A Poverty Reading List
In an increasingly anti-intellectual political climate, it is more important than ever for us to read books.
While there are millions of pages of words available online, it is becoming more difficult every day to cut through the clutter, the clickbait, and the falsehoods, to find critical analysis and in-depth information. As we become ever more accustomed to digesting information in the form of Tweets and 800-word sensationalized summaries, books are even more essential to our ability to maintain a functional democracy. Thankfully, intelligent and talented authors continue to write important books, and those of us who seek to understand the world around us and bring about change are obligated to read them. There's no way around it.
Several months ago, I published a reading list for those seeking to better understand Appalachia. Later, when white supremacy and echoes of the US Civil War dominated the national news headlines, I created a reading list for those who want to more fully understand the context of the War and its reverberations in American public life. The response to those two lists has been overwhelming, and I continue to get emails from those who let me know that they found them useful. Because so many people contact me to ask for reading recommendations for the subjects I write about most often, I have come to realize that these reading lists are important tools for those who want to become more educated but who lack the time to sort through endless search results on Google or Amazon.
Today, I offer a new reading list for those who are interested in contextualizing and understanding poverty in the United States. This list offers a variety of viewpoints and the authors represented here approach poverty from interesting and compelling angles. There exists no singular expression of poverty, and those who are impoverished are diverse racially, ethnically, geographically, and culturally. I have tried to offer a list that will help readers understand the diversity of the impoverished population in the US. No single book can offer up everything one needs to know to have a working understanding of poverty, but I believe that those who have read the books on this list will know substantially more about poverty than most. Now, the books:
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Sociologist Matthew Desmond examines the ramifications of widespread eviction in Milwaukee. The concept of "home" is often fleeting for those living in poverty, and Desmond's book does a good job revealing this reality as well as explaining how evictions are both economically exploitative and ruthless in many places.
Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town. Brian Alexander offers a masterful detailing of the brokenness of the venture-capital-rooted economy. This is my favorite out of all the books I read in 2017, and I am planning to teach it for the new History of Capitalism class I am planning. The book is part memoir and part investigative journalism. Alexander explores the history and the present of a company most Americans know something about: the Anchor Hocking Glass Company. Most of us have seen that brand name in our kitchens, but few of us know about the disgraceful business practices that broke (pun fully intended) the company and the town it built. If you want to understand the important connections between big business, venture capital, urban decay, and emerging poverty, this book is mandatory reading.
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. In an attempt to truly understand those who are barely hanging on financially, author Barbara Ehrenreich took minimum-wage jobs and attempted to make it only on the wages of so-called unskilled jobs. She moved from place to place, working as a server, a cashier, and a nursing-home aid, among other jobs. What she learned is that those who argue that any job can be a way to escape poverty are peddling a myth. Those who work these minimum-wage jobs need to work more than one, and still lack access to the American Dream. Welfare reform advocates are constantly pushing for those who receive public benefits to work these sorts of low-wage jobs. Ehrenreich's work is proof that absent a living minimum wage, working these "unskilled" jobs is more likely to entrap people in poverty rather than lift them out.
The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America. Almost impossible to identify in demographic data, those who are one paycheck away from poverty or economic crisis represent a growing portion of the American populace. Katherine Newman and Victor Tan Chen offer an important look at these individuals through the stories of a number of families who find themselves constantly straddling the line between poor and nearly poor. As we consider whether or not the American Dream is truly achievable by those who were born at or near poverty, it is vital that we understand socioeconomic status as tenuous at best for those who are working hard to provide for their families in a system that is meant, by design, to cater mostly to the wealthy. This book is a great way to begin conceptualizing these processes.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle Alexander offers an essential examination of the intersection of poverty and race in the US. She looks at the way the War on Drugs targets communities of color, which are also often mired in deep poverty. She argues that the modern legal system has become a new way of implementing racial control, relegating a broad sector of Americans - namely men of color - to the status of second-class citizen, entangled by design in the American criminal justice system for most of their life. It is essential to understand the role of the justice system in perpetuating poverty, and this book is the key to gaining that understanding.
Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. - How the Working Poor Became Big Business. Gary Rivlin writes about what I believe is one of the most invisible and insidious parts of the cycle of poverty in the US. From payday lenders to dollar stores, the poorest members of our communities often pay the most for basic services essential to their survival. This is a feature of the US economic system, not a flaw, and Rivlin explores the many ways corporations prey on the most vulnerable in our communities as a means of making big bucks.
There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America. Alex Kotlowitz's account of the realities of growing up in an inner-city housing project is heart-wrenching and important. I have used this book in the classroom in the past, and students are always struck by the vulnerability and the tenacity of the two young boys whose stories unfold in the pages of this book. Too often, we tend to view rural and urban poverty as two different problems, but until we understand them both as different parts of the same broken system, it will be difficult at best to repair that system and bring about justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. For those more familiar with rural poverty than impoverished urban communities, this book is a good start in diversifying your understanding of the literature.
