Recommendations 2/28/2021: Game Changing Books

The Sum of Us is a game changing book.

It is hard to describe how excited I was while reading Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Us and How We Prosper Together, the subject of this week’s column.

I have long believed that the richest country in the world has the aggregate resources necessary to create not just a thriving middle class, but a reasonable safety net for everyone as well, all without putting an unreasonable ceiling on the potential success for anyone. Instead, we have economic inequality which gets worse each year. In my view, a society cannot successfully sustain itself under these circumstances.

McGhee’s book not only uncovers the roots of these problems, but offers a diagnosis as well, all while trying to navigate through - without ignoring - some of our most fraught cultural baggage. I can’t recommend it enough.

My hope is that The Sum of Us is a game changing book, that how we see these seemingly intractable problems and solutions will be altered thanks to McGhee’s perspective.

A particularly exciting aspect of The Sum of Us is McGhee’s discussion of the high cost of college, a subject with which I’m quite familiar through the writing of my own book, Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Higher Education.

Purchase Sustainable. Resilient. Free.

Over the last 40 or so years we have evolved from a system where public post-secondary education was broadly affordable to one where anyone other than the wealthy will struggle to finance a college education. Many people who are past their college years or their children’s college years do not realize how dire this has become. Last week a series of Republican Senators spoke publicly about how an increase in the minimum wage wasn’t necessary because they’d been able to put themselves through college with a part time job.

Philip Bump of The Washington Post put together an interactive that compares the buying power of a minimum wage job in the year each Senator turned 18 with the present day and calculates how many hours of minimum wage work it would take to pay for a year’s tuition when the Senator was 18 versus how many hours it would take to pay for a year’s tuition today.

So, for Richard Shelby of Alabama, who turned 18 in 1964 when the minimum wage was $1.25 and tuition at a public university was $243 per year, 195 hours of work would’ve paid for school.

In 2017, the year Bump’s data was available, when the average tuition at a public university was $8,804, a job at the current minimum wage would require 1214 hours of minimum wage work for year of school. Richard Shelby could pay for a year’s tuition working a minimum wage gig for a little over a month. A student in 2017 needed 30 weeks of work for a year of school.

And that’s just cost of school, not living expenses. Writing at Vox, Anne Helen Petersen shows how student loan debt has put the future of any kind of middle class in doubt.

My argument in Sustainable. Resilient. Free. is that this system is incompatible with our American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I’ve had education majors who at age 20 recognize that they’re taking a kind of vow of poverty, that they will never own a house, may never pay off their debt, and will have their lives economically constrained all because they have a desire to teach. I had one young-woman in a class who was seriously dating another education major who said, with resignation, “ We know at most, we’ll be able to have one kid.”

The barriers to making our public colleges and universities tuition-free have nothing to do with lack of resources. It’s a matter of changing our systems and our attitudes. And as McGhee argues in The Sum of Us, such a change would be beneficial to everyone, not just those of us who are looking at the costs of college in their futures.

There’s so much awesome potential we’re not taking advantage of. I hope we can act before it’s too late.

What books have you read that you think are game changers, either for society as a whole, or maybe just for yourself? Share in the comments to pass the word on to others.

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I’m always looking for more lists of five recent reads.

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R.M. - Brooklyn, NY

Whenever I’ve recently read and enjoyed a book, I start looking for the right person to recommend it to because I’m eager to start passing the word. In this case that person is R.M. and the book is Vendela Vida’s We Run the Tides.

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Marge S. - Woodridge, IL

Shirley Jackson is most known for her terrifying fiction (like The Haunting of Hill House), but she is also the author of a very funny and winning “domestic memoir” about her family. I think Marge will enjoy Life Among the Savages.

1. The Spy and the Traitor by Ben MacIntyre
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Mary M. - Glenview, IL

I think of some books as “comfort reads,” where you’re going to get a good story with some real drama, but you also know things are ultimately going to be okay, that you can be reassured about the world. As I generally spend a lot of time thinking the world is not okay, these books can be a real balm. I’m recommending a favorite comfort read for Mary, Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal.

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