attitudes of the missing class. Nor does the book explore how the immigration issue plays out among members of the missing class in other regions of the country.

A deeper analysis of the “near poor” experience would also suggest lessons and strategies for community organizing and public policy that would link both constituencies together toward a politics that increases economic security for everyone.

In the coming years, there will be new opportunity for a progressive populist politics that links together wide constituencies for a “shared prosperity” economic program. The engagement of the “missing class” will be a determining factor in the success of these efforts.

Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he chairs the working group on extreme inequality. He is co-author with Mary Wright of The Moral Measure of the Economy (Orbis) and a Sojourners board member.

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