Nonfiction November: Focus on Poverty in the United States

We've all heard it, or some variation of it: "I don't give homeless people money because they should just get a job." What statements like this fail to acknowledge, however, is eternally complex question of the root causes of poverty; it is, unfortunately, no guarantee that a job will prevent you from being homeless, any more than it is a guarantee that being homeless means you have no job.

Though we have stopped the Dickensian tradition of jailing debtors, the stigma that accompanies poverty doesn't appear to be going anywhere anytime fast. But there are authors out there who are doing their damnedest to at least shed a light on some of the actualities of life in poverty, peeking beyond the myths and the stories and the stereotypes to see the people of poverty, the system of poverty, and the cycle of poverty:

poverty in america

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeffrey Hobbs: Hobbs wrote this biography of his college roommate, Robert Peace, after Peace was murdered in the basement of a house in Newark, New Jersey, where he was working as a drug dealer after graduating from Yale with honors. Hobbs exploration of his friend's life is at once an attempt to understand how this young man, so seemingly poised for success despite overwhelming odds, ended up back where he started, as well as a study of the power of poverty in the United States today. Seriously, incredibly eye-opening. Full review.

Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich: Ehrenreich went "undercover" in 1998 to see what life was really like for those American workers putting in full-time hours (often more-than) in the "unskilled" jobs of our country. She worked at Walmart, she cleaned hotel rooms, she waited tables. She made readers reconsider how their everyday amenities--big box stores, hotel stays, the food on their tables--came to be, and nearly 20 years later, the book is just as important as it was in 1998. Which is saying something about how far--or not--the world of American poverty has come in the last 16 years, isn't it?

The Working Poor, by David K. Shipler: Shipler's book is similar to Ehrenreich's in that it explores not the most destitute, but those hovering just around the poverty line while working as hard as possible to make ends meet. I'm halfway through this one, and while some of the facts seem like they should be obvious, Shipler's support of assumptions with numbers and data and anecdotal evidence really brings things home.

Fire in the Ashes, by Jonathan Kozol: Subtitled "Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America", Kozol's newest book returns to the children he wrote about in Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace to share their "journeys and unexpected victories as they grow into adulthood."

Hand to Mouth: Living in Boostrap America, by Linda Tirado: I'm not even going to try to summarize this one, I'm just going to give you the jacket copy: "We in America have certain fixed ideas of what it means to be poor. Poor people live in shelters. They are on welfare. They go to soup kitchens. To some, poor people are lazy. And even the most enlightened of liberals have wondered aloud, 'Why do poor people make such bad choices?' Linda Tirado, in her signature frank yet personable voice, takes these preconceived notions of what it's like to be poor and smashes them to bits."

Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America, by Leon Dash: The story of Rosa Lee, a woman falling deeper and deeper into poverty in Washington, D.C. The book is based on a series of Washington Post articles that ran beginning in September of 1994, and though the title is less well-known today than others (Nickel and Dimed) of the same decade, I'm very much intrigued.


Interestingly, most of the books about poverty that have come across my radar are a) written by white people (even though poverty disproportionately impacts non-white people in the United States (in 2012, the overall poverty rate in the US was 15%; for Whites, 9.7%; for Blacks, 27.2%; for Asians, 11.7%; for Hispanics (of any race), 25.6%))*, and b) are written from an outsider's perspective (even when said outsider is embedded deep within a group, as in Ehrenreich's case).

If anyone has suggestions for books that address the potential one-sidedness of this list, I'd love to hear them! In the meantime, rest assured that I'll be a-Googling this.

* Source:


This post is part of Nonfiction November's week 2 theme: Be/Become/Ask the Expert on a subject


  1. This is such a great topic and list. So many great books here, but even more I still need to read. I absolutely adore Jonathan Kozol and wish every teacher was required to read him before stepping into a classroom.

    I just finished "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson and would suggest it for a look at how the justice system is impacted by poverty (among many other things).

  2. The list of books on the topic is pretty extensive--and it's amazing to me how many of the ideas and issues written about by classic authors (Riis, Dickens, etc.) still prove relevant today... hundreds of years later, we have the same basic problems.

    I actually haven't read the Kozol yet. I received a galley of Fire in the Ashes, but wanted to read the first two before starting it. But it's high on my list (all three of them). As is Just Mercy, after your recommendation and some the quotes and reviews I've seen from it.

  3. I started poking around Poverty USA and goodness I had no idea that 1 in 5 children lives below the poverty line. Yesterday I took a load of paper products to my daughter's school because they are doing a drive for the local homeless shelter and it broke my heart trying to explain to my 3 year old why these people do not have a house to live. My sister, a 4th grade teacher, has a number of homeless students--alongside those who live in McMansions. Sigh. I have read Nickel and Dimed but I'm going to check some of these others out.

  4. Emma @ Words And PeaceNovember 14, 2014 at 9:49 PM

    I read Nickel and Dimed, quite enlightening!

  5. Great topic! This is one I've heard good things about, but haven't read myself yet:

    It's by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. Sadly, I think that whenever this topic is tackled by black authors, it gets put in the "African American Culture" section of the bookstore, instead of where ever all of the other books about poverty and income inequality are. I know there are more books that I've seen, but I can't remember the titles just now...

  6. Yeah, it's pretty amazing when you look at the sheer numbers. I actually worked on the Poverty USA site at my old job, so I did a ton of the Census research on that site, and that work alone had me looking for volunteer opportunities so quickly I could barely blink.

    It's hard to try to explain to young kids, but important too, I think! Hope you get a chance to get to some of the others. If you pick just one, I'd say Robert Peace--it is such an interesting approach to the subject of poverty, and even though I wanted to reach through the pages and shake Peace out of his bad decisions (something many around him seemed to want as well), it was interesting to try to understand what was motivating those decisions as he made them.

  7. It is, isn't it? I read it ages ago and just picked up a copy (I can't seem to place mine...) to re-read it in the context of all these other reads.

  8. Hmmmm, that is really interesting about the shelving issue. Hadn't thought of it that way, but I'd suspect (sadly) that you're right. That or there are less published because memoirs of poor black Americans are less interesting than investigative journalistic reports of poor black Americans... but that's just my hunch, not grounded in any kind of fact or market analysis.

    I was just struck by how few of the books I come across on this subject are first-hand accounts (the only exception above is Hand to Mouth, and even that comes with a fair bit of controversy over whether or not Tirado really is "poor"). Leon Dash, author of Rosa Lee, is not white, but he is a journalistic writing about someone else's experiences.

    Thanks for the Smiley/West recommendation. I think I remember them doing a special on PBS or similar (will have to look that up), but I didn't realize they'd written a book. Adding that to my list!

  9. Oh, that "why don't they just get a job?" thing makes my blood boil -- because of the points you made, and also because getting a job is so much easier said than done. It's hard enough finding a job these days when you're educated and middle class; I can't imagine how difficult it must be for people who are disadvantaged in so many ways.

    Thanks for the recommendations!

  10. Yes! I'm reading The Working Poor at the moment, and Shipler talks about this: it's hard enough to get a job when you have a full education, access to transportation (be it reliable public transportation or a working car), childcare (if you have kids), etc. Take all that away and throw in a dose of invisible challenges (mental illness, family troubles, a low sense of self-worth, past experiences in truly horrible work situations), and it all just gets even more complicated.


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