In the late 1980s, when noted Princeton University sociologist Katherine Newman began researching the working poor in America, the dominant issue of the day relating to poverty was the welfare system and its approach to the country's unemployed. But people who couldn't get above the poverty line even though they were working remained invisible, eking out a living in quiet desperation. They continue to do so even today.
Newman's books, 'No Shame in My Game' (1999), 'Different Shades of Gray' (2003), 'Chutes and Ladders' (2006), and now 'The Missing Class' (co-authored with Victor Tan Chen, 2007) have drawn much-needed attention to the "near poor" or "the missing class". These are people with incomes that place them at 100 to 200 per cent above the poverty line, a fragile demarcation at best. (A household income of $20,000 to $40,000 a year for a family of four hardly makes ends meet.)
In a recent interview with 'The Nation' magazine, Dr Newman revealed that there are 54 million "near poor" compared to 34 million "real poor" Americans. "These people represent an improvement and 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."
They are families like the ones Newman studied in New York's Harlem in the 1990s; and the ones she came to know while researching her latest book - where the children were doing well, until their mother had to return to work despite their father being employed. In one such case, over a six-year period, one child went from skipping ahead a grade to failing in school; his older brother got into trouble and ultimately ended up in jail; and his younger brother has learning disabilities resulting from lead paint poisoning. Would any of this have happened if there had been more parental supervision? Perhaps. But what seems clear is that living on the margin certainly didn't help; quite likely it contributed to the sad outcome for this family.
In the 1990s, when Newman started studying the working poor in the inner cities, she was shocked to learn that the rate of job seekers to jobs was 14:1. This meant that young people were being edged out of working locally at minimum wage jobs by adult workers with somewhat more education, perhaps a few connections, and the willingness to travel outside of their own neighborhoods for employment. This situation had significant implications for high poverty areas and left Newman feeling pessimistic. What would happen to these people, she wondered, if the youth were unemployed and the adults were stuck in jobs that did not pay livable wages, let alone offer them an opportunity for more education?
Her research revealed some interesting facts. Among them was that while about 25 per cent of the working poor had worked their way out of poverty, another 25 per cent continued doing poorly. However, in the middle was a group of people who had secured slightly better jobs but whose households had not improved significantly, suggesting that stable households with several earners still found themselves struggling to rise above the poverty line.
Why had some done well and not others? Newman discovered that there were four routes to escaping poverty. First was the ability to return to school, largely because of family support. Second was the ability on the part of some to "stick it out" so that they rose up through the ranks at their places of employment. Third, some people got union jobs where wages and benefits were guaranteed. Finally, changes within the household (such as marriage or grown-up children leaving home) meant that the ratio of earners to dependents changed.
In 'The Missing Class', for which Democratic presidential aspirant John Edwards wrote the forward, Newman points out that the "near poor" remain vulnerable. "They symbolize the acid test of what this country represents," she wrote, clearly hoping for a change in leadership come next year's election that will lead to more investment in human capital. "Opinion polls show an increased interest in issues of poverty," says Newman. "It is definitely unfinished business."
It is also largely a gender-neutral business. According to Newman, "Gender doesn't matter much at the bottom." For the most part, women without children find themselves in similar situations to men, although women are slightly ahead of men in getting jobs and have better support networks in place. But the situation for women with children is very different, she points out. When there are kids to provide for, the picture changes dramatically, with mothers struggling in ways that men don't. In addition to child-care worries, they have fewer opportunities to get more education and their contact with the labor market is "more fragile and episodic".
Newman sees universal, high-quality, early childhood education as key to improving the situation of the working poor. She also advocates universal health care. Also on her list of policy imperatives is maintaining access to higher education. "We are making it very difficult for new generations to succeed," she says. "It isn't good enough in a country as wealthy as this one to replace welfare-dependent poverty with working poverty."