I've been thinking for several days about what I want to write about poverty for Blog Action Day 2008. I started writing a personal story about poverty at least 10 times, but honestly, that doesn't feel the right thing to do today. I want to actually offer a resource, rather than just talking about myself like I always do. So, being as I've had some success in the past offering lists of recommended books, I thought maybe I'd use my Blog Action Day platform to offer a brief poverty studies book list. Hope it's helpful.
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
No surprise here. A lot of people consider Steinbeck's 1939 novel about the Joad family's journey to California during the Dust Bowl the best book about poverty ever written, and I can't disagree. This is a fantastic book, trite as it may be to say that, and I think it should be required reading.
- Homecoming and Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voight
These are children's novels about four children, the Tillermans, who, led by eldest sister Dicey, make their way across the country to find their grandmother after their mother abandons them. Homecoming gets them to their grandmother's house, Dicey's Song is about them living with her. Both books are, in part, about living in poverty, and even though I read them in elementary school, they've stuck with me. I can still remember the passage in Dicey's Song about Dicey and her grandmother eating at a restaurant and Dicey's concern at the meal's expense. Excellent stuff.
- Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Though this book was widely acclaimed, I know a lot of people who really didn't like it, saying Ehrenreich, even after her experiment, doesn't actually understand the working poor and makes stupid decisions and assumptions in her book and the experiment she writes about. I don't 100% disagree with this assessment, but I still think this is a brave and important book. The fact is that most people who have never themselves been poor have no idea what it's actually like, or why poor people might make the decisions that they do. Ehrenreich gives some explanations. Would I like it better if these explanations could come from someone who has actually lived in this situation and isn't just trying it on as a journalist? Sure. Do I think people would listen as well as they listened to Ehrenreich? No.
- The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler
Shipler's book has much the same task as Ehrenreich's, but instead of building a fictional life in order to have "working poor experiences" himself, Shipler extensively interviews a bunch of working poor families and mixes their first-person stories with an academic analysis of the life of the American working poor. The only really bad thing about this book is that it is outdated (it was published in 2004, but even since then things have changed radically, and the research was done for years before that). I'd like to see an updated version.
- Don't Call Us Out of Name: The Untold Lives of Women and Girls in Poor America by Lisa Dodson
This is another book built much like Shipler's, mixing first person accounts of poverty with academic analysis. What makes it more interesting to me, though, is that it addresses the interplay between poverty and gender. Again, the book's major failing is being out of date, as it was published in 1998.
- Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is one of the most amazing and most difficult novels I've ever read. Poverty is only one of the things its about, but it is in many ways the most salient. Just as Bone's tale of the violence of men is a call to feminism, her tale of the violence of poverty is a call to class activism.
- The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls' memoir is mostly about her childhood, growing up very poor with negligent and unstable parents. Walls' family was at times homeless, often hungry, and usually without running water or electricity. She recalls middle-of-the-night dashes from collecting landlords and page after page of experiences that make the reader's skin crawl. It's a hard book to read, but a good one. I only wish Walls' discussion of how it feels on the other side of that poverty, as an upper middle class adult with a world of both gratitude and guilt, was more prolonged.
- Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks
bell hooks as written a lot about the intersection of race, class, and gender. This book is a conflation of memoir and social theory, and although it's a bit tough to read, it's completely worth it.
- Ain't No Makin' It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood by by Jay MacLeod
Ain't No Makin' It is one of those books that I read and never forgot. I read it for intro pol sci my first year at Reed, and I've come back to it in my mind often since then. MacLeod wrote it about the kids he encountered while working as a counselor in a program for low-income youth. It focuses a lot on way poverty is spirit-crushing even at a very young age, and on the obstacles the kids have stacked against them. Once again, this book is out of date (and out of print), but it's still a good read if you can get a copy.
- Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class edited by Michelle Tea
The final book on my list is an essay collection written by women who grew up working class. The topics of the pieces range pretty broadly, from discussion of class jumping to explorations of how much worse poor people are treated in day to day life.
Obviously there are a lot more books about poverty that are worth reading. These ten are just the first best ones I could come up with. Please feel free to leave other suggestions in the comments, and thanks for reading my Blog Action Day 08 post!