Back to School Reading on Poverty in America

Back to School Reading on Poverty in America

Even if you’re not headed back to the classroom this month, it’s still a great time of year to commit to a new social change reading list of your own.

Some excellent books about the enduring topic of poverty in America have come out in recent years. Below are a few suggestions of books that are engaging, informative and offer a range of perspectives on this massive subject.

In 2016, the big bestseller on the issue of poverty was Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. The book was published just as Donald Trump’s popularity was spreading, and the book seeks to introduce you to some of the people responsible for his rise to power. J.D. Vance grew up in the Midwest, his family one of the thousands of poor, rural Americans who moved up from Appalachia around the middle of the 20th century. Despite staggering odds, he managed to graduate from college and even Yale Law School. While Vance has a lot of love for his family and community, he is also critical of what he calls a learned helplessness chronic among poor, white men in particular. Read Hillbilly Elegy for a unique perspective on poverty in America. This is a book you’ll try to convince friends to read just so you can have someone to talk with about it.

Two other engrossing, persuasive reads by Americans who have lived through poverty are Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America and The Alternative: Most of What You Believe About Poverty is Wrong. In Hand to Mouth, Linda Tirado describes the injustice, indignity and outrage endured by the working poor. And Tirado is one of the luckier ones. She’s married, has two children and no drug or prison histories she mentions. But she still works exhausting hours mostly in the food service industry and cannot understand why some Americans want to take away her food stamps. It’s an excellent read particularly for anyone who questions why the working poor very often stay poor.

Similar to Hand to Mouth, the author of The Alternative grew up a member of the working poor. Mauricio L. Miller’s mother brought her children to the U.S. from Mexico and worked multiple jobs to ensure that Miller could complete an engineering degree at UC Berkeley. After decades spent in community development, a deeply frustrated Miller had an epiphany. He realized that the crucial element in his rise out of poverty wasn’t social workers or government programs. It was his mother, who used the social networks around her to connect her children to opportunities and support. Miller went on to found the Family Independence Initiative, which helps low-income families set and reach goals by building networks with each other.

Finally, consider a book about a topic pounding down on many of America’s low-income families like a gale-force wind—the opioid epidemic. In Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opioid Epidemic, investigative journalist Sam Quinones chronicles how pill mills and heroin dealers transformed weary, post-industrial towns across America into communities of addicts. It’s an engrossing and at times unbelievable read. Included are highly unscrupulous pain doctors, small-town Mexicans turned heroin millionaires and communities so dependent on pain relievers that pills become currency as common as cash. With drug overdoses now the leading cause of death  for Americans under age 50, this painstakingly researched book sheds a needed light on perhaps the biggest social issue facing low-income Americans today.

Fired up about the issue of chronic poverty and ready to do something about it? Get in touch with Thoughtful Philanthropy. I create personalized, well-researched and independent reports on how and which nonprofits are addressing the issues you care about. Learn how you can be an informed giver at

Posted in: Books, Poverty
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About Me

I am passionate about helping people become informed, empowered and enthusiastic donors. After more than 10 years in the nonprofit/charity sector, I embraced my fear of spreadsheets and got an MBA so that I could help citizens like myself become more strategic givers.  Today, I use my unique experiences in both sectors to help people who care deeply about using their money to make the world a better place.

Lauren Janus