Sociologist Katherine Newman is best known for her richly documented, fine-grained portraits of the working poor. In books such as No Shame in My Game and Chutes and Ladders, she has chronicled the experiences of low-wage workers struggling against formidable odds to lift themselves out of poverty. Unlike many economists, Newman focuses less on statistics than on the barriers and opportunities people encounter in their daily lives, shedding light on the fault lines of the nation’s class divide through intimate accounts of families and neighborhoods. In her forthcoming book, The Missing Class, written with Victor Tan Chen, Newman has turned her attention to the travails of the “near poor,” a vast pool of workers who are neither officially destitute nor comfortably middle class. Recently, Nation contributing writer Eyal Press caught up with her at her home in Manhattan.
Who are 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.
Are the members of this class in a more precarious situation today than, say, ten or twenty years ago?
More precarious than in the late 1990s, yes, but not twenty years ago. The reason is that we had this golden period between about 1997 and 2002, when we had record low unemployment, high growth, low inflation, and that’s part of what propelled these people forward–employers were looking for more of them, and opportunities opened up. That’s less the case today.
What kinds of neighborhoods do the people you’re describing live in?
Like the poor, the near poor tend to live in places that have serious problems of infestation–rodents, cockroaches–which means they have very high rates of asthma, childhood asthma in particular, and high rates of lead exposure, since their apartment buildings are older. They are also in neighborhoods with fewer consumer options, places not well served by the big chain stores that have the lowest prices. So basically the poor and the near poor are soaked–everything they buy is more expensive than it should be. It’s like a huge tax on them, and there are also health consequences–your access to a decent diet is compromised; it’s harder to get fresh fruits and vegetables. Problems like obesity are very pronounced in this population. But the neighborhoods of the near poor are less segregated and have a more diverse income mix than those of the “real” poor.
You call this a “missing class.” Is it missing from the consciousness of Republicans or Democrats?
Pretty much both. John Edwards wrote the foreword to this book, so it’s on his radar screen, but I haven’t heard anybody else talk about these people, neither Republicans nor Democrats. I don’t think the political parties reach out to them very much.
Yet I take it that what happens in Washington does have an impact on their lives.
Some of the policies set in motion over the past decade have had a particularly pronounced effect on the near poor. For example, welfare reform propelled a lot of people into the labor market. Meanwhile, No Child Left Behind created a system of high-stakes tests for kids in the public school system. Nobody was thinking about what these two policies would mean when they collided behind the closed doors of a family. But in a family, these things are colliding all the time: the demand placed on parents to be in the labor market and the demand placed on kids to pass those high-stakes tests, which they’re far less likely to do if parents aren’t around to take them to the library, read to them, look over their homework. There are stories in the book about mothers who had been able to go to their kids’ schools, couldn’t go anymore, didn’t realize they were falling off the deep end, and then that kid ends up on Rikers Island.
Is there more, or less, awareness today of the challenges facing the working poor than when you began your research?
There’s greater recognition now that we actually have a population called the working poor. I think that attempts to beat back some of the more successful policy innovations, like the earned-income tax credit, have failed in part because there’s recognition that these people exist, that they should be supported and that we need to do something about their health insurance. What I don’t see is much attention to fostering mobility out of working poverty. We seem to feel that as long as we’ve taken people off public assistance, our job is done. But it isn’t done–it isn’t good enough in a country as wealthy as this to replace welfare-dependent poverty with working poverty.
Yet welfare reform has not led to the disaster some people predicted. Haven’t those who feared this, including yourself, been proven wrong?
What I didn’t anticipate, and I don’t think anyone anticipated, was that in the late ’90s we would have really tight labor markets, a roaring economy, very high growth, very low inflation. We basically had the opposite of a perfect storm–we had perfect weather, and that provided a lot of mobility opportunity even for the people I study. But welfare reform won’t receive its real test until we see a big recession and we can see what happens to people without any safety net beneath that. We haven’t seen that, so it’s not easy to know what it would mean.
In your previous book, Chutes and Ladders, you told the stories of two groups: the “high flyers,” who succeeded in climbing out of poverty, and the “low riders,” who didn’t. What was the main difference between them?
For the most part the difference is explained not by their desire for upward mobility but by their family circumstances. Everybody wants a better job and everybody is willing to work for it. But women who had children and no one to help them with those kids were much more likely to get trapped–they couldn’t get more education, which limited their job options; their contact with the labor market was more fragile and episodic. Whereas the people who could afford childcare or who worked out elaborate arrangements with extended family members were able to stay on the job, get more training and move upward.
That sounds like an answer conservatives would love–it’s all about family.
But when we say it’s about family, we’re really talking about the burdens people face in simultaneously trying to combine family responsibilities with the demands of the labor market. And we don’t make it easy for them to do that. In Italy, you have access to full-time, high-quality childcare from the time your child is an infant. Similarly in France. A lot of families I studied who didn’t make it out of poverty were the ones where the childcare options were so dangerous they couldn’t leave their kids, so they ended up dropping out of the labor market, which isn’t good for them or for their children. I don’t think conservatives have much of an answer to this. The only answer I hear them giving is that poor people shouldn’t have children at all.
If you could take the platform of the Democratic candidate for President and insert three provisions for the missing class into it, what would they be?
Universal, high-quality, early-childhood education would be very high on my list, because the more we can do for kids when they start out to level the playing field, the better off the whole country will be in the long run. Universal healthcare would be hugely important, not only because of its health consequences but because it frees up income for other things. And opening up and maintaining access to higher education, because the people on the losing end of this economy are the poorly educated. Instead, I fear we’re going in the opposite direction–we’re seeing increases in public higher-education tuition, which will make it very hard for new generations to succeed.