In August 2018, I posted reviews of ten books about poverty and race in the United States. Since then, I have read more books in this area, because, as I said then, “I am a privileged white girl who spent her childhood in segregated neighborhoods in Texas and California and has never had the opportunity to get to know many people of color, or to appreciate their history as part of our shared American story—beyond what I learned in school, which wasn’t much. These books have really opened my eyes (and made me so angry) about the struggles of the poor and of African Americans in the United States, especially since the end of the Civil War, when things were supposed to get better with the abolition of the evil institution of slavery, but did not.” I continue to feel sorrow, anger, and an ever-growing need and hope that somehow, someday, the horrible wounds of racism and injustice can be healed as we seek to build Zion. As the prophet Nephi taught in 2 Nephi 26:33:
[T]he Lord . . . doeth that which is good among the children of men; and . . . he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
Here is the latest reading list with my reviews as posted on goodreads.com
Robert E. Friedman, A Few Thousand Dollars: Sparking Prosperity for Everyone, 2018
This book makes the case for diminishing income inequality and giving everyone a chance to seek education, home ownership, and create a business. This would be funded through “Prosperity Accounts,” which every American would have the opportunity to create; their savings would be matched by the government in differing ratios depending on where they fall in the current range of asset holding (from a 3:1 match for those in the lowest quintile of assets to a 0:1 match for those with the abundant assets). We already construct our economy to favor some groups over others; we could restructure it to give more people an equal chance to survive and to build wealth. Previous such programs that effectively helped people create wealth, like the Homestead Act and the G.I. Bill, excluded people of color and women (in practice if not by law), and the differing ranges of matching funds would make up for some of that past discrimination, which has led to gross income inequality. We could pay for it by taxing capital gains as income, increasing the inheritance tax, changing the way we treat capital gains at death, and other measures that the author outlines in detail. These types of economic policies have greatly benefited the top 1% of Americans in terms of wealth and have left many of the rest struggling or hopeless. Pilot programs have already established that poor people will save and thrive when they have a meaningful chance to invest in themselves and their families. All it takes is a chance; a few thousand dollars.
Alex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, 1991
This book tells the story of Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, two boys growing up in the “projects” of South Chicago. The author practically lived with the family for a couple of years, as well as doing interviews and research to fill in the blanks, and they let him into their lives to an amazing degree. The value of this book, as compared to books that report on broader aspects of the situations faced by the poor and African American people of the inner city, is that the reader becomes familiar with two boys in one family, their neighbors, and the particular circumstances of their lives, to an almost painful degree. The book was published in 1991, and things have not gotten any better, to my knowledge–the conditions in the high-rise public housing where the boys live with their mother, LaJoe, their triplet sisters, and an ever-changing cast of other relatives are horrific, all crammed into a three-bedroom apartment where very little works as it should. The drug trafficking and shootings nearby are so frequent that you forget that they are not the background noise of everyone’s life. The people in the book become individuals and not “those people”–although they are treated as one homogenous group of stereotypes by the city, the housing authority, the social service workers, the police, the juvenile justice authorities, and some schoolteachers and school personnel. The constant struggles not to lose the little they have, to maintain their capacity to feel love and nurture relationships in the family, and to keep some hope for the future are exhausting to them and depressing to the reader. Every bad thing that you can imagine and some you cannot seems to happen to these boys or someone they know, and the hopelessness of their circumstances is overwhelming, to the point where the point that brings the reader (although not the boys) to remember that there is loveliness in the world is the time, in their early teens, when they see for the first time–a rainbow.
Steven Pearlstein, Can American Capitalism Survive? Why Greed Is Not Good, Opportunity is Not Equal, and Fairness Won’t Make Us Poor, 2018.
This excellent book not only outlines the problems with our economic system, but suggests how we can fix things. The title is a bit of a teaser. One of the author’s main points is the idea that corporations are to be managed with the goal of maximizing profits for shareholders and no other purpose has lead to or contributed to a lot of problems in the American economy and in society. That orientation is not legally required, and it exacerbates inequality and means that other stakeholders–the employees, the communities where the corporation is located, and so on–are not considered in business decisions, which has bad results. This philosophy and others are matters of societal choice and could be changed to lead to a better and higher standard for public policy in the United States.
Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Kathryn Edin, Laura Tach, & Jennifer Sykes, It’s Not Like I’m Poor: How Working Families Make Ends Meet in a Post-Welfare World, 2015
Another excellent book about how Americans are poor or barely getting by, researched and written by Kathryn Edin and her colleagues. All but the most difficult-to-obtain and uncommonly sought (even by the most desperate) cash welfare ended in 1996, despite the continuing and false stereotypes of lazy people taking advantage of the taxpayers. Now people are trying to get by on low-wage jobs and the cobbled-together possibility of other government benefits, none of which ever add up to nearly enough to live on. This book is persuasive about the importance of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, and the policy suggestions that the authors make at the end of the book are worth exploring and implementing. A great example of how to do research in the social sciences, as well as allowing the reader to share the experiences of the subjects, who are treated with respect and compassion.
Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaffer, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, 2015.
This wrenching book details the effects of the 1996 welfare reform on families who now have no access to cash assistance and so are forced to go hungry, live in squalid conditions, and other circumstances that should never be the case. The story is told through the lives of families the authors interviewed in depth as well as social science research. People who want to work and are doing everything they can to feed, clothe, and house their families are unable to do so in a welfare scheme that is based on employment when jobs are unavailable or do not pay a living wage. Children are going hungry and suffering in many other ways. To alleviate these terrible situations, we should (1) raise the minimum wage, (2) require employers to post employee schedules at least three weeks in advance, (3) require employers to guarantee a number of hours for their full- and part-time workers, (5) increase housing security and find ways to discourage predatory practices on the part of landlords (see the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond for more about these), and (6) advertise the availability of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) and reverse state practices of low funding and discouraging application practices for this emergency cash fund. An increase in and broadening of the availability of the Earned Income Tax Credit would also be very helpful. Many people are struggling in the current situation; this should not be happening.
Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, 2016
This book summarizes the undermining of attempts at racial equality in America, by white politicians, judges, citizens, and others who just haven’t been able to get through their heads and hearts that African Americans are people, just as they are. Beginning with Reconstruction and Jim Crow (with the practices and laws that terrorized black Americans in the South, led to the Great Migration, and segregated those who escaped the South into poor neighborhoods with increasing hopelessness and lack of opportunity throughout the country), going on to the civil rights movements and laws, the attempted desegregation of schools, the so-called war on drugs and resulting mass incarceration, and the actions of presidents, lawmakers, and judges through the presidential administrations of Eisenhower through Trump, the author details and footnotes the systemic undermining of attempts to create equality in the United States. Although there were some successes in the 1970s, they have been almost completely dismantled by voter suppression, racially motivated gerrymandering, and continued support for white racism that has characterized so many official actions since before the Civil War. And those white officials seem always to try–and often succeed–in turning any attempt to help those in need of full citizenship and plain help into discrimination against white people, which is ridiculous. The author touches on current attempts to undermine and keep subordinate Latino people, as well. Each of the subjects portrayed in the book has been dealt with in more depth by other scholars, but this book is a good summary of what has happened and what might be done now, if we could only summon the charity and the political will to undo some of the damage. The author is a professor of African-American Studies at Emory University.
Mona Hanna Attisha, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, 2018
This is book was written by a pediatrician who was a leader in exposing the lead contamination of the water in Flint, Michigan. The story of how that happened is combined with the author’s description of her family of origin and their immigration from Iraq to the United States, as well as her husband and daughters and their family, in a pleasing and satisfying way. The resistance of the people in charge to the attempts to expose the disaster of the lead in the water–no level is safe, there is no treatment, and it does terrible neurological damage, especially to unborn children, babies, and little children–is an outrage, and the criminal charges against some of them are well-deserved. People need to stop trying to cover up their mistakes, especially when every day that they resist accepting responsibility and trying to fix things means more damage to the vulnerable. Of course it was all about money and limiting government, as so many of these types of tragedies are. Even though the author and others were able to get funding for bottled water and future care for some of those affected, so much damage was done and the extent of the damage will never really be known. Her arguments that this constitutes environmental racism are true–if this had been happening in Ann Arbor or Gross Pointe, there would have been quicker action, or the problem might not have occurred at all. One minor complaint–the author should have stated much earlier in the book that she and her family were not living in a place that got its water from the Flint system. I kept waiting for her to take action to get bottled water and filters and so on for her family.
Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, 2018
The author takes a close look at private foundations and other organizations that are based on successes of those who have gathered many assets and then seek to do good in the world–which they do. But the author and reader wonder if they have looked at how they earned the money they are now so generous with–do they pay and treat their workers well? Do they exercise proper stewardship over the planet and its resources in the process of making money? Do they examine the inequality that led to their wealth? Also, the author questions the pro-business orientation of so many of these philanthropic endeavors, to the point that they think market forces can solve all the problems of the world and that the best thing would be to minimize government almost to the point of non-existence and let capitalism fix everything. The problem becomes that democracy no longer has a place in determining priorities, and a few wealthy people are deciding what is the best way to alleviate many social problems, when they are willing to look at approaches to problems only when those approaches don’t threaten the system that brought them so much money in the first place. A thought-provoking book that should sound the alarm about the obsession with making money that motivates so many corporate and government leaders today. The idea that a corporation must be run for the primary benefit of its shareholders, without reference to the needs of the community of which is a part and the employees who work for it, is relatively recent and leads to dangerous distortions in the way society works–or doesn’t, for so many people.
Carol Anderson, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy, 2018
This book should make us angry and determined to fight the voter suppression tactics that have been increasing since the Voting Rights Act was undermined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder. And things were bad enough already. Every eligible American citizen has the right to vote, and yet legislation and practices concerning voter I.D. laws, racial and partisan gerrymandering, reductions in early voting and polling places, voter registration, and the like have undermined the voices of thousands of black, Latino, and Asian citizens–not only in the Southern states (although some of the worst examples are there), but also in other states across the country. The myth of voter fraud (which is exceptionally rare) has been used to implement these laws and practices and frighten the public, when white racism is the truly frightening foundation of these tactics. Thanks to the author for exposing and documenting this travesty.
Stephanie Land, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, 2019
This memoir checked every box on the list of how hard it is to get by with government assistance, a minimum wage job, and a child to support. Land left her abusive husband, who fought her for custody of their young daughter (even though he’d encouraged her to have an abortion and had what might generously be called an anger management problem). She had no family that she could depend on for help or encouragement. So many people treated her with unkind judgments–as though she were too lazy to work (although she was working hard, cleaning houses under terrible conditions), as though she were invisible and worthless, as though their status as taxpayers gave them the right to look down on her because she was getting what passes for government help in this country (huffing and whispering about her in the checkout lane and then shouting “you’re welcome” after she paid with food stamps). The difficulty of finding cash for things that government help doesn’t cover (clothes, car repairs, etc.); the pain of dropping her daughter off at daycare so she could work as a maid for people who had and didn’t appreciate so much more; criticism that her daughter was in daycare and she was working too much (or not enough); the lack of a safety net of any kind, where a $50 unexpected charge means some other bill must go unpaid, or a sick child has to go to daycare because there is no other care available; earning an extra $50 one month and losing hundreds of dollars in government benefits as a result–it is all there, and more. The United States could do so much more to help people in need; individuals and institutions could do so much better at not assuming things about or judging others–just having more kindness. The author found a way to hope; I worry about the people who have no hope, especially in this era where cuts to social services and similar programs seem to be the norm.
Emily Bazelon, Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration, 2019
This is a fine book, and would be even better if it didn’t interrupt the narratives of the two true cases presented with long digressions and explanations of the context. Context is necessary, but the way it is presented interrupts the flow of the stories and makes it hard to pick up again where they left off. The book details how prosecutors have too much power in criminal cases; many are interested in putting people in jail and being “tough on crime” so they can keep their jobs, when they are destroying people’s lives and allowing no consideration of circumstances or mercy. The prevalence of unconscious or conscious racial bias adds up to a poisonous brew of people unable to post bail, getting long sentences for minor offenses, and unfair plea bargains intended to discourage even innocent people from going to trial. Current practices are creating more and worse criminals, not protecting the public or allowing for rehabilitation or proportional responses to crime. The appendix suggesting how things should be different should be required reading for law students and prosecutors.
The solution to the problems outlined in these books was given to us by Jesus Christ, who asked us to treat others as we would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12) and to love our neighbors (and every person is our neighbor) as we do ourselves and those we already love (Luke 10:25-37). We can and should do this through our political and social choices as well as our actions toward individuals.