Abigail A. Fuller
Associate Professor of Sociology
As the field of peace studies expanded beyond a concern with war to include attention to structural violence (social structural conditions that cause harm to people), economic justice became a vital part of peace studies curricula. Not only has economic inequality led directly to various forms of violence (e.g. economic inequality has led to armed revolution), but extreme economic inequality is seen as an injustice in itself.
Economic inequality is a very broad topic, especially when it deals with specific countries or regions, or the economic dynamics between rich and poor nations. This bibliography focuses only on the causes and consequences of, and solutions to, economic inequality within the United States. It covers four types of resources that I deem essential to an undergraduate course on this topic: current statistics and trends in economic inequality; theories about the causes of economic inequality; accounts of the experiences of people in different social classes; and efforts to promote economic justice. (In these bibliographic essays, we provide a link--marked by the green type--to those items with annotations below. Due to the wealth of resources in this essay, those that are not annotated below will be marked by an asterisk. They are links in the online version, and markers for people searching for them from a print version.)
Distribution of Income and Wealth. Teaching about economic justice typically begins with imparting current information about the distribution of income and wealth; trends in unemployment and poverty; and wages. A wealth of up-to-date information is found on the World Wide Web. One excellent source is the United States Census Bureau, which provides a number of tables and free reports. Some of the more useful ones are listed in this bibliography. There are a number of research institutes and think tanks that also provide data and analyses online. The Economic Policy Institute is one of the most comprehensive. The Brookings Institution*, which conducts research mainly intended for policymakers, has a section on inequality and poverty on its web site. The Urban Institute is a research center whose web site is also rich in data and analysis on crime and justice, the economy and taxes, education, health and healthcare, housing, welfare, and work and income. The Center for American Progress is a liberal think tank whose documents are more overtly political. Its web pages provide information and analysis on the federal budget, the labor market, Social Security, tax policy, trade, and more. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities* is another think tank that performs research and analysis on economic issues, focusing on programs for low-income people at both the state and federal level. For a more conservative point of view, The Heritage Foundation provides information on a number of issues related to economic justice.
Advocating for Economic Justice. There are many advocacy and activist organizations that work for economic justice and distribute educational materials. One advantage of these materials is that unlike the reports issued by many research institutes, these groups make an ethical case for reducing economic inequality. Some of the best material can be found at the web site of United for a Fair Economy. Others are Class Action, which seeks to “eliminate classism”; Too Much, which focuses on “excess and inequality”; and Class Matters, which has many commentaries on the experience of social class, including how those experiences influence one’s peace and justice activism. The web site Inequality.Org contains links to some articles and news items. Two anthologies of articles that are designed for a popular audience are Lardner and Smith’s Inequality Matters and The Wealth Inequality Reader, edited by Collins et al.
Textbooks and Articles. There are of course numerous textbooks on economic inequality designed for classroom use. The major drawback of these, in my view, is the expense and often the dryness of the writing. Some of the more overtly political ones (those that claim an economic elite, or ruling class, unjustly dominates US society) are Perrucci and Wysong’s The New Class Society; Zweig’s The Working Class Majority; and Domhoff’s Who Rules America? Good texts that are less political include Marger’s Social Inequality: Problems and Processes, and Hurst’s Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences. All of these books are rich with social empirical evidence. Since the books by Perrucci and Wysong and by Zweig are the most explicit in framing the issues as justice issues, they are more engaging to read, but their polemical style may not be suitable for some courses. Sociologist Michael C. Kearl hosts Explorations in Social Inequality, with a large number of annotated links to organizations and information. Also online, the Center for Working Class Studies* at Youngstown State University lists various resources.
As for magazine and newspaper articles, one excellent source is “Class Matters,” an 11-day series that appeared in the New York Times. The online version of Dollars and Sense contains some full-text articles on topics, such as tax policy, the stock market, and the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’ poor (with more available from the printed magazine). The American Prospect Online* contains special reports on “Bridging the Two Americas: The Politics of Welfare, Jobs, Earnings and Families”; “Immigration in the New Economy”; “Low-Wage America”; and “Wealth in America.”
Issues of Race and Class. On race and economic inequality, two important books are Dalton Conley’s Being Black, Living in the Red and Shapiro’s The Hidden Cost of Being African-American. On gender and economic inequality, a lengthy report by Caiazza et al. entitled “Women's Economic Status in the States” can be accessed online. In addition, a great many of the resources described here include consideration of race-ethnicity and of gender.
Works that describe the experience of social class are especially engaging for students. On the working class experience, Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Shipler’s The Working Poor are both excellent books, widely used in college courses (though I prefer the latter). Shipler’s book covers a range of issue affecting working people, including housing, healthcare, unemployment, welfare, child care, and more. Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities is a riveting, compassionate account of the contrasting educational experiences of poor and wealthy children. There are a number of books that describe the experiences of “straddlers,” working-class folks who rise up into the middle class, then feel at home in neither: Lubrano’s Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams is a notable one. The film “People Like Us” does an excellent job describing the experience of class, including “straddlers.”
Government Policy. In regard to the effects of government policy on economic inequality, there is much written about tax policy. David Cay Johnston’s Perfectly Legal is a very thorough, well-documented account of tax policy. The web site for Citizens for Tax Justice is useful as well. The research institutes mentioned above are excellent sources of information on taxation, as well as welfare and other forms of government aid to the poor (food stamps, housing subsidies, etc.). The National Priorities Project has information on taxes and military spending, by state.
