The Missing Class

November 28, 2007

America's low-income "missing class" is the subject of one student reading; another reading explores proposals to help these Americans enter the middle class. Ideas for further inquiry follow.

Katherine Newman, a sociology professor at Princeton, has studied the plight of the Americans she terms the "missing class"—people who are not classified as poor but whose incomes are so low that they lead what she calls a "fragile existence." Her findings are the subject of the first student reading below. Proposals to address the needs of the "missing class" are itemized in the second reading. The inquiry activities that follow include suggestions for researching how the current presidential candidates would address the problem of low-income Americans.

For additional background reading and student activities, see "A Single-Payer Health Insurance System for the United States?" on this website.


Student Reading 1:

The Guerra family

"They're not in the welfare system...they can't get Medicaid, because they're too wealthy for that. They don't get food stamps. They don't get subsidized housing, for the most part. So we don't really think about them very much."

"They" are the millions of Americans like Tamar and Victor Guerra and their three children. Because the Guerras' combined income is more than $24,130, they are classified as above the federal poverty line for a family of five. But that "is not very much money," said Katherine Newman, a Princeton sociology professor. All it takes is one serious illness, one accident that puts an uninsured parent out of work, one unexpected and expensive event—and they are in trouble.

The Guerras have had more than their share of such unexpected events. Their oldest child was doing reasonably well in school until he "went off the deep end" and into prison. Their middle child's math teacher said of him, "This kid is fantastic. He should skip a grade." But two years later he was doing so poorly in all his classes that he was left back. The family lived in a pre-World War II apartment and a neighborhood that has a heavy exposure to lead paint. The youngest child suffered from lead poisoning and, probably as a result, from attention deficit disorder.

The adult Guerras are immigrants to America, and neither speaks English. Because of this—and their lack of health insurance—it took them four years to find out what was wrong with their youngest child.

As for the two older children, better support in school probably would have made a big difference. "So this is a family," said Professor Newman, "that was sort of hanging on by the threads to their position in the missing class," the class between the poorest class and the middle class. They didn't want to be dependent. But they didn't get the help they needed to keep them from slipping into hard times.

Professor Newman, co-author of The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America, was interviewed on the PBS program Bill Moyers Journal, 11/2/07. (See for a transcript). For seven years she studied closely nine families in the Guerras' income range. In all, there are about 50 million people in the "missing class," and 20 percent of them are children. They are home health care and day care workers, cab drivers, office cleaners, receptionists, checkout clerks in supermarkets, service workers of every kind—and their families.

Most do not own a home and so cannot build up valuable equity in one. Instead they live in apartments or rent a floor in a two-family house. Most don't have a savings account. They are not politically organized and may not vote. The result is that they get little attention from political office holders. Also typically, "the missing class" lives in places where there are no inexpensive big box stores or banks, only check-cashing outlets that charge high interest rates.

The young children of "the missing class" are usually not in early childhood education classes. There are few books in their apartment, and often the parents are not book-readers. In Western European countries, including in nations that are poorer than the United States, society pays for children to go to daycare and early childhood classes. "And, as a result," said Professor Newman, "their children start school with more skills than our children."

Statistics demonstrate that there is a significant correlation between years of schooling through college and graduate school and an adult income. As many as one of every three American kids do not graduate from high school (, 4/9/06) But statistics on high school graduation vary because no single method of counting has been established.

Whatever the exact numbers, many thousands of kids leave formal schooling before they graduate from high school. And in today's economy, even high school graduates are unlikely to make it out of "the missing class," not because they are unintelligent, but rather because they lack the skills and abilities that might put them on track for a higher income. After they leave school and become parents, their children are likely to follow a similar path. Says Professor Newman: "Parents are hugely important in how children turn out. That's no great shock, is it?"

"Nobody should be working and still poor in the United States," says Newman. But the fact is that today in the U.S. many are working and still poor. Add to the 50 million in the missing class the 37 million people the government officially classifies as poor, and the total is huge. Here in the United States, a nation of 300 million and the richest on earth, 87 million people—close to one in three Americans—live what Katherine Newman calls "a fragile existence."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What is "the missing class"? In what sense is it "missing"?

3. What are some of the reasons why there are 50 million Americans whose incomes place them between the poor and the middle class?

4. Why do many of these people live a "fragile" existence?

5. Why do politicians pay little attention to them? Why do you suppose that politicians pay much more attention to middle class people and the wealthy?


Student Reading 2:

Giving "the missing class" a boost

In most industrialized countries, the government provides greater support for citizens than in the U.S., and this support has helped move low-income people into the middle class. As a result, other developed countries have lower levels of poverty and less income inequality than the U.S. Some conservative politicians and commentators regard these policies as wasteful and a drag on the economy because they generally require higher taxes, especially for the rich. But proponents argue that providing support to help people climb out of poverty (or the missing class) is not only the right thing to do, it is ultimately a good "investment," since, for instance, young people who are educated are less likely to land in jail (which is much more expensive).

These policies include:

I. Support for learners

  • Subsidized day care
  • Early public school childhood education
  • Programs for potential high school dropouts
  • Free public colleges
  • Private college assistance for low income families

II. Support for workers

  • Job programs for high school dropouts
  • Higher minimum wage
  • Strengthened labor laws to enable unions to organize workers (union workers earn on average about 28% more than nonunion workers and receive more and better family benefits)
  • Subsidized affordable housing
  • Tax credits

III. Healthcare

The U.S. does not have a national health insurance program for all citizens though every Western European country does.

Ideological opposition to a national health insurance program comes from those who favor small government and private initiative. They oppose "big government" and its programs because they view bureaucrats who run them as people who don't know how to manage a business and who waste taxpayer money.

Political opposition comes from insurance and pharmaceutical companies. They have a huge financial stake in the current system. Through their campaign contributions to politicians and the influence that brings they fight any government role in health care that will cut into their profits.

The future of U.S. health care is a major issue in the presidential campaign. Forty-seven million Americans have no health care insurance. Most of these Americans make less than $50,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Most Americans who do have insurance coverage are facing steeply mounting out-of-pocket costs, which often keep them from getting the care they need.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Explain each policy proposal. If you can't, how might you get more information?

3. Which items would you support? Why? Which wouldn't you? Why not?


For inquiry

For independent or small group inquiry

1. A proposal in Reading 2. For instance, students might consider: What does an early childhood education program look like? What benefits do its supporters claim for such programs? What evidence is there to support this claim? To oppose it?

2. A presidential candidate's website. Students might consider: what proposals and/or programs, if any, does this candidate support that would benefit "the missing class"? What reasons are there to believe a particular proposal would work? What reasons are there that it would not?

3. The subprime mortgage crisis. This recent problem for some in "the missing class" raises such question as the following: What is a subprime mortgage? What is the nature of the crisis? Why might this crisis have an especially devastating effect on low-income people? What might be done to help those faced not only with losing a home but also an irreplaceable financial asset?

In each case, help students formulate questions to guide their inquiry. See "Thinking Is Questioning" on this website for suggested approaches.

For citizenship

Ask students to write letters expressing their findings and views on "the missing class" to presidential candidates and congressional representatives.

See "Teaching Social Responsibility" on this website for additional suggested student activities.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: