Listening to the Voices Of `Invisible' Families

BLUE-collar, pink-collar, and service-sector workers make up the largest part of the American labor force. They also constitute the single largest group of families in the nation.

Yet as Lillian Rubin argues in her sobering book, ``Families on the Fault Line: America's Working Class Speaks About the Family, the Economy, Race, and Ethnicity,'' the working-class men and women ``who keep this country's wheels in motion'' are ``little rewarded for the work they do.'' They are also routinely ignored by policymakers, sociologists, and everyone else who resolutely clings to the notion that America is a middle-class nation.

Rubin, a sociologist, wants to change that narrow focus. She also hopes to ``give voice to the voiceless,'' as she did 20 years ago in her first book about the working class, ``Worlds of Pain.''

To see how the intervening years have affected their lives, she interviewed nearly 400 people in 162 working-class and lower middle-class families - white ethnics, blacks, Latinos, and Asians. Their annual family income ranges from $16,500 to $42,000. Their median income of $31,500 stands well below the national average.

The tremors Rubin suggests in her title are the seismic economic and social shifts that have been registering ever higher on the nation's domestic Richter scale since the 1970s. Recessions and layoffs have affected many Americans, but their toll on the working class has been particularly devastating. Because these workers earn too much to qualify for government assistance and too little to afford middle-class dreams, they find themselves struggling to stay in place. They worry about their children, the future, their inability to save money, and the nation's shaky moral bedrock.

Since working-class parents cannot afford expensive day care, they must patch together child-care arrangements that may put children in jeopardy. The few who can buy a house must settle for towns with few amenities. And their children who go to college typically attend mediocre schools, often leaving them in debt but only marginally more qualified for jobs that would propel them into the middle-class.

Still, the most profound change that has occurred since Rubin's earlier study is a loss of hope. A repeated cry from the heart - ``It's not fair'' - echoes through the book. Racial tensions run high. Many also express anger over the recent influx of immigrants, fearing that these newcomers could displace them from their own low-level jobs.

Rubin stops short of offering solutions to the plight of working-class families. Still, her findings serve as a needed reminder that, as she explains, ``Someone benefits, someone loses each time a policy is promulgated. If the popular political language denies the very existence of a sector of the population, their needs aren't likely to be taken into account.''

Parts of the book are oddly structured; in-depth interviews with families appear only in the introduction and final chapter. Moreover, many of the concerns these people express cannot be confined to a particular class. Later marriage, changes in the balance of domestic power as wives have taken paying jobs, the guilt and fatigue working mothers experience - all have affected middle-class families as well.

Yet Rubin's study serves as a fascinating and dignified portrait of those whom she calls ``invisible'' Americans. By offering a window into their lives and dreams, she exposes the shaky foundation on which this essential but marginalized segment of the labor force unfairly rests.

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