Ethical Issues. Depending on the course, a teacher may want to include readings that frame the ethical issues surrounding economic inequality. The ideas of John Rawls on distributive justice are a logical choice and are found in many philosophy books. Jencks’s article “Does Inequality Matter?” discusses Rawls’ theory of justice and assesses empirical claims about how inequality affects the well being of individuals in a society. Sawhill and McMurrer’s “Are Justice and Inequality Compatible?” succinctly outlines the questions to be asked about who should get what. Howard Zinn’s “Economic Justice” uses historical and current examples to refute common assumptions about the fairness of our economic system. An interfaith group called Hunger No More* maintains a web site by the same name that provides valuable religious policy statements on hunger by the American Baptist Church, the Episcopal Church USA, United Church of Christ, and others (click on “Religious Policy Links”). Religion-Online.org* contains hundreds of articles by different theologians on poverty, capitalism and communism, and economic justice.
Popular Movements. Teaching about popular movements for economic justice is crucial to forestall despair and apathy among students, and to inspire them to take action. Of course, the labor movement is the longest-lived and most extensive of these. There are so many books and articles on labor issues that it is difficult to narrow the list, but some brief and readable ones, which are all online, are A Curriculum of United States Labor History for Teachers; “The Struggle to Unionize” by Rhian O’Rourke (an interview with an employee of a hospital); Staughton Lynd’s Labor Law for the Rank-and-Filer; and the Troublemakers’ Website*, which has a wealth of practical tips and advice for workplace organizing, illustrated with case studies. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor scholar, has written “Declining Unionization, Rising Inequality,” which analyzes the causes and consequences of the decline in unionization. The feature film “Bread and Roses” is an engaging illustration of the perils and joys of union organizing, based on a real-life campaign to organize immigrant workers in Los Angeles.
Teaching about worker cooperatives is an excellent way to show that there is an alternative to capitalist workplaces. The Mondragon Cooperatives* are the most famous (in addition to the web site, see the special feature called “Mondragon Cooperatives” in Social Policy, featuring George Cheney and other authors). These are a number of (mostly small) worker cooperatives and collectives in the US. The web site for the group Grassroots Economic Organizing is an excellent resource here. The recent worker takeovers of factories in Venezuela provide a fascinating recent example of worker cooperatives (see the film “The Take,” as well as articles in Z Magazine* and other publications).
An important current effort is the living wage movement. ACORN* is a leader here, and its Living Wage Resource Center* is a good resource, as is the Economic Policy Institute’s Issue Guide: Living Wage*. The Coalition on Human Needs* has extensive resources on the minimum wage. The National Council of Churches’ Living Wage Campaign* is useful as well. The film Occupation is a fast-paced, informative film about a student campaign that culminated in a two-week takeover of Harvard’s administration building.
Another effort is a variety of campaigns to reign in the power of corporations, organized by POCLAD (Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy), which spearheads the movement to revoke corporate charters and has published an anthology of articles by movement thinkers and activists (Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy); the Corporate Accountability Project; and Corporate Accountability International (formerly INFACT), among others. The recently released film, The Corporation is a thorough and engaging exposé of the effects of corporations on human life. On the anti-sweatshop movement, United Students Against Sweatshops is the best source of information. Finally, the film Affluenza (and its accompanying web site) is a good introduction to the problem of over-consumption and to the “voluntary simplicity” movement.
Capitalism and Alternatives. I find it essential to teach about the fundamentals of capitalism and its alternatives. Marx and Engel’s Manifesto of the Communist Party* (easily found online) is a classic statement that is terse and remarkably prescient. Michael Albert has written a number of articles and books that outline his extensive blueprint for a democratic socialist society, which he calls “participatory economics” (see Parecon). His work is very useful in countering the “but there’s no alternative” response to critiques of capitalism. Similarly, Erik Olin Wright proposes some innovative socialist-style solutions (such as a guaranteed income) in “Reducing Income and Wealth Inequality” in Contemporary Sociology.
In addition to the films mentioned in this essay, listings of films about economic justice can be found online at Rebel Graphics*; at Films on Class, Wealth, Power, and Social Justice* at the Class Action web site; and at the Working Class Films* list from Bottom Dog Press.
This is a somewhat humorous one-hour film that “explores the high social and environmental costs of materialism and over-consumption.” It uses personal stories and expert commentary, as well as humorous vignettes to dramatize how Americans’quest for more stuff results in overwork, less time for family and community, consumer debt, and economic inequality. It profiles some families and groups that are practicing “voluntary simplicity” as a solution. The web site includes a teacher’s guide and a viewer’s guide, as well as a time line of consumer history; a test to diagnose affluenza; tips for beating affluenza; and more.
AFL-CIO. “A Short History of American Labor.” American Federationist, March 1981. <http://www.albany.edu/history/history316/LaborMovementHistory1.html>.
This is a brief history that covers more than 100 years. It describes labor-management struggles, including government intervention, and notes the successes and setbacks of labor unions.
Albert’s work on Parecon is extensive. He has actually made his entire book available online (though purchasing copies would no doubt be helpful to him and Z Magazine, for which he works). Here chapters or sections of chapters can be read separately. The Parecon pages on Znet provide access to Albert’s articles, along with critiques by others and Albert’s responses to them. Parecon is a detailed plan for a socialist society in which the means of production are socially owned and workplaces are democratic; decisions about production and consumption are made by workers’ and consumers’ councils; and people are paid according to the effort and sacrifice of their work.
Berube, Alan and Bruce Katz. “Katrina’s Window: Confronting Concentrated Poverty Across America.” Oct. 2005. The Brookings Institution. <http://www.brookings.edu/metro/pubs/ 20051012_concentratedpoverty.htm>.
