Sink or Swim

The war against the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) is about more than the fear of so-called “socialized medicine”—you know, the kind the president and congressmen enjoy. It's a smear on the working class, lower-middle-class families, often with two employed parents, who struggle to pay for food, clothing, housing, education and transportation. The selfish right naively claim they should take care of their own medical care, but the sad fact is that families making as much as $40,000 per year can't afford the rocketing cost of health insurance. And a medical emergency could put them on the streets.

Fall beneath the poverty line—roughly $20,000 per year for a family of four—and you're a visible statistic and ripe for benefits. Rise above it, and you disappear. This is the premise of Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen's The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor In America. The two sociologists followed the fortunes of nine near-poor families in the New York City area over seven years and discovered what it's like to live on the edge. Bad breaks and innocent mistakes can be catastrophic. Divorce, pregnancy, illness, rent increases and evictions, even minor accidents can easily ruin whatever financial security they've obtained. The near-poor are particularly vulnerable to inadvisable mortgages, credit tweaks and scams.

Take the story of John Floyd. Living in the home his wife's family had owned for two generations, he agreed to take his seven grandchildren in and off his unemployed children's hands. The house needed repairs, and when the Floyds were contacted by a slick contractor for improvements, they signed on the bottom line. Months of shoddy work later, the Floyds were billed for twice the amount they'd agreed to with no sign of promised time payments. A lien was put on their home, and in short order, it was lost. The company has since been investigated for fraud, but the damage had been done. Newman and Chen buttress Floyd's tale with other stories of eviction and foreclosure from his North Brooklyn neighborhood. And if you don't think it happens here, check out neighborhoods in Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana, where foreclosures are high and gentrification is on the march.

To their credit, Newman and Chen do not idolize their subjects. These people, like the rest of us, are not angels. They are victims of their own self-failings as much as bad luck and circumstance. Though often ambitious and hard-working, they divorce and get into bad relationships, some drink and do drugs, they overextend their credit, gamble and fall prey to scams. They're often immigrants and fiercely proud.

Weaving individual plots into a single theme (think Babel), Newman and Chen have made what might have been a collection of dry and dismal accounts into intriguing, if not uplifting reading. Their brusque style is eminently engaging and at times even quotable (“Managed care means miserly care”). And there are peeks into survival techniques straight out of pulp fiction, as when one of their subjects talks about “geesing”—the habit of taking a potential suitor for all he's worth. Any one of these stories, as if written by John Steinbeck or O. Henry, are ready material for some independent filmmaker who wants to explore the ironies of modern life and human nature. A few even have happy endings. You can't help but smile when Julia Coronado tells her demanding welfare caseworker that she's secured a job at a local health clinic as a scheduling coordinator. But you can't help but cringe when, anticipating her new income, she runs up the balance on her credit cards.

The authors offer several suggestions for protecting the 57 million near-poor (21 percent of them children). Building equity in homes, providing means for further education, job enhancement through “career ladder” programs, fledgling savings plans and providing low-cost market alternatives for basic commodities (Wal-Mart doesn't build stores in low-income areas) are all recommended, if not seemingly feasible. They acknowledge that the health-care system is a major burden on the missing class—proposed SCHIP funding would help—but take a pass on solutions, saying it's a topic that requires an entire second book. And that's too bad because the saddest tales here are in the chapter “In Sickness and In Health,” stories of the ill who are abandoned by their employers, their spouses, their insurance companies and, in some cases, their health-care providers. How does a terminally ill patient with little but debt to pass on prepare her children for her impending death? It's stories like these that make The Missing Class required reading for the truly compassionate.

The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America by Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen, with a Foreword by Senator John Edwards; Beacon Press. hardback, 258 pages, $24.95.

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