“Poor” Books for Excellent Book Groups

As a librarian, I’m in regular contact with the working poor. They are rarely ragged or smelly. Unless one has an extremely keen eye, they look just like other Americans. My town is relatively well-to-do, so poor people are less common than in other parts of America, but there is still no shortage of people who struggle to get by from paycheck to paycheck.

I read and hear remarks at the library where I work from people who are not cruel, people who are usually tolerant and even kindhearted, that show a real misunderstanding of poverty. Why don’t people use a computer at home instead of a library? Why don’t they pay their late fees or make the trip into the building to make sure those fees don’t happen? Why don’t they buy their own copy of the book? I think what they fail to comprehend is that for people who are truly poor, even expenditures of $10 can’t be made thoughtlessly. The $500 to buy a computer or $20 a month to maintain an internet connection might as well be ten times that number; it just isn’t considerable for a poor person who must first ensure a place to live or food to eat. Poverty is a web of events that combine to make it harder for its victims. A shortage of ready cash leads to problems with transportation, health, and communication. Poverty makes simple tasks difficult: writing a check, getting across town, accessing computers, responding quickly to messages, or leaving work for a critical appointment to name a few.

nickel-and-dimedIt’s a lifestyle and mindset that those who have always lived in comfort may find impossible to understand, but for readers, there are several excellent books that may help them begin to understand the scope of the problem. The book that book groups probably know the best is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: on (N0t) Getting by in America. Published in 2001, the book tracks Ehrenreich’s social experiment. She tried out several low-wage jobs and attempted to live off only the money she made from them. It’s an enlightening read, although some readers find it frustrating because they might find some aspects of Ehrenreich’s experiment unrealistic in one way or another.

A book that I like even better is David K. Shipler’s 2004 title The Working Poor: Invisible in America. Shipler looks at many aspects of poverty with excellent case studies: various kinds of work places, housing, health care, education, and the many ways in which poverty is exploited by ruthless corporate entities and cruel individuals as a source of profit.working-poor Shipler is also very understanding of the predicament that lead thoughtful employers to begin exploiting workers: thin profit margins, competition from firms that use shady methods, difficulty in finding qualified workers, lack of regulation, and foreign competition. In many cases, he profiles not only an impoverished worker, but then goes another step up the work chain to discover how the bosses of those workers are only one step removed from desperate circumstances themselves. It’s a powerful work that ought to be required reading for any government official or business owner.

Since Shipler’s book, many other titles have explored related themes. Other books I can recommend to book groups include Gary Rivlin’s Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.–How the Working Poor Became Big Business, Mark Robert Rank’s One Nation Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, Louis Uchitelle’s The Disposable Americans: Layoff and Their Consequences, Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, David Cay Johnston’s Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill), Thom Hartmann’s Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class, and Peter Gosselin’s High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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