This is an engaging feature film based on the true story of the Justice for Janitors victory in unionizing the mostly immigrant hotel workers in Los Angeles in 1999. It focuses on Maya, a young and feisty recent immigrant from Mexico, and Sam, the scrappy union organizer who recruits her to help him. The film does a great job illustrating the difficulties of forming a labor union—from the fears of the workers to management opposition—but also shows the joys of solidarity. (And there’s an endearing love story in it as well.)
Bronfenbrenner, Kate. “Declining Unionization, Rising Inequality: An Interview with Kate Bronfenbrenner.” Multinational Monitor, vol. 24, no. 5, May 2003: 21-24. <http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/mm2003/ 03may/may03interviewsbronfenbrenner.html>.
Describes the reasons for the decline in the unionized labor force (principally weak organizing campaigns and employer resistance), and provides evidence that unionization helps raise wages and benefits for workers.
The page provides links to research reports and opinion pieces. The site includes articles on Hurricane Katrina, including “Katrina’s Window” by Alan Berube and Bruce Katz (see separate entry).
Caiazza, Amy, April Shaw, and Misha Werschkul. “Women’s Economic Status in the States: Wide Disparities by Race, Ethnicity and Region.” Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 2004. <http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/mm2003/ 03may/may03interviewsbronfenbrenner.html>.
The report analyzes state-level data on women’s income, occupation, earnings ratio with men, poverty status, and business ownership. It includes discussion of the economic status of Native American, African American, and Hispanic women. 48 pages.
The web pages provide analyses of the federal budget, the labor market, Social Security, tax policy, trade, and more. Some of the most useful are:
o Hertz, Tom. “Understanding Mobility in America.” 26 Apr. 2006.
o Weller, Christian E. “For Middle-Class Families, Dream of Own House Drowns in Sea of Debt.” 12 May 2005.
o Weller, Christian E. “Middle Class Turmoil: High Risk Reflects Middle-Class Anxieties.” 20 Dec. 2005.
o Weller, Christian E. “Basic Points About the Economy>.” 7 Apr. 2006.
This organization seeks to “call attention to facts and present analyses that debunk widespread misconceptions” about public policy issues. Much of the work of the Foundation is aimed at challenging broad claims about the advantages of privatization, tax cuts, and market solutions and questioning assumptions about the ineffectiveness of safety net programs, education reform efforts, and government oversight.” The web site provides a number of downloadable documents (2-8 pages) that are written for a popular audience. These are written from an advocacy point of view, but contain a multitude of data to back up their points. The Reality Check Series* of documents is particularly useful. Other notable reports are:
o Anrig, Greg and Tova Andrea Wang. “Immigration, Jobs, and the American Economy.” 29 Sept. 2004.
o Aldrich-Moodie, Benjamin. “Children’s Health Insurance.” 15 April 2000.
o Anrig, Greg. “Why It’s Good to Be Rich—And Getting Better All the Time.” 2004. 14 pages. This paper treats tax policy.
o Baker, Alex. “Life and Debt: Why American Families Are Borrowing to the Hilt.” 2004.
o Kahlenberg, Richard D. “Left Behind: Unequal Opportunity in Higher Education.” 19 Mar. 2004.
o Paskoff, Martha and Libby Perl. “Poor Excuses: How Neglecting Poverty Costs All Americans.” 2004.
o Wasow, Bernard. “Eight Myths About the Estate Tax.” 12 June 2002.
o Wasow, Bernard. “Going Nowhere: Workers’ Wages Since the Mid-1970s.” 29 July 2004.
o Wasow, Bernard. 2004. “Rags to Riches? The American Dream Is Less Common than Elsewhere.” 19 Mar. 2004.
This is a web site for an organization “working at the federal and state levels on fiscal policy and public programs that affect low- and moderate-income families and individuals.” The web site provides up-to-the-minute, detailed information on current government proposals and debates that affect low-income families. Its areas of research include the Earned Income Tax Credit, federal budget, federal tax policy, food assistance, health policies, low-income immigrant, labor market policies, low-income housing, poverty and income, social security, state budgets and taxation, unemployment insurance, and welfare reform/Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Many of its reports are too technical for an undergraduate reading list but quite useful as reference material. The Poverty, Income, and Health Insurance Coverage tables show trends over time and include detailed tables on poverty by region, race, work experience; the impact of cash and non-cash benefits on poverty rates; income by race, region, and after taxes; and health insurance, coverage by race and region, and type of coverage. A series of brief reports on “What Does the Safety Net Accomplish?” document the effectiveness of government programs that serve the poor (Medicaid, food and nutrition programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Supplemental Security Income). Its pages on TANF contain extensive information about current legislation, how states spend TANF funds, and the effects of welfare reform. Some particularly useful reports are:
o Fremstad, Shawn. “Recent Welfare Reform Research Findings: Implications for TANF Reauthorization and State TANF Policies.” 30 Jan. 2004. 19 pages.
o “Introduction to the Housing Voucher Program.” 14 May 2003.
o Ku, Leighton. “Medicaid: Improving Health, Saving Lives.” Rev. 17 Aug. 2005.
o Rosenbaum, Dorothy and David Super. “The Food Stamp Program: Working Smarter for Working Families.” Rev. 29 June 2005.
o Rosenbaum, Dorothy and Zoe Neuberger. “Food and Nutrition Programs: Reducing Hunger, Bolstering Nutrition.” Rev. 19 July 2005.
A research and advocacy organization that focuses on the impact of tax policy (federal, state, and local) on the country. Their agenda includes closing corporate tax loopholes and reducing the federal debt. There are links to much state and federal information, as well as a number of articles on such topics as the capital gains tax and the alternative minimum tax.
This is an advocacy organization that seeks to “eliminate classism.” Its resources pages are some of the most comprehensive I’ve found, linking to a wide variety of articles, news items, and other organizations. Class Action is a sister organization to United for a Fair Economy.
This is an 11-day series on social class in the United States that was published in the New York Times. Articles cover health care, education, upward mobility, status markers, religion, marriage between people of different classes, among others. Lots of human interest stories, some data. The “How Class Works” interactive graphic provides detailed, user-friendly information on the components of class, income mobility, and public attitudes. The articles and tables are reprinted in a paperback book (Class Matters, New York: New York Times Books, 2005).
Class Matters. Ed. Betsy Leondar-Wright. <www.classmatters.org>.
The web site hosts an ongoing survey on people’s experiences of social class, so there are many commentaries. It includes some interesting discussions of the implications of social class differences for social change work, e.g., how does one’s social class background affect the assumptions, strengths, and weaknesses one brings to activism, and how can groups better form cross-class coalitions? The group hosts workshops for activists on cross-class alliance building. The document “Tips from Working-Class Activists” is intended for middle-class activists working in class-diverse settings. Leondar-Wright’s book, Class Matters, was published by New Society, 2005.
Collins, Chuck and Felice Yeskel. Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity. Rev. ed. New York: New Press, 2005.
This is a lively, readable introduction to economic inequality by the founders of United for a Fair Economy, an activist organization. It covers the rise of inequality in the United States; its consequences for health, political participation, and the social fabric; the current inequality of income and wealth, including statistics on gender and race; how inequality is caused by the political power of the wealthy and by government policies (taxation, trade, deregulation, the decline of the social safety net); how to build a “fair economy movement”; and specific actions that can help “close the economic divide” (campaign finance reform; fair taxation; etc.). The book contains tables, charts, and cartoons that illustrate its points. Its appendices include information on organizations working to build a fair economy, and recommended readings.
Collins, Chuck, Amy Gluckman, Meizhu Lui, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Amy Offner, and Adria Scharf, eds.
Written for a popular audience, this collection contains 25 brief articles, plus an introductory section with statistics, on the causes of inequality (tax policy, racism, the drive to maximize profit, property relations, conservative ideology), its consequences (inadequate housing, the political power of the rich, unemployment), and strategies for change (taxing the wealthy, community development, stronger unions). A final section contains four articles that look at long-term changes that can address inequality (transforming capitalist institutions, expanding the public sector to create “social wealth”).
Conley’s work helps solve the mystery of why, at similar levels of education and income, blacks fare worse than whites on various measures of life outcomes. The answer is wealth: black families have, on average, just one eighth the assets of the average white family. Using longitudinal data that follows individuals over time, Conley meticulously documents how the wealth of one’s family of origin accounts for the majority of black-white differences in life outcomes.
Chapter Two describes the government policies that inhibited blacks from accumulating property after the abolition of slavery and the current discrimination they face in the housing market, where most families accumulate their wealth. The next three chapters demonstrate how wealth affects educational achievement, success in the workforce, and premarital childbearing. (Black-white differences in the latter two, Conley notes, cannot by fully explained away by wealth.) While the statistical findings are fascinating, because he relies on quantitative data Conley can only speculate about the actual mechanisms through which wealth exerts its influence (parents’ ability to finance their children’s education; the social connections in wealthier neighborhoods that facilitate employment; housing quality).
In the final chapter, the author argues for consideration of social class in what have been previously seen as simply racial issues, such as welfare and urban problems. In particular, he calls for a shift from race-based affirmative action to both wealth-building policies (such as policies that aid Black home ownership) and a class-based affirmative action (through government redistribution of wealth, for example). The fairly technical statistical analyses may be beyond the reach of lower-level undergraduates, but the findings are crucial in refuting notions that blacks are responsible for their own lack of success. An interview with Conley*, in which he makes the same points, is posted on the web site of Race: The Power of an Illusion*.
Corporate Accountability International. 18 Jan. 2007. Corporate Accountability International. <http://www.stopcorporateabuse.org/cms/index.cfm?group_id=1000>.
This is the group that led the successful boycott against Nestlé in the 1970s to stop the marketing of infant formula to poor mothers in Africa. Current campaigns concern corporations and water, food and agribusiness, tobacco, and oil. It publishes action guides and reports on these issues.
Provides a large number of links to online articles and resources from many different groups, on corporate welfare, corporate power in the media, boycotts of corporations, and how to research corporations. This site is maintained by the Action Center.
Based on the book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit by Joel Bakan, this is a broad-reaching film about the history of corporations; case studies of corporate abuse of the environment, workers, and communities; and examples of grassroots efforts to take back power from corporations. One of the film’s many strengths is that it interviews corporate leaders who candidly discuss what corporations do (and don’t do), and also showcases a number of grassroots efforts. It is broken into brief segments that are suitable to show on their own in the classroom. The web site contains extensive educational materials, synopses of the film’s segments, as well as recommendations for which segments to use for various courses in history, law, environmental studies, business, and economics, and discussion questions for such courses.
A Curriculum of United States Labor History for Teachers. Illinois Labor History Society. <http://www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/curricul.htm>.
This site provides an overview of labor history in America, time lines for eleven historical periods, brief summaries, and handouts suitable for students.
Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice. Jan. 2007. Economic Affairs Bureau. <http://www.dollarsandsense.org/>.
This bi-monthly magazine has some of its articles from current and past issues full text on the web. Topics include the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’ poor; tax policy; the stock market; etc. I especially appreciate the “Ask Dr. Dollar” columns in each issue that give straightforward answers to sometimes complex questions.
