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The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America
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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America
by Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen
Beacon Press ©? 2007 258 pages
$24.95
Reviewed by Tony Sipp

Note: Victor Chen mentions me on page 229 of The Missing Class as having been one of his journalistic mentors. I did "teach" and "advise" Victor for four years...But more: I respected and admired him...still do...always will...so...

The Missing Class tells the stories of nine families struggling and working assiduously to do more than keep their heads above water. They all want to earn their rightful place in the "middle class."

The research team and primary authors, my friend Victor and, though I have never met her, Katherine (if I may), are all certified academics.

Every time I come to the work of "certified academics," it is with a twinge of trepidation: The all-too-familiar expectation of a cloistered, pedantic voice speaking to me with hesitant semantics. I dread the first pages.

No worry here.

Victor and Katherine write in a delightfully fresh style which is crystalline without being fragile or precious. In the 1980's and 1990's, mainstream journalism embraced "writing for story." A style I called PHD/CNF: personalized, humanized, dramatized/creative non-fiction. That's their style.

Victor and Katherine tell the nine life stories (presented thematically not familially) in clear, concise, compassionate detail which gives us disturbing yet, at the same time, wonderful biographies.

These nine families are people who have experienced quiet desperation, powerful self-discipline, elation, miscalculation, self-destruction and whatever else composes the human experience.

About halfway through the first chapter, I thought of James Agee's and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. These books, vastly different on the surface, are identical in impact: stark, human, bright.

Poetry is simple, sensuous and passionate. That being so, Victor and Katherine are poets.

But another crucial element of good writing is surprise. At one point, we are engrossed in the story of a family that is struggling with a myriad of troubles and then we learn that one of their daughters...but let Victor and Katherine tell it:
Aaliyah, a junior at Yale, went to a pool party in Brooklyn. Two men, upset that they were being kept out of the private party, forced their way into the building and sprayed the pool area with bullets from a .22-caliber gun. Aaliyah was hit in the neck. By the time she arrived at the hospital the bullet lodged in her chest. The doctor opened her chest, but Aaliyah suffered a stroke and died (91)

Or

The story of a strong, self-actualized single mother who finally gets a job with a good salary but who has to face a new cost:
At the same time, it is important to consider the price exacted by those rising earnings--the disappearance of crucial hours at home, which is all the more costly in the context of uneven child care and troubled schools. Neither the money nor the satisfaction that comes from having a job will help very much if there is no one around to mind the children. (116)

Here is the dilemma: What are "they" to do? What are "we" to do?

Victor and Katherine do not let anyone off easily. They hold everyone accountable for the results of their own actions, but they do understand that they are, in the words of my cousin Charlie, "homo hapless."

The last chapters present some scenarios already in place to help.

What I have taken from this book is a new slant on Pogo's "They is us." They are not the enemy; they are the same as I am--a shaky being trying to make the best of it, not always sure how--but always sure why--because.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a very welcome, topical book, on a segment of the American population which is quite sizable and is growing, but is often overlooked. The ongoing economic downturn has expanded the size of those who fall short of the middle class but who earn enough to avoid designation as being in poverty. It is this group which authors, Kathleen Newman, Yale sociologist, and Harvard grad student Victor Tan Chen call "the missing class". The authors track the challenges which those in the "missing class" face. These challenges are largely interrelated and make the point, made repeatedly in the book, that membership in the missing class is so insecure that all elements of it are vulnerable when one element of it is de-stabilized. This is one of the major points of the book.

The authors define the missing class as above the poverty-line but still economically uncertain enough that members are only a paycheck or two from being on the streets, and they are certainly not in the middle class. Such economic insecurity can bleed into all aspects of lives, from familial relations, to monetary planning, from child-care to marriage. The authors show that if one's job situation changes, key elements of a person's life are thrown into chaos quite easily.

The thesis of the book is that membership in the missing class is not a sustainable escape from poverty. Membership is tenuous and taxing and far from certain. The authors cite many examples in which being in the missing class does not significantly separate people from poverty. The authors make the point that work conditions for those in the missing class may provide entree into the white-collar world, but that the membership is usually on the bottom rung of this class and so such membership is far from secure. One of the things which makes the missing class problematic is that there is often a lot of reliance on family, who sometimes may be caught in poverty and may be unjustifiably demanding of the family member who has done a little better. If relationships within the extended family are troublesome, it can be more difficult to address some of the significant challenges of being in the missing class. Perhaps kids are not trusted with family and so they are given more unregulated freedom. The kids might make decisions and those decisions may be good or may not. They may create more challenges. The tenuousness of the job situation may also present challenges with regard to health care. Health care might be not be available on reasonable terms, or even at all, from their employer. This will necessitate undertaking other, perhaps more short-term expensive but still necessary, health care, which might in turn require cutbacks on other crucial expenses like credit cards. Skimping on this payment can of course unleash more unpleasant results from unsympathetic multi-national corporations. This is one instance in which the tenuousness of membership in the missing class can be very unsettling and problematic. These are the sorts of Hobson's Choices which characterize life for those in the missing class.

The authors tracked nine families who were in the missing class from the tough district of Washington Heights, an area of Manhattan. Washington Heights had suffered through its own struggles during its recent history, in which time it had suffered from a major escalation of gang problems bought on, at least in part, by changing migration patterns into the area, and of course partially by decreased local government funding and the neglect of government institutions with little interest in the well-being of the poor and ethnically diverse. However, once population patterns settled, it seemed that greater stability meant for a better living and labor environment. While not a complete departure from the conditions which had troubled the area, it was more able to support those working hard to advance. Newman and Tan Chen had clearly spent a great deal of time at intervals over the course of approximately ten years. Given sufficient financial support to track stability over this time, the authors are able to reach conclusions on the challenges and shortcomings of those whose lives they document. The judgments are not value judgments, but observations on the effect of living, economically speaking, on a knife's edge. The results are not totally unexpected. One should imagine that some will struggle, some will encounter terrible hardships not of their own making, and that some might make poor decisions in the wake of unprecedented wealth in their lives. The vast majority of the people who are featured in the book are immensely sympathetic characters for who one roots. Most of their decisions are good. The bad thing about being in the missing class, however, is that one bad decision can unleash a cascade of dreadful consequences, which consequences would not accrue to those in the upper or lower middle-class were they simply to make one bad decision. Most seem to be doing their utmost to grasp their piece of the American pie. If one is to exclude the barrier of legal immigration, they do it by the book also.

The people in the book are not giving others short shrift in order to secure their own piece of the pie and they sacrifice and work very hard, simply in order to drag themselves out of poverty. The very fact that the subjects of this book are not grasping even for membership in the upper middle-class but only in the "missing class" is something of a cutting indictment of the opportunity for advancement in the United States. It is a fascinating book and one which should prompt thought about what is sufficient money to live on and whether the American system is sufficiently sympathetic to the people who live under it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
The top 1% of America's population received 8.83% of national income in 1976 but were getting 21.93% by 2005. On average, a Fortune 500 C.E.O. made 40 times a worker's pay in 1980 but that ratio is 364 to 1 today.

That erosion of America's middle class has led to what authors Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen use as the title of their book: THE MISSING CLASS. Individuals living the in the missing class are one job loss, medical bill, or maxed-out credit card away from poverty.

While I quote statistics, THE MISSING CLASS reports on America's underpaid workforce in human terms. The book's nine stories tell of people who live hoping they won't come home to an eviction notice. Of course, first they have to hope the repo man does not take their cars before they can drive home from their low-paying jobs.

Those who saw the documentary film THE BIG ONE will recall the tragedy of the woman whose small son died because the Workfare program forced her to take employment so far from home she could not watch him. Each of the nine THE MISSING CLASS narratives made me think of that family. Yet America closes hospitals and cuts education spending while it builds more prisons. Is that the plan?

Read THE MISSING CLASS.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 15, 2009
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
You see them every day. You deal with them at the doctor's office, the bookstore, and everyone else you go. They're those people that ensure that life runs smoothly for the rest of us - people working hard in not always that rewarding jobs, often in professional or nearly blue collar environments - they're the people who get things done. This book presents some of their stories in an engaging, interesting read that pulls no punches.

I appreciated the multiple stories of families living in these situations, through their triumphs, their heartbreak, and some challenges brought on by their own decisions. The authors don't make these people out to be perfect, nor do they demonize them. They simply tell the stories and let the reader draw their own conclusions. I appreciate that.

The book doesn't spout statistics, charts, or graphs - all of which can be effective - but it does provide a firsthand look at how these people live, struggle, and thrive. Too often do we focus on the rich (who are becoming richer) or the desperately poor, while ignoring the rest.

One story stood out to me - the woman working for low wages in a doctor's office, who had her job threatened by taking too many days off to care for her kids. I wonder how much those doctors make? I wonder if they could take a cut in pay to cover her health insurance? It's striking and maddening how the haves can so easily exclude the have nots.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This sounded like an interesting book. It is somewhat interesting. I'm a bit disappointed that the author only uses examples from New York City. They can't possibly represent the U.S. as a whole.
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on January 14, 2014
Format: Paperback
On its own merits this book probably deserves the four stars. Unfortunately, I read it after Jason DeParle's American Dream and that comparison made The Missing Class feel a little too academic, dry, scattered, and less invested in the individuals the authors were profiling. However, this book is newer and adds a level of diversity to the economic impacts of treading water just at the poverty line. I don't think it's as stimulating a read other books I've recently read (The Haves & The Have Nots, The Rich & The Rest of US, How Children Succeed), but if you have no personal experience with living paycheck-to-paycheck this book is a worthwhile read to establish a context for what it means to live on the economic fringes. As I have personal experience in this are, this book was a little repetitive to me. That said, these are my own biases skewed by my experiences and other reading, so I feel unjust giving the book less than four stars as the effort and professionalism of the book on its own deserves a higher rating.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I am big on social justice and giving back this book should be read by everyone, please pick up a copy today.
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on October 29, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This book focuses on lives of individuals we forget about on a daily bases. The book explains the hardships that the near poor face and explain how difficult their lives really are. Yet, at the end we are given ways on how to fix this problem that is devastating our society as a whole. Come on America, we can do better.
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on October 8, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Great book to open your eyes to the struggles store families endure within communities. Awareness is very important if we hope to make a change
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on February 10, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
We ordered this book for my daughter for a college class. She found this book to be very interesting and highly recommends everyone read this book.
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