The Myth of the American Dream | Collection Development: Income Inequality

Income inequality continues to be a global problem, but perhaps nowhere is it more glaringly obvious than in the United States. These 33 resources offer background, in-depth analyses, and calls to action for closing the gap.

Income inequality continues to be a global problem, but perhaps nowhere is it more glaringly obvious than in the United States, which has the most unequal concentrations of wealth of any developed nation and is home to some of the world’s richest people. The financial crisis of 2008 highlighted the fragility of the current economic system as people lost their homes and their savings. In its wake, job growth in the United States has primarily been in the low-wage and temporary sectors, keeping average workers in a cycle of living paycheck to paycheck, their upward ­mobility threatened by everyday life events such as childbirth, divorce, or illness.

Some industries have not recovered, and many individuals have given up on finding full-time employment. Meanwhile, children who are born into poverty are more likely to die in poverty. Owing to the circumstances of their birth, they don’t have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Those with the desire to advance economically often don’t have the capital required to do so, or they’re obliged to work to help support their families. A holding pattern becomes a new reality, as evidenced by some of the books listed here.

To many, the acceptance of this status quo has become unbearable, which the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in September 2011 demonstrated on a national scale. When just eight of the wealthiest people earn what the poorest 50 percent do, shedding light on this issue becomes a necessary step in the elimination of this injustice. Yet, the vast chasm between the haves and have-nots continues to grow. The American Dream is not alive and well, if it ever existed at all. Economists have long predicted society would reach this point of gross inequality and have pointed out the perils of concentrated wealth accumulation. This situation will gain momentum as the disparity widens.


There are many facets of this growing divide that present collection development opportunities. Future impacts will continue to be determined by those in elected office; librarians should stay informed about political, sociological, and economic titles relating to inequality. Globalization also plays a role, and it may be worthwhile to expand collections to include an international focus. The gender pay gap is an aspect of inequality that has attracted international interest across a variety of industries, with recent revelations at the BBC and in Holly­wood. Income inequality doesn’t confine itself to urban, suburban, or rural areas; differing perspectives based on the library’s geographical location should also be considered.

Still, there are challenges to maintaining collections. It can be difficult to locate books told from the perspective of those on the very bottom or the very top of the ladder and also to find reliable data on these two segments of the population. Works dedicated to African American women, and the economic challenges they face, are few and far between. It is worth making an effort to find titles from independent, trade, and academic publishers that spotlight a variety of voices. The following resources offer historical background, in-depth analyses, and calls to action.

Starred (redstar) titles are essential purchases for most ­collections.

Venessa Hughes has worked in academic, public, and private libraries and is currently a fact checker at a women’s nonprofit. She has been reviewing books for LJ since 2015

Firsthand Accounts

Bruder, Jessica. Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Norton. 2017. 320p. photos. notes. ISBN 9780393249316. $26.95; pap. ISBN 9780393356311. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393249323.

In this debut, journalist Bruder travels with an emerging segment of the U.S. migrant labor force: retirees, or ­workampers, who follow seasonal work across the country and live in their vehicles—RVs or small cars—to save on rent. (LJ 7/17; LJ Top Ten Best Book 2017)

redstarDesmond, Matthew. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Crown. 2016. 432p. notes. index. ISBN 9780553447439. $28; pap. ISBN 9780553447453. $17; ebk. ISBN 9780553447446.

With keen insight and compassion, sociologist Desmond reveals the devastation wrought by eviction on individuals, families, and society at large. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. (LJ 1/16; LJ Top Ten Best Book 2016)

redstarEhrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. Picador. 2011. 256p. ISBN 9780312626686. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781429926645.

In this classic exposé, journalist Ehrenreich examines the low-wage labor force in the United States. While working for minimum wage, she discovers that two or sometimes even three jobs aren’t enough to make a living.

redstarGreenfield, Lauren. Generation Wealth. Phaidon. 2017. 504p. illus. ISBN 9780714872124. $75.

Documentary photographer and filmmaker Greenfield’s career-spanning book of interviews reveals the relentless pursuit of wealth and the excesses of conspicuous consumption; with a foreword by economist Juliet Schor. (LJ 10/1/17)

Ray, Ranita. The Making of a Teenage Service Class: Poverty and Mobility in an American City. Univ. of California. 2017. 304p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780520292055. $85; pap. ISBN 9780520292062. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9780520965614.

Sociologist Ray spent three years documenting teenagers who are seeking to better their circumstances through low-paying service jobs—and describes the jobs’ false promises of upward mobility.

redstarSlipping Through the Cracks: The Status of Black Women. Taylor & Francis. 1986. 302p. ed. by Margaret C. Simms & Julianne Malveaux. ISBN 9780887386626. pap. $44.95; ebk. ISBN 9781351490771.

Black women remain low on the ladder of income equality according to recent U.S. Census data, yet the literature ­devoted to their struggles remains sparse; this classic work remains an important addition.

Tirado, Linda. Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. Berkley. 2015. 240p. ISBN 9780425277973. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780698175280.

In this scathing and heartbreaking memoir, Tirado disproves stereotypes of what it means to live in a downwardly mobile society, straddling the line between the middle and lower class. (LJ 10/1/14)

Historical Perspectives

Abramsky, Sasha. The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives. Nation. 2014. 368p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9781568584607. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781568589558.

Journalist Abramsky probes the cycle of poverty in this country and why we often have fragile safety nets, offering solutions on how to stem the tide of inequality.

redstarHarrington, Michael. The Other America. Scribner. 1997. 252p. ISBN 9780684826783. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781451688764.