Domhoff’s book has been widely used in classrooms for a decade for its accessible writing and meticulously detailed documentation of how the corporate community is able to dominate our supposed democratic society. In the first chapter, he provides basic definitions and assumptions regarding the spectrum of political beliefs, the concept of social class, and the nature of power. In Chapters 2 and 3, he uses social network analysis to show the links within the corporate community and upper-class social organizations that bind members of the community together. Chapter 4 shows how members of these networks influence public policy by financing think tanks, foundations, and policy planning groups. Chapter 5 explains how the corporate community shapes public opinion through its use of public relations firms, and ownership and control of the mass media. Chapter 6 discusses the electoral system and the role of campaign contributions. In Chapter 7, the author describes the promotion of corporate influence through political appointments and lobbying elected officials. An extended discussion of the passage of the Social Security Act illustrates how corporate leaders can press the government to institute a program that serves their interests (in this case, removing the aged from the workforce and warding off labor unrest). He also describes “the great exception” to the rule of corporate domination: labor policy. In the final chapter, Domhoff critiques alternative theories about the role of the corporate community; outlines the historical reasons for the rise of corporate power in the United States; and describes the obstacles to the formation of a liberal-left-labor coalition that could challenge corporate power.
EPI “seeks to broaden the public debate about strategies to achieve a prosperous and fair economy.” It maintains current statistics on its web site on employment, earnings, health insurance coverage, and the like, including trends for the last 30 to 50 years. You can read analysis of economic indicators (employment, gross domestic product, family income, and trade figures) as well as issue guides on the living wage, minimum wage, off shoring, poverty and family budgets, retirement security, social security, unemployment insurance, and welfare that contain general information, charts and tables, and links to EPI publications on the topic. Its online calculators include a basic family budget calculator that determines the income necessary for particular family types to have a “safe and decent though basic” standard of living in specific US communities.
Ehrenreich spent three months undercover working at low-wage jobs, including waitressing, cleaning, and cashiering at Wal-Mart. She documents the impossibility of feeding and housing herself on her wages, as well as indignities suffered by clerks who are forbidden to use the restroom for hours at a time or maids who are required to show up a half hour early each day for lectures from bosses (on unpaid time). The writing is clever and engaging, very suitable for undergraduates. The later chapters are somewhat repetitive. There is little analysis of the larger societal forces that have created this low-wage poverty, nor are many solutions offered beyond raising the minimum wage and providing affordable housing. A search of “Nickel and Dimed study guides” reveals several discussion guides (including the publisher’s) are available online. Ehrenreich also wrote an article in Harper’s Magazine about her experiences (“Maid to Order,” Harper's Magazine, April 2000) and you can read >an online interview with her about the book.
The Finance Project sponsors the Economic Success Clearinghouse that provides basic information on government and other programs that aid the poor. It also links to a number of effective reports on programs and policies.
Friedman, Dorian and Robert Kuttner, eds. “Bridging the Two Americas: The Politics of Welfare, Jobs, Earnings and Families.” The American Prospect Online, 2 Sept. 2004. <http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=Two_Americas_Work.>
Contains eight articles by prominent authors, written in an engaging and accessible style, each accompanied by a number of links to related readings and resources. The articles cover the bureaucratic tangle of government programs for the poor; the inadequacy of wages for working families; the need for both skills training and better jobs for workers; welfare reform; how some businesses are helping low-wage workers; the need for childcare for women on welfare; and the success of the Earned Income Tax Credit.
This is a newsletter and web site “for democratic workplaces and globalization from below.” It provides good information on the activities of many different groups around the country and commentaries on worker-owned companies.
The mission of The Heritage Foundation is “to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.” The >Issues in Brief section includes heads for Facts and Figures, Talking Points, and Recommendations on Welfare, Poverty and Inequality, Welfare Reform, Labor, Federal Budget and Spending, Taxes, Retirement Income and Social Security, Health Care, and other issues.
Contains seven articles, written in an engaging, accessible style and accompanied by links to further readings and references. Articles focus on immigration as an inevitable result of economic globalization; the effect of NAFTA on immigration from Mexico; a story of smuggling illegal immigrants from Mexico to work at Tyson poultry plants; the working conditions of immigrant farm laborers; unions and immigrants; and recent efforts to gain rights for immigrants in the United States.
This web site is created around the book Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences by James Lardner and David A. Smith. Its Teaching Tools section contains links to seven articles, written for a popular audience, about wealth and income inequality, and its Articles section links to a number of news items relating to inequality.
Jencks, Christopher. “Does Inequality Matter?” Daedalus (Winter 2002): 49-65. <http://www.amacad.org/publications/winter2002/Jencks.pdf>.
Jencks both discusses moral arguments about inequality (utilitarianism and Rawls’ theory of justice) and assesses empirical claims about how inequality affects the well-being of individuals in a society (by influencing crime, health, happiness, etc.), largely by comparing the United States to other countries.
Jobs with Justice is an organization that connects workers’ rights with broader campaigns for social justice by creating networks between labor, student, community, and faith-based groups. There are a number of case studies of JWJ actions and information about recent campaigns.
The author, who reports on taxes for the New York Times, uses his skill at explaining complicated issues in clear, everyday language to document how the wealthy have benefited, and the less wealthy have been hurt, by estate tax policy, the IRS practice of scrutinizing poor taxpayers more heavily, the use of tax shelters, the alternative minimum tax, and laws regarding retirement savings accounts. Johnston uses engaging, real-life stores to illustrate his points, making this both a very informative and very readable book.
