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100 Must-Read Books for Understanding U.S. Social Policy

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Trisha Brown

Contributing Editor

Trisha Brown grew up in Washington State and moved to Washington, DC, to work on programs that support vulnerable families. She decided to take a break in 2019, so now she’s traveling around the United States learning about different places and communities. She plans to return to her life in DC eventually, but for now she can be found chatting with people in bars and parks, catching up on sleep, and trying to keep herself from buying more books than her car and budget can handle. Find her on Instagram (@trishahaleybrown) or Twitter (@trishahaleybrwn).

It’s almost impossible to turn on the news in the United States without encountering a discussion of some program or policy that is impacting the country’s social fabric. These conversations focus on housing, health, education, and other issues that many people in the U.S. have experience with – for example, many of us have gone to public schools or had to navigate health insurance coverage. But having experience with a system doesn’t mean you have the full picture of it, and to become better informed, what better place to turn than books?

There’s not one universal definition for “social policy,” but it tends to encompass the kinds of issues that impact people’s health, welfare, and well-being. Some of the examples I included on this list are topics like poverty, housing, the justice system, health care, and education. It will come as no surprise that even among experts, these topics spur disagreement and debate. The varying viewpoints make it important to consider and read these books with a critical eye, though I’ve tried to note context that’s particularly relevant, such as a year of publication or an author with a vested interest.

Despite the fact that I stuck with books focused on the United States, the list is broad in terms of style, including memoirs, historical accounts, journalistic endeavors, and even fiction and picture books at the end. It also captures a range of issues, with books discussing everything from the problems with privatization of the K-12 education system to the media’s role in making some people think low-income families are choosing iPhones over health care.

But of course, there are certainly books and topics that didn’t fit on the list – feel free to drop them in the comments below!

  1. How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. It’s worth noting in an age of camera phones and Instagram that is was in part the photographic evidence of life in New York City slums that connected with readers when Riis’ book was published in 1890. But Riis’ words about income stratification and the broad social impacts of poverty are also relevant 127 years after the publication of his book.
  2. $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. In addition to being an accessible analysis of what has changed in the social safety net over the course of the last 20 years, $2.00 a Day is a good introduction to social programs meant to support low-income and no-income families. The combination of data, research and real life stories from across the country make for a compelling and educational read.
  3. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. There’s a good reason Ehrenreich’s journalistic memoir of her time spent in low-wage jobs is probably the best known non-fiction book out there about work, wages, and poverty: it’s readable and informative, and despite the fact that it was originally published in 2001, it’s distressingly still accurate in many ways.
  4. Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado. Revolutionary as Nickel and Dimed was, even Barbara Ehrenreich says Linda Tirado’s story is “the real thing.” The frustration is evident all through Tirado’s book, which tells the story of what it’s like to be educated, hard-working, and still left behind by social policy in the United States.
  • The Divided Welfare State: The Battle over Public and Private Social Benefits in the United States by Jacob S. Hacker. Hacker’s book is a little on the academic side, so it may not be a great book to start with if you’re new to social policy reading. But if you’re looking to dig deeper, he shines a light on the under-discussed relationship between public social programs and private social benefits like employer-sponsored health insurance and pension programs.
  • The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty by Michael B. Katz. One of the most important and least discussed factors in developing social policy is the way people in the United States view the poor. We associate poverty with laziness or ignorance or irresponsibility, and it impacts who we think of as worthy or deserving of public support. Katz traces the history of those views and attitudes and the way it has impacted policies and programs.
  • A People’s History of Poverty in America by Stephen Pimpare. Similar to Katz, Pimpare considers views of the poor as well as the way that when we’re offering support through public programs or private charity, we often do so in a way that diminishes the dignity of those we are supporting. Pimpare’s book discusses the reality of living in poverty, and challenges those presumptions.
  • The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler. As Shipler points out in his introduction, “working poor” should be an oxymoron – or at least it should according to the notion prevalent throughout American history that anyone in the country can do or be anything as long as he or she is willing to work hard. The profiles within Shipler’s book demonstrate that “working poor” is, in fact, the reality for many people.
