The lives of nine families just barely scraping by in four New York City neighborhoods.
Puerto Ricans in Sunset Park, Dominicans in Washington Heights, African-Americans in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, they all fall into the authors’ “missing class”: the 57-million Americans (one fifth of the population) living just above the truly poor but below the middle class. Newman (Sociology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.; A Different Shade of Gray: Mid-Life and Beyond in the Inner City, 2003, etc.) and Chen (editor of INTHEFRAY Magazine) got to know these families and their neighborhoods well between 1995 to 2002. Assisted by a fieldwork research team, they interviewed employers, teachers, community leaders, police and various service providers in addition to the family members themselves. What characterizes the missing class, the authors conclude, is precariousness: a single incident, such as the loss of a job, an accident, illness or divorce, can plunge its members downward into poverty. They work hard, sometimes holding down two jobs, but they don’t have bank accounts, don’t own their homes and have little or no health insurance. Most run continuous balances on their credit cards, paying high interest rates and large fees. They lack the time to supervise their children and are often saddled with the additional responsibility of poverty-stricken relatives who ask for money or move in. In nearly overwhelming detail, Newman and Chen create a grim picture of what life is like without a safety net. These “forgotten but vital” Americans deserve respect for what they have already accomplished, the authors assert, and they need society’s support in housing, education, health care and job training if they are to keep hold of the gains they have made. The concluding chapter examines specific strategies for facilitating home and car ownership, encouraging savings, bringing grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods, reducing school dropout rates and making college accessible and affordable.
The many fragmented individual stories tend to blur together, but the message comes through loud and clear.