Sociologist Michael C. Kearl hosts this sub-section of the academic web site, A Sociological Tour Through Cyperspace.* Exploration in Social Inequality has a large number of annotated links to organizations and information. (Many of the statistical resources offer retrospective rather than recent information.)
Kozol obviously cares deeply about children, and his moral outrage at our society’s neglect of poor children is eloquently stated and convincing. He visited a number of schools, rich and poor, and spoke extensively with students in writing this book. Kozol describes the system for funding public schools in the United States that creates this inequality, court cases that have challenged that system, the arguments made against reforming the system, and some case studies of failed and successful local reforms.
Lardner, James and David A. Smith, eds. Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences. New York: The New Press, 2005.
Inequality Matters is a collection of essays that addresses the extent of inequality (in terms of income and wealth, educational opportunities, retirement security, health); the dynamics of inequality (taxation, corporate power, low wages); and solutions (gaining political power, cultivating religious and moral argument for equality, deligitimizing inequality). The essays are brief and accessible and include many current examples and case studies. See Inequality.org above for teaching tools that accompany the book.
“Low Wage America.” The American Prospect Online. 17 Dec. 2003. <http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=Low_wage_America>.
This series contains eight articles by experts, each accompanied by a number of links to additional readings and references. Articles cover the causes of low pay; union success in Las Vegas hotels; Wal-Mart; the rise of call centers; the role of technology; the effect of foreign trade on North Carolina's hosiery industry; creating career ladders in businesses; the role of unions and government intervention in raising wages.
The author intersperses the narrative about his own experience as a “straddler” (a person of working-class origin who ends up in the middle class) and those of a number of others who he interviews, with theories and information from previous writings on straddlers. One major strength of the book is identifying the positive aspects of working-class culture, such as closeness with extended family, a willingness to work hard, and openness and honestly. Another strength is illustrating how working-class children who end up as students or employees in middle-class environments lack the kinds of “cultural capital” that people from more privileged backgrounds take for granted, such as the experience of foreign travel, a sense of entitlement, and feeling comfortable with “networking” to advance one’s career. The stories in the book are fascinating, and the book is well written, but it is rather lengthy for a more general course on economic inequality; however, an excerpt might suffice (see Utne Reader, Mar./Apr. 2004).
Lynd, Staughton. Labor Law for the Rank-and-Filer, or, Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1994.
Written in plain language, this is a very informative “how-to” manual that includes discussion of the history of labor laws and detailed descriptions of the various rights that workers have in the United States, including the right to strike and boycott, but also the right to a safe workplace, to the express radical ideas, and to be free of sexual harassment. The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) web site has numerous other resources about unions and what they do, accessible from the link “How to Organize” (http://www.iww.org/).
This is a textbook written from a sociological perspective, but it could be used in other disciplines. In my view, it is the best of the social stratification texts available. It includes a thorough discussion of sociological theories of inequality; the American class system; social mobility; the role of government in distributing wealth and power; racial-ethnic and gender-based inequality; the political arena; and how dominant ideologies legitimate inequality. The book is well documented, clearly written, and particularly succinct for a textbook.
The first article in this special feature includes an introduction by George Cheney to the Mondragon worker-owned manufacturing and retail businesses that were begun by a priest in Spain after the Spanish Civil War to create jobs, the ten basic principles upon which the cooperatives operate, commentary by Jose Maria Ormaechea (one of the five engineers who were the original Mondragon Core Group), and recent changes and challenges facing Mondragon by George Cheney. Other articles include “Core Ideas from Mondragon’s Founder,” by Fr. Jose Maria Arizmendirreta, “Worker-ownership & Catholic Social Thought” by George E. Schultze, SJ, and “Mondragon: Lessons for Our Time” by Mike Miller. The Winter 2001 issue is available in print only.
Here you can find brief summaries on where your tax dollars go, including state information, and analyses of the opportunity costs of military spending for example, how much do Indiana taxpayers contribute toward the war in Iraq, and what else could be bought with those dollars.
Occupation: The Story of the Harvard Living Wage Sit-in. Dir. Maple Razsa and PachoVelez. Narr. Ben Affleck. DVD and Videocassette. 2004. <http://www.enmassefilms.org/occupation.htm>.
“Occupation” is an inspiring, fast-paced film that chronicles the student-led movement at Harvard for a living wage for college employees. The action in 2001 culminated in a two-week occupation of Massachusetts Hall, the administration building on campus where a video camera documented the sit-in. The film provides lots of background information about the pay and working conditions of Harvard employees. It carefully documents how the core activists in the movement planned and carried out their strategy of attracting supporters, working with the employees, publicly embarrassing the university, gaining media attention, and negotiating with the administration. 44 minutes.
O’Rourke, Rhian. “The Struggle to Unionize: A Worker’s Story.” Center for American Progress. 19 Oct. 2004. <http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/kfiles/b224820.html>.
This worker’s story is an interview with Lori Gay, an employee at a medical center in Utah, about her efforts to form a labor union. Of particular interest are her descriptions of management tactics to discourage workers from unionizing, which are all the more effective because of the matter-of-fact way that she relates them. It is available in both audio format and in transcript.
“People Like Us: Social Class in America.” Dir. Louis Alvarez and Andrew Caulker. Public Broadcasting System, 2001. <http://www.pbs.org/peoplelikeus/.>
An excellent documentary that uses interviews and real-life stories to show how we feel and think about class. It is humorous and engaging, and provides great discussion-starters about how we distinguish between classes, how the classes feel about each other, and how they feel about themselves. There is little real information in the film—few facts, no analysis of the sources of economic inequality. But the stories are compelling: the conflict in Burlington, Vermont, between working-class and middle-class residents over what kind of grocery store to open downtown; a young woman from working-class Kentucky who becomes a Washington journalist and tries to belong to two worlds; white elites at a lawn party discussing who belongs and why. Each vignette is about ten minutes and can be shown on its own. The web site has a very useful teacher’s guide that summarizes the film and describes classroom activities to accompany it. It also contains additional commentary (like a list of “Class Markers”) and other resources. 120 minutes.
