The Missing Class: an Analysis of the Themes and Applicable Theories

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In The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America (2007), Katherine Newman and Victor Tan Chen explore the lives of several urban, working families who live above the official poverty line, but who are one catastrophe away from it. Entrenched within the stories of these families’ lives, the authors explore themes and key issues which permeate many discussions of poverty, including gentrification of neighborhoods, credit card debt, lack of health care, childcare and education challenges, and the complex web of family relationships which serve as a support system for those who need it most. Yet, this book also tells the story of how we, as a society, ignore the near poor, preferring to focus on those living below the poverty line (the ones we feel obligated to help) and those living well above the poverty line in a financially stable existence. In The Missing Class, Newman and Chen introduce readers to the anecdotal stories of nine families struggling to survive in order to advance understanding of key issues and promotion of social policy change. Conflict theory contends that there must always be people at the bottom of the food chain. I struggle with the concept that we are working in an intrinsically unjust economic system; consequently, this possibility makes the “American Dream” seem futile and hopeless. How can the “American Dream” survive in a system that must replace those who are upwardly mobile by moving others downward? In this system, there simply isn’t enough space or resources for everyone to reach a certain level of comfort in their lies. The Missing Class illuminates this point again and again. For example, Gloria was once a woman who was able to support herself comfortably, but upon being diagnosed with cancer, she began the quick descent to poverty. Johnson (2006) describes the “zero sum” society where “one person’s gain is always someone else’s loss” (pg. 45). According to this theory, Gloria’s loss of a well-paying job became someone else’s gain, thus allowing that person some upward mobility. Johnson (2006) ascertains that most people have relatively little power to change or improve their social position. This seems true relative to the families in The Missing Class, where despite long hours working, few of the families seem to improve their financial stability over the nine years that they were followed. Conflict theory is applicable to The Missing Class in that social structures and ideas tend to reflect the interest of only some members of society rather than society as a whole; none of the nine families have their interests represented. It can be argued that we live in a democracy and that everyone’s ideas are represented, but one only has to look to Gan’s essay (1972) on poverty as evidence that people living in poverty, or living near poverty, are underrepresented politically. Gan’s fifteenth function states that because the poor vote less and participate less in the political process, “the political system has often been free to ignore them” (pg. 283). By ignoring these people’s interests, the political system is ignoring a large percentage of the population. According to Newman and Chen, the missing class accounts for 57 million people, like Danielle Wayne. Since becoming employed, Danielle has no time to volunteer at her children’s school and attend PTA meetings (something she used to do religiously), let alone participate in political activism. These families profiled in The Missing Class, have no time to supervise their children after school, facing long commutes, and substandard day care options. They have no free time to devote to political activism, and as a result, their voices are not heard. Critical race theory examines the relationship between race, racism, and power (Limbert & Bullock, 2005), and assumes that minorities encounter racism in their daily lives and that the elite whites perpetuate racism as a powerful social paradigm to...
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