First published in 1962 by sociologist ­Harrington, this book offers an in-depth look at poverty in urban, suburban, and rural areas of the United States. Harring­ton notes how the poor remain invisible; a classic work that is still relevant.

redstarShapiro, Thomas J. Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future. Basic: Perseus. 2017. 288p. notes. index. ISBN 9780465046935. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780465094875.

In this historical analysis complete with policy recommendations, sociologist ­Shapiro links racial and income inequality, especially as they affect home equity and workplace benefits. (LJ 2/15/14)

Sitaraman, Ganesh. The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic. Knopf. 2017. 432p. notes. index. ISBN 9780451493910. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780451493927.

Lawyer Sitaraman views economic inequality through the framework of the U.S. Constitution, arguing that government did not start out as unequal and, in fact, was designed to strengthen societal foundations. (LJ 3/15/17)

redstarStiglitz, Joseph E. The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them. Norton. 2015. 448p. bibliog. ISBN 9780393248579. $28.95; pap. ISBN 9780393352184. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393248586.

Nobel Prize–winning economist Stiglitz expands upon his earlier work, The Price of Inequality, to examine further the divide that separates the wealthiest from the poorest, using global policy examples to illustrate what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to change.

redstarTaibbi, Matt. The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Spiegel & Grau. 2014. 448p. ISBN 9780812993424. $27; pap. ISBN 9780812983630. $17; ebk. ISBN 9780679645467.

Journalist Taibbi writes a caustic account of how income inequality informs the criminal justice system, in which low-wage earners serve time for petty offenses, while crimes by the wealthy often go ­unpunished.

Business & Public Policy

Besen-Cassino, Yasemin. The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap. Temple Univ. 2017. 238p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781439913482. $94.50; pap. ISBN 9781439913499. $27.95.

Sociologist Besen-Cassino traces the origins of the gender pay gap through an examination of the teenage labor force, finding that early pay inequality sets the pattern for overall workforce inequality.

Foroohar, Rana. Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business. Crown. 2016. 400p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780553447231. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780553447248.

Economist Foroohar examines how the growth of the financial industry has not led to corresponding growth in individual finances, instead deepening economic ­inequality.

Hickel, Jason. The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets. Norton. Feb. 2018. 352p. ISBN 9780393651362. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393651379.

Anthropologist Hickel explores how imperialism caused global inequality, tracing its evolution and offering radical steps, e.g., an international minimum wage in order to enact change. (LJ 12/17)

Lindert, Peter H. & Jeffrey G. Williamson. Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1700. Princeton Univ. 2016. 424p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780691170497. $35; pap. ISBN 9780691178271. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9781400880348.

Economists Lindert and Williamson identify an increase in two significant factors leading to inequality in the United States—income disparity among the working poor and the number of years of education a person has attained—and the causes behind them. (LJ 4/15/16)

Payne, Keith. The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die. Viking. 2017. 256p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9780525429814. $28; pap. ISBN 9780143128908. $17; ebk. ISBN 9780698409378.

Touching upon implicit bias and the deepening political divide, this work by psychologist Payne uncovers the connections between income disparity and physical and emotional health while also taking race and discrimination into account. (LJ 3/15/17)

redstarPiketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard Univ. 2014. 704p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9780674430006. $39.95; pap. ISBN 9780674979857. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9780674982932.

This book by French economist Piketty is the result of a decade spent collecting income tax data in an attempt to expose the sharp rise in inequality that began in the 1970s and how the top one percent came to control the majority of the world’s wealth.

Reich, Robert B. Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. Knopf. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780385350570. $26.95; pap. ISBN 9780345806222. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780385350587.

In this spirited book that later became a 2017 Netflix documentary, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and economist Reich argues that the free market economy is a myth, owing to a failing democracy. (LJ 9/1/15)


redstarAmerican Experience: The Gilded Age. 2 hrs. Sarah Colt, dist. by PBS. DVD ISBN 9781531703950. $24.99.

In the late 19th century, the U.S. population doubled in the span of a single generation. The class divide both hardened and widened as America confronted the unequal distribution of capital and vast, conspicuous wealth.

redstarClass Divide. 84 min. 2016. DVD UPC 888574509439. $19.98.

redstarHard Times: Lost on Long Island. 54 min. 2013. DVD UPC 883316645932. $19.98.

redstarSchmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags. 72 min. 2011. DVD UPC 886470234974. $25.

ea. vol: Marc Levin & Daphne Pinkerson. HBO.

Schmatta examines the rise and fall of Manhattan’s Garment District. Hard Times follows the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on Long Island families. In Class Divide, when a private school moves across the street from a housing project, children start questioning class politics.


Belabored Podcast 

This podcast produced by Dissent magazine addresses current issues in the labor force and conducts interviews with workers of all types.

Economic Policy Institute (EPI)

The EPI is a nonpartisan think tank, co-founded by Robert Reich and other political economists, created as a voice for low- and middle-income workers. 

A project of the Institute for Policy Studies, this site offers research, commentary, and resource lists, among other tools.

Institute for Women’s Policy Research

This think tank seeks to advance the lives of and opportunities for women, with resources on the gender pay gap.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

The OECD is an intergovernmental organization that maintains data on worldwide income inequality statistics and includes reports on global inequality.

Sarah Jaffe 

Labor journalist Jaffe’s blog contains articles and podcasts on current issues facing the U.S. labor force.

Facts on international labor laws and ­statistics about the gender pay gap.

World Income Inequality Database 

The U.N. University World Institute for Development maintains WIID, a free data­base of research on income inequality in developing countries.

World Wealth and Income Database 

Tracks the evolution of income distribution worldwide; recent research includes The World Inequality Report 2018.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing