Fiction and Nonfiction Books on Poverty, Social Inequality, and Class Upheaval

By Helen Yoshida — January 29, 2014 6 min read
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Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, the battle is still being evaluated by educators, scholars, journalists, and writers.

To tie in with Education Week‘s ongoing coverage of the War on Poverty, I’ve put together a list of 17 fiction and nonfiction books whose pertinent themes address the circumstances, fears, and ambitions of disadvantaged people and their communities in the United States. The books marked with asterisks are books I thought would make good reading material for middle school and high school students. The lists are alphabetized by title, except in cases where I’ve grouped related books.

In addition to Education Week‘s coverage on poverty, readers can also enjoy a new essay by Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, that was published on Talking Points Memo. Her essay contests the theory that poverty is the sole explanation behind low school and student performance.


* The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (75th Anniversary Edition, Viking, April 2014)

Three-quarters of a century after this novel’s first release, the tale of the Joad family and their Depression-era struggles still resonates. This 75th Anniversary Edition includes Elmer Hader’s original first edition cover illustration.

*The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (Viking, 1967)

Susan Eloise Hinton’s classic young adult novel tells 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis’s story of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Tulsa, Okla. He depends on his brothers and friends to help protect and navigate him through the punishing rivalry between the rich “Socs” and working-class “Greasers” until one night when a fight erupts, a Soc is dead, and Ponyboy finds himself on the run.

*The Revolution of Every Day by Cari Luna (Tin House, 2013)

In Cari Luna’s debut novel, the hope, misunderstandings, and assumptions that bind five squatters living in New York City’s Lower East Side during the mid-1990s threaten to unravel when developers and lawyers try to evict them from the abandoned dwellings.


How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York by Jacob A. Riis (Penguin Group, 1890)

Jacob A. Riis, photographer, newspaper reporter, and social reformer, documents the unsanitary living conditions of the immigrant poor living in the New York City tenements during the 19th century.

The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives by Sasha Abramsky (Nation Books, 2013)

Writer and University of California, Davis, lecturer Sasha Abramsky examines poverty’s effects and offers a new plan toward a more progressive and equal society.

*And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City Students by Miles Corwin (William Morrow and Company, 2000)

University of California, Irvine, professor and former Los Angeles Times crime reporter Miles Corwin chronicles the personal and academic lives of 12 gifted high school students living in South Central Los Angeles.

*The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhoodby David Simon and Edward Burns (Broadway Books, 1997)

David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of the television series “The Wire,” and Edward Burns, a former Baltimore homicide detective, examine the effects of drug laws and the socioeconomic factors behind the drug trade in the nation’s inner cities through the experiences of 15-year-old DeAndre McCollough, his family, and their connection to West Fayette and Monroe Streets--a perilous Baltimore corner where drugs are openly bought and sold.

*The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeanette Walls (Scribner, 2005)

Growing up with two non-conformist nomadic parents and her three siblings in Southwestern desert towns and mountain communities before finally settling in Welch, W. Va., writer Jeanette Walls tells a tale of her family’s dysfunctional dynamics and how she eventually mustered the strength and found the resources to leave home.

*Growing Up Poor: A Literary Anthology edited by Robert Coles and Randy Testa (The New Press, 2002)

Robert Coles, emeritus professor of psychiatry and medical humanities in the department of psychiatry at Harvard University, and Randy Testa, vice president of education and professional development at Walden Media, investigate what it is like to come of age in poverty through this collection of autobiographical essays as well as fiction and nonfiction stories and poems.

*Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Turkel (Pantheon Books, 1970)

Studs Terkel, award-winning author, captures the drama of the Great Depression by interviewing people of all ages working in different disciplines who lived through it.

*Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty by Beth Zasloff and Joshua Steckel (The New Press, March 25, 2014)

When college guidance counselor Joshua Steckel transitions from a private school in New York City’s Upper East Side to a public high school in Brooklyn he finds that his new low-income students face rules and stakes for college admission that are different and come at a higher cost.

*Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (Holt Paperbacks, 2001)

Curious to see the impact of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which promised that any job would improve a person’s chances at creating a better life, activist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich takes several low-wage jobs in three states and documents just how hard it is to survive working minimum-wage jobs.

The Other America: Poverty in the United States by Michael Harrington (Touchstone Book, 1962)

Michael Harrington, the former chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America and a distinguished professor of political science at Queens College, examines poverty during the mid-20th century, envisions poor people’s daily struggles, and pinpoints reasons for the persistence of mass poverty in the United States.

*Pigs Can’t Swim: A Memoir by Helen Peppe (Da Cappo Press, Feb. 4, 2014)

Writer and photographer Helen Peppe chronicles her chaotic life growing up on a Maine farm facing monetary hardship, male chauvinism, and sibling rivalry.

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir (Times Books, 2013)

Utilizing current research in behavioral science and economics Sendhil Mullainathan, a professor of economics at Harvard University, and Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, investigate the psychology of scarcity, its effect on people’s daily lives, and why those in poverty have difficulty escaping it.

Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances by Greg J. Duncan, edited by Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane (Russell Sage Foundation, 2011)

A team of economists, sociologists, and other professionals investigate the effects of inadequate family resources, ravaged neighborhoods, uncertain job markets, and deteriorating conditions within K-12 education.

Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education by Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane (Harvard Education Press, 2014)

A follow up to Whither Opportunity, Greg Duncan, a professor at the University of California, Irvine’s, school of education, and Richard Murnane, Thompson Professor of Education and Society at Harvard’s graduate education school, discuss interventions and supports that can help schools create more opportunities in the lives of low-income children.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.