Newman, who studied the working poor in No Shame in My Game (1999), turns her attention to aging in the inner city.
Many elderly urban dwellers have cycled in and out of poverty during their lives, working at jobs that offer no pension of any kind. They may not have participated in the workforce long enough to quality for Social Security benefits, and there’s no carefree retirement for those serving as sole caretakers of their grandchildren. Focusing on New York City neighborhoods, the author interviews African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans aged 50 and up, creating a compelling look at the passage to old age. Members of this generation were more upwardly mobile than their parents, finding jobs as factory workers, secretaries, security guards, and civil servants. But that mobility, Newman (Urban Studies/Kennedy School of Government, Harvard) points out, was interrupted by the crack cocaine epidemic of the mid-’80s. Still working during those years, many older urbanites used their own meager resources to raise their adult children’s offspring; as a group, they were nearly as devastated as the addicts. In addition, people living in poor communities are more likely to suffer from diseases such as diabetes, asthma, and cancer—bad news for those who don’t have health insurance. Despite these dismal statistics, the men and women interviewed display a strong sense of community, family ties, and self-confidence. Using family connections and “fictive” kin arrangements, these elders create complex networks to which they can contribute (when they are working and have good health) and which sustain them when they need assistance. Newman has a variety of suggestions for helping those who have “spent their lives flipping our burgers or selling us toothpaste in jobs that provided no private pensions at all.” She supports restructuring Social Security to better provide for widows; additional monies for the Medicaid and Medicare systems; and a raise in kinship care stipends to match those of foster care.
A well-documented portrait of a little-examined group.