Stop Asking Where I'm From

This became especially poignant in light of #OccupyWallStreet

Written By: humarashid - Oct• 17•11

My review is kind of long, particularly the part where I chose to detail some of the problems faced by the missing class, but this book is definitely worth reading. It’s incredibly appropriate at this point in our country’s history, when cities across America are being occupied by those not interested in overturning capitalism, but devoted to addressing rampant income inequality and the shrinking ranks of the middle class and painful government cuts to necessary programs like public education and college assistance and aid to low income students and the continued and flagrant disenfranchisement of the poor, minorities, youth, and undocumented.

Read this.

Ignore the fact that the foreword is by John Edwards. :| Yes, the man that tried to pass off his love child as the illegitimate child of his long-time campaign aide, Andrew Young, despite the fact that everyone in the world was like, “Dude, what are you smoking?” at that brilliant little plot.

No, but, seriously, read this.

The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in AmericaThe Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America by Katherine S. Newman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The Missing Class” is defined by its authors as being comprised of families of four that make between $20,000-$40,000 annually, based on figures in 2002. I grew up in the Missing Class. My father had been in the US since the 70s, and in 82 he married my mom and they moved to Boston. I was born four years later, and my mother was living on a university stipend (she went to school and also taught at Boston University while I was little) and my father worked his way up from a teller to a manager at a bank. I was definitely part of the Missing Class, since we’ve never ever been on government assistance, and we didn’t enjoy the traditional luxuries of the middle class (yet).

That’s probably why all the stories in this book resonated so deeply. The authors follow several families/individuals for a period of years and chronicle their lives in their lower class neighborhoods. My earlier misconception was that anyone who made under a certain amount was classified as ‘working poor.’ I now understand that the term is far more nuanced and generally refers to blue collar workers, or to those on government assistance. I would have classified a clerical assistant at a doctor’s office (one rung below the secretary) making about $25K per year as one among the working poor. Not so. An individual in that $20-$40K bracket, working at a white collar job, is not classified among the working poor, but is instead a member of this murky missing class.

The stories in this book are captivating, but to not override the more academic tone. We follow families like the Rushings, the Waynes (Danielle is actually a converted Muslim, which was an interesting thing that stood out to me, as an American Muslim who is not used to seeing other Muslims pop up in studies and discourse), the Floyds, and many more. It gets a little confusing sometimes, since the book skips around between them, but if you pay attention, it’s not difficult to keep it all straight. The stories these people share are eye-opening, compelling, heart-breaking, and certainly not rare. Their stories illuminate all the problems facing the working poor in America, whose ranks have only swelled since the Bush administration as America entered its worst recession yet.

These problems include inadequate health insurance (but of course, they can’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare, so high deductibles and low limits on coverage and expensive ER visits are their lot), the lack of affordable child care for the working mothers (again, they fail to qualify for government assistance in that respect, and can’t pay for the child care that their middle class counterparts can access), poor schooling for their children (and there have been so many cuts to public education in this country since this book was written), a fractured community where it’s very difficult to know your neighbors, put down roots, and form any kind of cohesive communal identity (a lot of this has to do with white flight, and then other-ethnic-group flight), drugs and violence (families are often unable to move out of bad neighborhoods, and bad neighborhoods are usually defined by high drug and gang presence and low cop presence), broken homes (stable long term relationships, much less marriages, are much rarer in the missing class than in the middle class), romantic relationships that have an unavoidable financial aspect (poor women need to choose suitors based on what they can contribute financially, because they have a house to maintain and children to provide for, and most seem to have poor relationships with their kids’ biological fathers, who contribute little if anything), being unaware of one’s legal rights (several people in this book had no idea, for example, that they could sue a landlord for lead paint in the apartments, or a factory owner when a machine sliced off a fingertip), being cut off from the institution of banking (few banks open brick and mortar buildings in poor neighborhoods, and many will not even offer a savings account to the poor, who are only able to deposit a couple hundred as their first foray into banking, and so the missing class often makes do with check cashing agencies that take a hefty percent, and hide money in shoeboxes, and have no credit history because of this which leads to trouble later when they save up and want to put down a down payment on a home and get pre-approved for a mortgage, etc), little access to higher education or job mobility, typical immigrant issues regarding language barriers and racism, etc, and so much more.

The problem that stuck out to me the most was the problem welfare mothers face. These are women that are home when they have no job, so they can be around to help their kids with homework and supervise them and be a regular presence at school and so on. But then, with the tougher restrictions on welfare passing during the Bush years, these mothers were forced to find work, often at low paying jobs that were quite far from their homes. They lost at least an hour each way on the commute and worked long hours. They had money coming in, but it didn’t really make a difference in terms of their household income, and they were spending all this time away from home, and their kids were poorly supervised (usually under the care of a relative). As a result, the kids would act out, they would get involved with dangerous types around the neighborhood, and because the mothers weren’t around to read to them and help them with homework, the kids’ academic performance suffered greatly. One mother in the book, Tamar, experienced this and her oldest son ended up being sent to juvy at least partly because she was no longer able to be a constant presence in his life, what with all the time she spent at work or commuting to and from work.

It’s not mentioned in the book, but I’m reminded of the story of that mother in Michigan, whose son brought a shotgun to school and shot another little girl. It made headlines, but the key facts went ignored. The child and his mother were, predictably, black. The mother was on welfare and rode the bus for 1.5 hours each way to her job at a fast food place in a mall. She had two jobs there – one at a fast food restaurant and one at some fudge shop in the same mall. She left home early and came home late. The two of them were staying at her brother’s house temporarily because she had been evicted from hers (I think). It was there that the kid found the shotgun. I could easily see that story fitting in with the narratives Newman and Chen explored here, showing an even darker side of the problems that plague the missing class.

The book itself is moving and powerful, interspersing policy arguments and studies and statistics with the stories of different families and aid workers in Brooklyn and Manhattan and Bed Stuy (mostly). The writing is engaging but academic (a tremendous feat!), and it is impossible to come away from this text unmoved.

Unless you are a Republican or Libertarian or robot, I suppose.

View all my reviews

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