  • When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor by William Julius Wilson. William Julius Wilson looks at the issue of poverty through a slightly different lens, separating the issue of joblessness in urban neighborhoods from the issue of poverty, and focusing on the former. Specifically, When Work Disappears considers the “devastating effects of the inner-city ghetto environment” and the way they extend to employment.
  • The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz. Inequality is not just problematic on a moral or ethical level – it also has an economic impact. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz makes the case in this book that in order for the U.S. economy to thrive, that inequality cannot continue to be fostered by policy and politics.
  • Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy by Martin Gilens. In another book focused on the stigma and stereotypes Americans have of the poor, Martin Gilens looks specifically at media representation and its inclination to racialize welfare by over-representing black Americans as recipients of the program.
  • The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide by Barbara Robles and Betsy Leondar-Wright. We often look at financial security as an issue of income, but The Color of Wealth focuses instead on the importance of wealth and assets, as well as the history of how U.S. policy has contributed to a wealth gap between white Americans and just about everyone else.
  • Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America by Jennifer Sherman. Jennifer Sherman’s book offers some specific insight on the decline of a California logging community that was “economically devastated” by a 1990 ruling that severely limited logging in the area. As job opportunities dried up, the lack of work had a broad and lasting impact.
  • Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City by Steve Early. The fact that Bernie Sanders wrote the foreword to this book about policy change at a local level stamps it as political, but the core of Refinery Town is the story of people in Richmond, CA who decided they wanted something different for their town and then fought for it. As the saying goes, “all politics is local,” and it’s often true with social policy as well.
  • Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. If you’re interested in a different lens on local politics and policy, you’ll get it with Hillbilly Elegy. J.D. Vance’s memoir got a lot of political attention last year, but it’s real value is in the perspective it offers on rural poverty and the complicated relationship some small, struggling towns have with government.
  • Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward. Readers who flocked to Hillbilly Elegy to understand rural poverty would do well to broaden their understanding on the topic by also reading Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. Ward’s memoir tells her story of growing up poor in rural Mississippi, discussing and analyzing how economic strife combined with race leading to the violent deaths of her brother and four other young black men she knew, all within the span of five years.
  • City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis. Originally published in 1990, City of Quartz traces the history of Los Angeles and considers how the shifting dynamics of power and leadership impacted the lives and success of the city’s residents.
  • A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissenger. In another in-depth analysis of local policy and government, Buzz Bissenger’s 1997 A Prayer for the City offers a close-up view of the work done by Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, as well as the way his policies impacted four Philadelphians.
  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs. The United States is supposed to be a place where people can escape their circumstances and where cycles of poverty can be broken. It doesn’t always work that way, and The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is one story about some of the reasons why not.
  • United by Cory Booker. Booker’s book is, without a doubt, a political memoir, and carries all the associated baggage. But his experience living in a low-income housing development while working as a tenants’ rights attorney gives him a unique perspective on urban communities.
  • Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh. Sudhir Venkatesh did more than study urban poverty – he immersed himself in it. Specifically, he abandoned his “cold and distant, abstract and lifeless” seminars at the University of Chicago in order to get up close and personal with gangs, drug trade, and the economic systems that arise when the more common labor markets are inaccessible.
  • Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago by LeAlan Jones, Lloyd Newman, with David Isay. Published in 1997 and drawn almost entirely from reporting done for NPR by teenagers LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman in Chicago in the 1990s, Our America provides an exceptionally candid view of life in urban housing developments.
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. Many of the non-fiction books that most successfully connect with a broad audience feature research and data along with personal stories of how that information impacts real people. Evicted, one of the most critically acclaimed books of 2016 does just that in the way it looks at issues of poverty and housing security.
  • The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality by Rhonda Y. Williams. Grounded in dozens of interviews, Rhonda Y. Williams tells the story of poor black women who have lived in low-income housing, challenging stereotypes that have defined these women for too long, and, hopefully, replacing them with a better understanding with real, multi-dimensional people these women are.
  • Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 by Arnold R. Hirsch. First published in 1983, Hirsch’s book tells the story of how “strategies used by ethnic, political, and business interests” contributed to the intentional segregation of Chicago that still exists in many ways today.
  • Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City by Antero Pietila. Racism unquestionably impacted the development and implementation of housing policies in the U.S., and Not in my Neighborhood explains some of the ways how by looking at housing policy in Baltimore from the 1880s into the early 2000s.
  • From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement by Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster. Per the EPA, “environmental justice” is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Cole and Foster trace the history of the movement, from grassroots activism to a 1994 executive order.
  • Failed Promises: Evaluating the Federal Government’s Response to Environmental Justice edited by David M. Konisky. Failed Promises, a set of articles explaining the failure of the federal government to live up to its promise of environmental justice is dense, academic analysis for those looking to learn more about where and why federal policy has fallen short.
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. A book about urban planning originally published in 1961 might seem like a strange pick for this list. But sometimes addressing social issues from a different angle presents different opportunities. In this case, Jane Jacobs argued that intentionality in designing and developing cities can positively impact housing, safety, and the economic health of a community.
  • What’s the Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank. Originally published in 2004, Frank’s best-selling book doesn’t focus on a specific social issue, but rather teases out an important part of the policy context: why people sometimes support political candidates or policies that are not in their best personal interest. How and whether people understand the implications of a policy is often the most important part of the policy-making process.
  • Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney López. Also focused on the context in which policies are being developed, Dog Whistle Politics considers the ways in which racism “surreptitiously adapts,” and  the way politicians have taken advantage of that phenomenon to develop and implement policies that have negatively impacted middle class Americans of all races.
  • White Rage by Carol Anderson. Better understanding the context of social policy in the United States certainly requires a better understanding of the many ways it has been impacted by race. In White Rage, Anderson traces the racism in policy, and in particular the way political leaders have worked to twist policies and legislation to adversely impact African Americans.
  • Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson. Class and wealth are major parts of the social policy context, and Margo Jefferson’s memoir delves into the topic of class in the Black community. Negroland tells her story of growing up in “Negroland, ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.'”
  • The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea by Paul Ryan. Whether or not you agree with Ryan politically, reading a book by someone in a powerful position to shape policy offers some key insight into what their legislative priorities are. Specifically, his memoir explains that Ryan is focused on the debt and deficit, which impacts the way he approaches spending. As with all politicians, however, it’s important to consider the information they present in the context of their experience and expertise.
  • The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin. On the same theme of the importance of context, the political philosophy in Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic suggests that the way forward for the U.S. is to refocus on “the middle layers of society – families and communities, schools and churches, charities and associations, local governments and markets.” It’s a different view of conservatism than is currently at the forefront of American policy, but it may be the way of the future.
  • Women, Policy and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems by Carol Lee Bacchi. I’ve mostly tried to avoid textbooks on this list, because they tend to be less accessible both in terms of content and in terms of cost. But one of the most knowledgeable, intelligent people I know recommended this book first when we were talking about social policy books, so I figured I could find a slot for a book focused on the work and process of unpacking policy issues.
  • White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. Historian Nancy Isenberg’s book considers the unofficial class structure that has marginalized poor, white Americans for hundreds of years, as well as the modern day implications of that history.
  • The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer. The Unwinding is essentially a collection of sketches of a variety of people – some famous, most not – whose stories, when taken together, illustrate the shift in the American social system over the course of the last generation. The structure is a unique way to capture the changing political landscape in the U.S.
  • When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America by Ira Katznelson. By examining the way New Deal programs were designed to disproportionately support white Americans while leaving black Americans behind, Ira Katznelson presents a new way to understand the most significant social programs of the last century as well as the social inequalities they fostered.
  • Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed by Jason L. Riley. In Please Stop Helping Us, Riley outlines the many ways that social programs implemented (in theory) to support black Americans actually end up being counter-productive. Riley highlights minimum wage laws, affirmative action in higher education, and other examples of methods that aren’t having the intended effect.
  • Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond by Marc Lamont Hill. Marc Lamont Hill uses Nobody to demonstrate the way police violence is connected to other incidences of state violence, such as the lack of clean drinking water in Flint MI. The larger, more visible events demonstrate more subtle “patterns and policies of authority that allow some citizens become disempowered, disenfranchised, poor, uneducated, exploited, vulnerable, and disposable.”
  • Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano. Several of the authors on this list challenge the notion that people from working class backgrounds can transition into professional class jobs and lives. Lubrano points out that even those who can make that transition are often ill-prepared to fit into the social norms and culture of their new “white-collar world.”
  • America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Health Care System by Steven Brill. In 2013, TIME dedicated an entire issue to Steven Brill’s analysis of the health care system in the US. This book expands on that award-winning article, and it’s one of the best introductions out there for those trying to learn why American health care is so complicated and contentious.
  • Sick: The Untold Story of America’s Health Care Crisis – and the People Who Pay the Price by Jonathan Cohn. Jonathan Cohn’s engaging analysis of the health care system is most useful from an historical perspective; given that the book was originally published in 2007, you won’t find the term “Obamacare” anywhere in it. But with that context in mind, it’s still worth reading for anyone who is trying to better understand why many elected officials of all political affiliations agree that the system in place in the early 2000s is not one to which we can return.
  • The American Health Care Paradox: Why Spending More is Getting Us Less by Elizabeth H. Bradley and Lauren A. Taylor. Bradley and Taylor tell readers up front in the forward of this book that their goal isn’t to advance a political agenda, but rather to better understand the economic side of the investments the U.S. is making in health care. Their research on the costs in our system “was motivated in large part by a concern central to Americans of all ideological persuasions: maximizing the return on investment of our national expenditures.”
  • The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care by T. R. Reid. No matter how you feel about the health care system in the US, you likely know that it’s different in many ways from the systems in other industrialized democracies. The Healing of America is T.R. Reid’s explanation of how other countries are able to design and run health care systems that are “universal, affordable, and effective.”
  • The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman. Throughout this list, there are dozens of books that make the connection between race or culture and how we experience the American social framework. 1997’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down deals with that connection – and in this case, conflict – explicitly by telling the story of a Hmong refugee family trying to work with a California system in California in order to treat their daughter.
  • Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Atul Gawande’s critically acclaimed best-seller isn’t as obviously tied to social policy as some of the books on this list, but Gawande challenges readers to think about what we want from our medical system and health care in a way that could impact the way that we think about health policy and spending.
  • Reinventing American Health Care: How the Affordable Care Act will Improve our Terribly Complex, Blatantly Unjust, Outrageously Expensive, Grossly Inefficient, Error Prone System by Ezekiel Emanuel. I thought about skipping the subtitle on this one because it’s ridiculously long, but readers deserve to know that this book is openly making the case for what we colloquially know as “Obamacare.” You should also know that Emanuel is the brother of Rahm Emanuel, a chief-of-staff in the Obama White House. But Emanuel is also a well-respected bioethicist, and, interestingly, one of the only democrats who was consulting with President Trump and Speaker Ryan as they worked for passage of their proposed replacement bill.
  • Dying and Living in the Neighborhood by Prabhjot Singh. For some people, the complicated U.S. health care system is only one barrier to a healthy life. Prabhjot Singh considers the impact that “place” and specifically neighborhood dynamics can have on public health outcomes.
  • Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America by Mary Otto. Lack of access to dental care is one of the most far-reaching social issues that gets the least attention: Kids with tooth pain can’t focus in school. Adults without visibly healthy teeth have more trouble getting jobs (and, as a result, can’t get dental insurance). Otto considers the history and implications of divorcing oral health from the rest of our health care system.
  • Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. In this award-winning book, Sam Quinones examines what he argues are two of the leading causes of the U.S. opiate crisis: the marketing and distribution of OxyContin in the 1990s, and the influx of black tar heroin from Mexico.
  • American Pain: How a Young Felon and His Ring of Doctors Unleashed America’s Deadliest Drug Epidemic by John Temple. John Temple goes deeper into one of the stories of the pain pill addition epidemic in his book about “American Pain,” a Florida “mega-clinic expressly created to serve addicts posing as patients.”
  • Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari. British journalist Johann Hari set out to answer his questions about drug-use, addiction, the “War on Drugs,” and policy alternatives. After three years, 30,000 miles, and 9 countries, he wrote Chasing the Scream to explain what he learned and how different the answers he found are from what he expected.
  • Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs by Doris Marie Provine. Unequal Under Law considers one of the specific issues of racial disparity in the justice system – the War on Drugs. Tracing story of the anti-drug movement over the course of the 20th century, Doris Marie Provine explains how “both manifest and latent racism” have shaped U.S. drug policy.
  • A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor by Alexes Harris. A Pound of Flesh considers the counterproductive practice of requiring fines and other monetary restitution from people who don’t have money, “further perpetuating racial and economic inequality.”
  • From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton. Elizabeth Hinton’s book demonstrates the inter-related nature of social issues by explaining how, “since it emerged from within the War on Poverty and alongside it, this long War on Crime has today positioned law enforcement agencies, criminal justice institutions, and jails as the primary public programs in many low-income communities across the United States.”
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Bryan Stevenson’s best-selling and critically-acclaimed memoir uses his personal experiences and stories as an attorney to demonstrate the phenomenon of racial bias in the justice system in the United States, as well as conveying some hope for change and real justice in the system.
  • The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America by Naomi Murakawa. How did we get to the failed criminal justice system we have today? There are, as with any other issue of this magnitude, many contributing factors, but Naomi Murakawa challenges some of the popular notions by arguing that Democratic Presidents who enhanced the federal role in the prison system are, in large part, responsible.
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. It’s hard to overstate the importance of The New Jim Crow, which details the insidious ways in which racism continues to permeate social policy and systems. As Alexander argues that “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
  • Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World by Baz Dreisinger. Incarceration Nations is not another research-filled run-down of the many ways in which the U.S. criminal justice system has failed. As Michelle Alexander says in a Washington Post review, “The book reads much like a rambling, yet frequently insightful diary entry as (Dreisinger) roams the globe.” But even without deep expertise on the topic of prisons, Baz Dreisnger can tell that the U.S. could be doing something differently.
  • Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison by Nell Bernstein. Based on research and interviews, Nell Bernstein’s book makes the case that the juvenile incarceration system is failing on just about every measure – it’s expensive, it’s not safe, it’s “one of the most glaring example of racial injustice our nation has to offer, and the children within the system are more likely to be locked up as adults.
  • No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court by Edward Humes. As important as the education system in the U.S. is, unfortunately a significant number of children in this country also interact with the juvenile court system. Edward Humes’ 1996 book, available now with an introduction and afterward updated in 2014, is an important critique of a “judicial system in disarray.”
  • Shattered Bonds: The Color Of Child Welfare by Dorothy Roberts. Shattered Bonds shines a spotlight on a pressing issue within a pressing issue – race disparity in the foster care system. As Roberts says in her introduction, “Black children remain in foster care longer, are moved more often, receive fewer services, and are less likely to be either returned home or adopted.” A damning indictment of a system that needs better support and new strategies.
  • To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care by Cris Beam. Part memoir, part sociological analysis, To the End of June balances Beam’s personal story as a foster parent (and as a kid who probably should have been “in the system”) with research and study of the child welfare system as a whole. All the while she’s searching for reasons why we can’t take better care of some of our country’s most vulnerable children.
  • The Tragedy of Child Care in America by Edward F. Zigler. Child care is a huge issue for most working families. Zigler’s book is a little wonky, and readers should note that it pre-dates significant federal policy changes in child care that have been made since 2014, but it still gives a good grounding of the complex issues at play in a wide-reaching system.
  • Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life by Annette Lareau. Those who are interested in the ways that home life impacts the education and development of children should consider reading Unequal Childhoods. The research-based book is a little dense, but it offers an important context for social systems interact with families at home – or at baseball practices or piano lessons.
  • Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol. Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 book chronicles his journey through 30 different school districts and the chasm he found between the high-quality public schools for wealthy families and the public schools for the poor that were “overcrowded and understaffed, and lacked the basic elements of learning.” The stories are now 30 years old, but unfortunately not much has changed in terms of the disparities.
  • Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling by R. Lewis-McCoy. Inequality in the Promised Land focuses on research Lewis-McCoy did on disparities within one, well-resourced suburban school district. Specifically, the book considers the hows and whys of inequality related to systemic issues that run deeper than just a lack of funding and resources.
  • Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris. Morris’s book focuses on the “punitive school discipline” that disproportionately affects black girls in schools and the impact it has both on their education and their lives outside of the school system.
  • Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch. For all of the conversation about failing American schools, it’s hard to know exactly what is wrong and how it can be fixed. Diane Ravitch, a historian of education, has been writing about education in the U.S. for decades, and Reign of Error discusses where policies from Presidents Bush and Obama went wrong and where we need to focus to improve a system that is, in her argument, not as badly broken as some would have you believe.
  • The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools by Dale Russakoff. Anyone who prefers a more story-focused narrative might consider reading The Prize to learn more about the realities of the education system and the challenges inherent in trying to create change. Russakoff, a long-time journalist, tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to the Newark school district and what happened when he partnered with Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie to try to transform the schools.
  • The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. The education system seems to be one of the realms in which we’re most likely to compare our progress (or lack thereof) to other countries – test scores, graduation rates, etc. Amanda Ripley goes behind those numbers, following three American exchange students to Finland, South Korea, and Poland and learning about what elements contribute to student success.
  • Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom by Lisa Delpit. In some ways, Lisa Delpit’s discussion of cultural conflict and assumptions in classrooms is more relevant to teachers, administrators, and parents than policy-makers. But education policy in particular is made at many levels – local, state, and federal – and anyone involved in those policies has a responsibility to understand what goes on in classrooms and how it impacts the education system broadly.
  • The New Kids by Brooke Hauser. In The New Kids, Brooke Hauser tells the stories of five immigrant and refugee teenage students at The International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. Coming from China, Tibet, Sierra Leone, Yemen, and Burma, the students are deal with complicated and unusual personal circumstances in a setting familiar to most of us – a high school.
  • Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals. In this memoir, Beals tells the harrowing story of her experience being one of the first teenagers to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, AR in 1957. In addition to being a rare glimpse into an important historical moment, the book’s detailing of the “physical and psychological punishment” faced by Beals and her classmates is an essential reminder that a failure to successfully – and in this case safely – implement a policy can have devastating consequences.
  • All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? by Joel Berg. Berg’s book works first to demonstrate the hunger is a shockingly prevalent part of life for low-income and no-income Americans – including tens of millions of children. He then goes on to propose a detailed plan for how government, which is the only entity with “the size, scope, resources, and yes, the legitimacy” to effectively address the problem, can do so.
  • Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement by Janet Poppendieck. There is great value in private charitable assistance, whether it is from churches, non-profit agencies, or individuals. However, Janet Poppendieck argues that, at least in the case of food assistance, reliance on private means results in the deterioration of systemic support. In her words, “that this massive charitable endeavor serves to relieve pressure for more fundamental solutions.”
  • Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient, and Rewarding for All by Robert Egger. Whatever the ideal balance of private and public support is, the reality is that there will always be a role for organizations like Robert Egger’s DC Central Kitchen. Begging for Change is Egger’s story of that nonprofit as well as an analysis of how the application of more results-driven principles can change the social support structure.
  • Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America by Wenonah Hauter. Wenonah Hauter owns an organic farm, so she certainly doesn’t write this book from an entirely impartial perspective. But her explanation of the larger food system in the United States – from subsidies to lobbyists to big business – allows for a more comprehensive understanding for how that system can contribute to food deserts and food insecurity.
  • What We Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement by Fred Pelka. The Americans with Disabilities Act is one of the most important laws in American history, particular in terms of inclusion and access. Fred Pelka tells the story of that law and the activists who fought for it.
  • Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America by James Green. It’s difficult to understand social policy outside of the historical context from which it came. A lot can be learned about current labor laws and policies from the labor rights movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Haymarket affair is an important part of that history.
  • Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David von Drehle. Triangle further expounds on labor history, detailing the tragic factory fire that killed 146 workers – many of them women and/or immigrants – in 1911. The fire highlighted the horrible conditions under which these people worked, shining a national spotlight that helped spur legislation and factory-worker unions.
  • From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement by Matthew Garcia. One of the most important labor movements of the last 50 years has been the fight for rights for farm workers. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union are perhaps the most recognizable names from that movement, and Matt Garcia’s book details both their success and their eventual shortcomings.
  • Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon. At the same time that the Haymarket Affair and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire were raising awareness of labor conditions for immigrants and other factory workers, black male convicts had no way to escape the government-run programs for the kind of involuntary servitude that had ostensibly been made illegal by the 13th Amendment.
  • Save Our Unions by Steve Early. Save Our Unions is a compilation of various articles and essays Steve Early, who has worked as an organizer, strike strategist, and labor educator, has written in his work reporting on the labor movement and unions.
  • The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson. An award-winning autobiographical novel, Mitchell S. Jackson’s The Residue Years is the story of a family trying to break the cycles of poverty and addiction. (Fiction)
  • Lyddie by Katherine Paterson. Set in the mid-19th century, Paterson’s book includes elements of debt, sexual harassment, poverty, and horrifying working conditions. But at the heart of it, it’s a story about power and more specifically, what it is like to be without power. There may be no theme more central to social policy. (Fiction)
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. The best known legacy of Upton Sinclair’s classic is the way it impacted the regulation of food. But The Jungle also paints a devastating picture of working conditions and the exploitation of immigrants in the early 20th century. (Fiction)
  • The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie. In the prologue to the 20th anniversary edition of Sherman Alexie’s modern classic short story collection, Alexie tells his friend Jess Walter, “Oh, boy, do I still feel like a class warrior in the literary world. In the whole world really. These stories are drenched in poverty and helplessness.” It would be foolish of me offer a better explanation for why these stories are important than that. (Fiction)
  • Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff. Pictures of Hollis Woods may not teach you a lot about the administration and day-to-day practice of the child welfare system, but it’s an engaging story that can help introduce younger readers to feelings of being untethered, alone, and responsible that are often familiar to children without a stable family and home. (Fiction)
  • Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger. The U.S. sure loves a “rags-to-riches” story, and Horatio Alger might have been the king of them. Like many of Alger’s books, Ragged Dick tells the story of a bootblack who, through hard word and gumption, ascends to a higher class. These kinds of books feed an overly simplified narrative that is nevertheless a cornerstone of American social policy. (Fiction)
  • The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Recommended to me by a friend who works in child welfare, The Language of Flowers is the story featuring a young woman who struggles in the foster system and then ages out. The backdrop of the system and the way it has impacted the main character could provide some new insight to readers unfamiliar with the struggles foster youth face into their adult lives. (Fiction)
  • Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. Yes, Crenshaw features an imaginary friend in the form of a giant cat. But the heart of it is a 10-year-old trying to manage the helplessness and uncertainty of housing insecurity. In an effort to fully represent the chronic stress that affects children dealing with homelessness, author Katherine Applegate talked with students and staff of the Monarch School in San Diego, which serves exclusively students impacted by it. (Fiction)
  • The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. Angela Flournoy’s widely acclaimed debut novel puts complex social issues like housing and debt into one of the most complicated and inescapable contexts of all – family. (Fiction)
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning play about money, housing, and who is allowed access to “the American Dream” was written nearly 60 years ago, but it remains as relevant today was it was when it premiered on Broadway in 1959. (Fiction)
  • Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. A non-fiction picture book, Brave Girl tells the story of Clara Lemlich and her fight for labor rights for girls and women in the early years of the 20th century. Lemlich was a Jewish immigrant and one of the many examples of American women whose stories are undertold. (Picture book)
  • Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh. Tonatiuh’s book on the battle to desegregate California schools in 1940s – with the ruling finally coming seven years before the national Brown v. Board of Education ruling – is a perfect teaching tool. It’s essentially a history lesson in 40 illustrated pages, which include the accessible story, an author’s note with more historical information, a glossary of terms, a bibliography, and an index. (Picture book)
  • A Shelter in our Car by Monica Gunning. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, approximately 2.5 million children in the US will experience homelessness sometime this year. It can be hard to wrap your mind around that number, but Monica Gunning’s straightforward writing turns a staggering number into a personal story with which readers can instantly connect. (Picture book)
  • Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin. I know, I know. This is a book about cows. But labor rights are a pretty heavy topic, as is social policy on the whole. Click, Clack, Moo brings a little levity to the issue, while still illustrating the value of organized labor. You know, just in case you need a warm-up to The Jungle. (Picture book)