The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. I love this book by NYU economist William Easterly because it sits at the intersection of two things I am passionate about: poverty and imperialism. Because I want the readers of this list to gain a more well-rounded understanding of poverty, I thought it was important to include at least one book that offers global context. Easterly argues that top-down approaches to poverty eradication are not only ineffective but dangerous. I have long argued that one of the most important steps in fighting poverty is to recognize and respect the humanity and agency of those who are impoverished. For that reason, Easterly's book resonates with me deeply. If you are a regular reader of my work, this book will likely resonate with you, too. (Side note: for those of you who have asked about my new Imperialism & Decolonization course, this book is on my suggested reading list for students, and I will likely assign it next time I teach the course.)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot's bestseller might, at first, seem like an odd choice for a poverty reading list. Chances are, I might not have included it myself if I hadn't taught the book. I have used it in the classroom twice now, and while I generally plan lessons and discussions around the racial, scientific, and health themes in the book, students inevitably bring up the parts of the book that deal with poverty and class disparity. This is not only a great read, but another way to understand the intersection between race and poverty in the US. Skloot draws clear connections between the artifacts of slavery, the power of Jim Crow, and persistent poverty in communities of color. She also does a great job exploring the blurred lines between rural and urban poverty. This is a good book for a long flight or a rainy day.
All Over But The Shoutin'. It is nearly impossible for me to make a reading list that does not include a memoir, and Rick Bragg's book offers an accessible way to explore the power and the heartbreak of growing up in poverty. In this book, Bragg describes how he climbed out of poverty up his mother's backbone. Bragg's explanation is the best way to understand my own escape from poverty, and reading All Over But The Shoutin' in college helped me begin to come to terms with my journey from white trash to middle class. Memoir, more than any other literary genre, has the power to move us both emotionally and intellectually. Particularly for those who have never experienced it, poverty is an issue that must evoke emotional responses if we have any hope at all of fighting the systems that perpetuate it. Bragg's book is a good way to begin to understand the raw emotion of poverty.
As always, it is impossible to include every book I would like when I make these reading lists. When my students ask for a list of books to read to help them understand poverty, I provide a bibliography with dozens of titles. What I hope I have provided here is an abridged list for those who lack the time to read dozens of books and who need a curated list to help them navigate the bookstore, internet, or library. There are books, I'm certain, that I have either forgotten or never seen, that are worthy of inclusion in this list. I have no doubt that folks will reach out with recommendations, and I always welcome them.
One final note, and a disclaimer: The links in this list will take you to Amazon item pages where you can purchase the books or items. Astute regular readers of my blog will remember that I have, in the past, been quite critical of Amazon. My critiques remain, but I have tempered them with some recent changes and some hard doses of reality. I am still a proponent of independent booksellers, and I still hate what Amazon is doing to local literary landscapes. I continue to question whether Amazon is a force for good, or a force for bad. Jeff Bezos's recent efforts (along with Warren Buffet and Jamie Dimon) to work toward revolutionizing healthcare did more than anything to make me a Bezos convert. I despise healthcare and insurance companies, and I laud efforts to loosen the greedy profit-mongering grips of these morally bankrupt villains on the lives of poor Americans. However, his efforts to take on healthcare are not the only reasons I have decided to direct my readers to Amazon.
More than anything, it is damned hypocritical of me to pretend that Amazon isn't an important part of my lifestyle. Two or three days a week, there's an Amazon Prime package waiting for us when we get home from work. Alexa keeps track of our grocery list and curates our music at home, and we even order medicine for our dogs from Amazon. Between work, school, and pleasure, we probably buy a hundred books a year, give or take, and almost all of them come from Amazon. That's the only way I can afford to buy as many books as I do, and while I know they are often unfair in their treatment of authors, hell, so are publishers, and I'm not boycotting them. For every author or writer I know who criticizes Amazon, I know at least one who is published only because of Amazon's self-publishing platform. I'm all for the democratization of publishing, and Amazon makes that possible. In short, I am a very satisfied Amazon customer, and I still love my independent local bookstore. I am, for now, going to refuse to buy into a false dichotomy that demands the survival of only one of them.
I am approaching the first anniversary of the launching of This Appalachia Life, and I continue to seek ways to make this venture self-supporting. I think it is essential to be transparent with readers about that process, because nearly 1,000,000 of you have visited my website to read my essays this year. Without you all, I probably wouldn't continue to write. Most months, Google Adsense revenue alone isn't enough to pay the website hosting bill, let alone compensate me for the time I devote to writing and research. I have monetized previous reading lists via a consortium of independent booksellers, and haven't earned enough from those efforts to even buy a book, let alone pay for a month of hosting. However, last week I rolled out my first monetization effort through Amazon (via the links for the two books from my most recent opioid essay), and in less than a week, I am seeing results. Almost every week, readers email to ask how they can support This Appalachia Life. Amazon offers a new way for readers to help. When you click on the Amazon links, This Appalachia Life earns a small commission from your purchases for a short time, including both the items we linked here and other items you add to your cart. We both win that way.