One of the blurbs on the back cover describes this book as “sociologically rigorous” but also “a popular manifesto,” and it is both. The authors marshal abundant evidence to show that U.S. society is becoming increasingly polarized between rich and poor, and to show how the “privileged class” maintains its power by dominating the media, the educational system, and government. They provide a strong theoretical foundation for their argument, proposing a new “distributional model” of class structure that emphasizes the role of large organizations in the distribution of resources and in legitimating inequality. In successive chapters they discuss the increasing class polarization, with particular attention to the causes of downward mobility for middle-class Americans; how corporate leaders use economic globalization to increase profits; how the privileged class maintains its political power through campaign contributions, think tanks, and lobbying; the corporate ownership of the media and the dominance of privileged-class ideology; and how unequal educational opportunities perpetuate class divisions. A later chapter provides case studies for how this occurs in everyday life, focusing on the creation of Japanese auto plants in several Midwestern towns and on the DARE anti-drug program in schools. The strengths of the book are its meticulous documentation and its synthesis of wide-ranging facts and information to show how the privileged class maintains its domination of U.S. life. Its major weakness as a teaching tool is its polemical style; more conservative students may be turned off by what almost sounds like a conspiratorial view of the privileged class.
The basic premise of POCLAD is that corporate power has made our society undemocratic, and that citizens can and should challenge it, including the very legal existence of corporations. At their web site abundant materials are available on the legal history of corporations; examples of corporate abuses; how corporations profit from war; and case studies of successful community organizing against corporations. The book Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy: A Book of History and Strategy (New York: POCLAD and the Apex Press, 2001), edited by Dean Ritz, is a compendium of over 70 articles by POCLAD activists. The pieces review the history of corporations; legal issues surrounding corporate behavior; case studies of corporate abuse; examples of citizen efforts to regulate corporations and revoke corporate charters. The pieces are full of audaciously optimistic, forward-thinking ideas and examples.
A six-page commentary that frames the basic questions in the discussion distributive justice: What is the prize? How big are the prizes? And who gets them? The article is succinct and clear.
Shapiro interviewed almost 200 white, black, and Hispanic families with similar incomes, but differences in wealth, to show how it is that racial advantages are transferred from one generation to the next. White families have, on average, ten times more wealth than black families do, and Shapiro shows how this affects their advantages and opportunities. Shapiro’s stories of these families are supported by national survey data. He focuses on the power of “transformative assets”—gifts from families that help their children move beyond their achievement levels, most significantly by enabling them to buy houses in wealthier neighborhoods, with superior schools. He discusses the advantages of home ownership and the post-World War II government policies that spurred a housing boom but excluded blacks. His candid discussion of residential segregation is especially noteworthy; he does not shy away from noting how often white families deliberately avoid black and working-class neighborhoods, and the consequences for public schooling. Shapiro calls for “asset-based policies” that facilitate the accumulation of wealth for families, such as Down Payment Accounts that would allow renters to deduct a portion of their rent from their income taxes to put into a dedicated savings account to be used for a down payment on a house. Shapiro frames his argument in terms of justice and the benefits that accrue all when social problems are addressed.
In my view, this is better than Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed for teaching about the lives of poor people in the United States. Shipler spent a number of years interviewing and following poor individuals and families, whose stories he tells in detail. His premise is that poverty is nearly always caused by some combination of social structural factors (low wages, inadequate schools, a lack of affordable housing) and individual factors (drug abuse, child abuse, low self-esteem, fatalist attitudes, and in one case, no teeth). Shipler shows these people as they really are, whether writing about their courage, persistence, self-doubt, or choices that are not easy to defend, such as spending precious money on junk food. His subjects are from various racial-ethnic backgrounds, and some are immigrants. Some are helped by social services, job training programs, and social support networks; some not. The gripping narrative of these people’s lives is complemented by Shipler’s use of statistics and his descriptions of policies and programs that are designed to help the poor, but often don’t. There are some stories of successful programs that provide job training or comprehensive treatment of at-risk children. Ultimately, the author shows that poverty is multi-determined and so needs multiple solutions. He discusses the difference between society having the skill and society having the will to solve the problem of the working poor.
This is an incredibly inspiring film. It follows the unemployed workers at an idle auto parts plant in Buenos Aires as they take over the plant, restart production, and begin the legal proceedings to make it their own. The film situates this effort as part of a larger movement of takeovers that is widely supported by Argentinean citizens and opposed by politicians, judges, and of course business owners. Background articles about the film are available at the web site (http://www.thetake.org/).
Too Much publishes a newsletter on “excess and inequality,” and its web site has some good data, such as on CEO pay, and descriptions of the lifestyles of the extremely rich.
Its goal is to “raise awareness that concentrated wealth and power undermine the economy, corrupt democracy, deepen the racial divide, and tear communities apart” and to “support and help build social movements for greater equality.” From its Economics Education section, readers can download workshop kits on the racial wealth divide, tax fairness, the war and the economy, globalization, fair wages, and more. Its Research Library contains charts, brief summaries, and links to other organizations’ extensive reports on CEO pay, income inequality, low-wage work, the racial wealth divide, social security, unions, poverty, and the wealth gap. Its Racial Wealth Divide Project provides information on the causes and consequences of the inequality in wealth between whites and people of color. The Responsible Wealth Project brings together affluent Americans to educate and lobby for fairer economic policies. United for a Fair Economy ran a widespread campaign against abolition of the estate tax, and provided information about the tax and its effects.
See these helpful online postings from the United States Census Bureau on poverty and income limitations.
o Bruce Webster, Jr., and Alemayehu Bishaw. “Income, Earnings, and Poverty from the 2005 American Community Survey.” Aug. 2006. This is research conducted in years when decennial census is not, to provide updated information.
o “Change in Income Inequality for Families, 1947-1998.” 13 May 2004 (Figure).
o DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Cheryl Hill Lee. “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2004.” Aug. 2005.
o DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Cheryl Hill Lee. “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2005.” Aug. 2006.
o DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Robert W. Cleveland, and Bruce H. Webster, Jr. “Income in the United States: 2002.” Sept. 2003. Article compares income by race and Hispanic origin, household composition, nativity, and the like.
o Fronczek, Peter and Patricia Johnson. “Occupations: 2000.” Aug. 2003 (14 pages). Looks at occupations by sex, race/ethnicity, and region, including differences in earnings by sex within occupations.
o “Income Limits for Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent of Households, All Races: 1967 to 2003.” [Table.] 27 Aug. 2004.
o “Poverty.” 29 Aug. 2006. <http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/poverty.html> This U.S. Census Bureau site gives recent information on: Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States,” “Detailed Poverty Tables,” “Historical Tables (poverty over time),” “Income, Earnings, and Poverty from the American Community Surveys,” and “Areas with Concentrated Poverty.”
o Proctor, Bernadette D. and Joseph Dalaker. “Poverty in the United States: 2002.” Sept. 2003. 40 pages. The report discusses alternative ways to measure income and features detailed tables showing the characteristics of people living in poverty, including historical tables.
This group was formed in the 1990s in the midst of student campaigns to press their campuses to purchase sweatshop-free apparel, but has since become the major student organization working generally or economic justice on U.S. campuses. Its current projects are the Sweat-Free Campus Campaign, the Ethical Contracting Campaign, and the Campus Living Wage Campaign. The web site has excellent and extensive resources, including information about sweatshops, about past and current USAS campaigns from numerous campus chapters, and a host of organizing materials and toolkits.
The institute describes itself as “a nonpartisan economic and social policy research organization.” Its web site is rich in data and analysis on crime and justice, the economy and taxes, education, health and healthcare, housing, welfare, and work and income. There are numerous reports available that evaluate policies and programs. Its Press Room pages features Data at a Glance on immigrants, low-income working families, the impact of Hurricane Katrina, and more. >Policy Briefs from the group’s National Survey of American Families are 6-8 page briefs that use quantitative data to describe the well-being of low-income children and adults, such as children’s participation in government-funded nutritional programs. Some especially useful documents are:
Acs, Gregory and Pamela Lopreet. “Who Are Low-Income Working Families?” 2005. The research provides useful information about the work hours, receipt of government aid, family size and structure, etc., of such families.
McMurrer, Daniel P., Mark Condon, and Isabel V. Sawhill. “Intergenerational Mobility in the United States.” 1997. The article is a clearly written summary of various studies on intergenerational mobility, including current trends and comparisons with other countries.
“Wealth in America.” The American Prospect Online. [Special Report.] 18 Apr. 2003. <http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=Wealth_in_America>.
This issue has seven articles by prominent authors, written in an engaging, accessible style, each accompanied by links to additional readings and resources. Contains articles on savings incentives for the poor, the estate tax, wealth and political power, the unequal distribution of stock ownership, pensions and social security, the pros and cons of micro loans, and the effect of debt on young people.
With sophisticated ideas but clear language, Wright describes five normative reasons for reducing inequality, then proposes three different ways that government could redistribute economic resources: stakeholder capitalism (giving citizens a lump sum of $80,000 upon reaching the age of 18); a universal basic income; and market socialism (an alternative to state socialism in which citizens are given coupons to purchase stock, and no intergenerational transfers of wealth are allowed).
In his simple yet elegant prose, Zinn uses historical facts to refute the various ideas that support the American class system, namely that the rich have succeeded through individual effort while only the poor rely on government aid. When viewed historically the accumulation of great wealth often depended on government giveaways, such as land given to railroad companies. Zinn also dispels the notion that wealth is distributed based on talent; many talented people, he notes, are underpaid. He challenges the idea that redistributing wealth is unfair and argues for providing for everyone’s basic needs, pointing out that the way people acquire wealth can be unfair as well, even if it is legal. He rejects the claim that making money motivates people and businesses to produce more; it just as likely motivates them to pollute lakes. Besides, people are motivated by many other things. A newer book of his essays, Passionate Declarations: Essays on War and Justice, contains an essay by the same name.
Zweig’s unique contribution is to analyze class as power relations, in the Marxist tradition. The book is written for a non-academic audience, and as such is accessible to undergraduates. Using facts as well as personal interviews, he describes social classes in contemporary US society, based not simply on income or lifestyle, but ownership of productive assets and independence and authority in the workplace. Moreover he looks at how our view of class is obscured by our perception of educational opportunities, consumerism, ideology, and scapegoating of the poor. A chapter on values makes the case for basing our economic system not only on self-interest but also on the needs of the community, and argues that unfettered capitalism conflicts with these values. He then looks at how the working class is affected by globalization and by the political clout of corporations. Throughout, Zweig offers a number of solutions: the working class must unite and recognize its common interests to counterbalance corporate America by unionizing more workers, creating a new political party, enforcing international labor standards, and the like.
Last Updated: April 2007