The most recommended social policy books

Who picked these books? Meet our 18 experts.

18 authors created a book list connected to social policy, and here are their favorite social policy books.
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Book cover of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

Sam Pizzigati Author Of The Case for a Maximum Wage

From my list on why we need a world without billionaires.

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in the 1950s next door to Long Island’s iconic Levittown. All my aunts and uncles lived in similar modest suburbs, and I assumed everyone else did, too. Maybe that explains why America’s sharp economic U-turn in the 1970s so rubbed me the wrong way. We had become, in the mid-20th century, the first major nation where most people—after paying their monthly bills—had money left over. Today we rate as the world’s most unequal major nation. Our richest 0.1 percent hold as much wealth as our bottom 90 percent. I’ve been working with the Institute for Public Studies, as co-editor of, to change all that.

Sam's book list on why we need a world without billionaires

Sam Pizzigati Why did Sam love this book?

The British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have an American doctor friend who has a fascinating exercise for his first-year medical school students.

This doctor asks his students to write a speech detailing why the USA has the world’s best health. The students eagerly set about collecting all the relevant data and quickly find themselves absolutely shocked. Among major developed nations, the USA turns out to have the worst health.

Americans also turn out to be up to ten times more likely than people in other developed nations to get murdered or become drug addicts. What’s going on here? Inequality!

The more wealth concentrates at a society’s summit, Wilkinson and Pickett vividly show in this 2009 classic, the worse that society performs on the yardsticks that define basic health and decency. 

By Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Spirit Level as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Groundbreaking analysis showing that greater economic equality-not greater wealth-is the mark of the most successful societies, and offering new ways to achieve it.

"Get your hands on this book."-Bill Moyers

This groundbreaking book, based on thirty years' research, demonstrates that more unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them-the well-off and the poor. The remarkable data the book lays out and the measures it uses are like a spirit level which we can hold up to compare different societies. The differences revealed, even between rich market democracies, are striking. Almost every modern social and environmental problem-ill health, lack of…

Book cover of The Last Liberal Republican: An Insider's Perspective on Nixon's Surprising Social Policy

Geoff Shepard Author Of The Nixon Conspiracy: Watergate and the Plot to Remove the President

From my list on recent books about Richard Nixon.

Why am I passionate about this?

I joined the Nixon administration as a White House Fellow upon Harvard Law School graduation in 1969, so I wasn’t part of Nixon’s 1968 campaign. I served for five years, rising to associate director of the Domestic Council and ending as deputy counsel on Nixon’s Watergate defense team. Given my personal involvement at the time, coupled with extensive research over the past fifteen years, I’m among the foremost authorities on the Watergate scandal, but essentially unknowledgeable about people and events preceding the Nixon presidency. My five recommended books have nicely fill that gap – principally by friends and former colleagues who were actually “in the arena” during those heady times. 

Geoff's book list on recent books about Richard Nixon

Geoff Shepard Why did Geoff love this book?

John Price is a liberal Republican, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, but choosing to self-identify today as a moderate. This book details his political coming to age, including being co-founder of the Ripon Society. Following Nixon’s 1968 election, Price joined his White House staff as one of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s deputies, serving as director of the Urban Affairs Council. Nixon attended twenty-one of its twenty-three Cabinet Room meetings. Nixon was adamantly anti-Communist, but what John shows is that, far from being a die-hard conservative, his approach to governing was that of a pragmatist, asking how best can the government help to address this issue? John and I served on the same Domestic Council but were assigned different public policy responsibilities. I’m impressed by his personal story – and by his political insights.

By John Roy Price,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Last Liberal Republican as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Last Liberal Republican is a memoir from one of Nixon's senior domestic policy advisors. John Roy Price-a member of the moderate wing of the Republican Party, a cofounder of the Ripon Society, and an employee on Nelson Rockefeller's campaigns-joined Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and later John D. Ehrlichman, in the Nixon White House to develop domestic policies, especially on welfare, hunger, and health. Based on those policies, and the internal White House struggles around them, Price places Nixon firmly in the liberal Republican tradition of President Theodore Roosevelt, New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, and President Eisenhower.

Price makes a…

Book cover of Trapped in America's Safety Net: One Family's Struggle

Dorothy J. Solinger Author Of Poverty and Pacification: The Chinese State Abandons the Old Working Class

From my list on poverty and social welfare in the US and China.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been studying China for almost 60 years and have visited the country 40 times. Around 1990 I became aware of the sad situation of migrants from the countryside trying to move to cities to earn a better living. There they are met with low wages, poor living conditions, and discrimination. I spent 6 or 7 years interviewing them and writing about them and the book I wrote won a prize for the best book on 20th century China published in 1999. Then I learned about the workers who were laid off as China modernized, and went to talk with them. The present book is full of empathy and concern for these people.

Dorothy's book list on poverty and social welfare in the US and China

Dorothy J. Solinger Why did Dorothy love this book?

I was terribly upset about this tale of a young, newly married couple in the US, the brother and sister-in-law of the author, of which the wife was paralyzed in a tragic car accident.

The horrible deficiencies of the welfare allotted to this family is very very pitiful—they have to get rid of all their possessions and earn very very little money to qualify for what is a barely liveable official hand-out. It is unthinkable to try to imagine how their small child will grow up. Of course you get to know these people and the author.

By Andrea Louise Campbell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Trapped in America's Safety Net as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Andrea Louise Campbell's sister-in-law, Marcella Wagner, was run off the freeway by a hit-and-run driver, she was left paralyzed from the chest down. Like so many Americans-50 million, or one sixth of the country's population-neither Marcella nor her husband, Dave, had health insurance. On the day of the accident, she was on her way to class for the nursing program through which she hoped to secure one of the few remaining jobs in the area with the promise of employer-provided insurance. Instead, the accident plunged the young family into the tangled web of means-tested social assistance. As a social…

Book cover of Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations

Jim Carrier Author Of A Traveler’s Guide to the Civil Rights Movement

From my list on understanding the South’s Civil Rights Movement.

Why am I passionate about this?

As a journalist who learned his craft on the job in the tumultuous 1960s, I happened to find myself living in states where racial history was being written. Reporting that story required me to understand why discrimination, poverty, and violence remained so deeply rooted in modern America. I wrote Ten Ways to Fight Hate, I made a movie about civil rights martyrs, and, after seeing people from around the world making a pilgrimage to the sites of the civil rights struggle, published my guidebook. Over the course of a 50-year career, I have written a million words. I am proudest of those that tried to right wrongs, and sometimes did.

Jim's book list on understanding the South’s Civil Rights Movement

Jim Carrier Why did Jim love this book?

Often forgotten in the study of the U.S. civil rights movement is the even longer, and less successful, effort by Native Americans to regain the sovereignty that they once enjoyed in North America. In 1976 when I was transferred by the Associated Press from Connecticut to South Dakota as a correspondent, I found the state bleeding from its history. The year before, two FBI agents had been murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation, remnant violence of the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. Drive-by shootings were common, discrimination and poverty were rampant, and I felt as if I had walked into an earlier century.

As I came to learn, from this book and its author, Indian tribes were beginning to challenge America’s betrayal of treaties signed in the 1800s – and winning back rights guaranteed in writing. Wilkinson, a friend, attorney, and emeritus history professor at the University of Colorado, helped…

By Charles F. Wilkinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Blood Struggle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For generations, Indian people suffered a grinding poverty and political and cultural suppression on the reservations. But tenacious and visionary tribal leaders refused to give in. They knew their rights and insisted that the treaties be honored. Against all odds, beginning shortly after World War II, they began to succeed. Blood Struggle explores how Indian tribes took their hard-earned sovereignty and put it to work for Indian peoples and the perpetuation of Indian culture. This is the story of wrongs righted and noble ideals upheld: the modern tribal sovereignty movement deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as…

Book cover of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society

Timothy N. Thurber Author Of Republicans and Race: The GOP's Frayed Relationship with African Americans, 1945-1974

From my list on Republicans and Democrats in the 1960s.

Why am I passionate about this?

I developed a strong interest in current events, especially politics, in high school. What the government does, or does not do, struck me as a vital piece of the puzzle in trying to explain why things are the way they are. That soon led, however, to seeing how the past continues to influence the present. No decade is more important than the 1960s for understanding our current political climate.

Timothy's book list on Republicans and Democrats in the 1960s

Timothy N. Thurber Why did Timothy love this book?

Presidents matter, but they do not have magical powers.

Zelizer persuasively recounts how the Great Society reforms of the 1960s would not have been passed without the work of legislators whose names are largely forgotten today. Democrats achieved many of their goals, but Zelizer also surveys how they faced stern resistance from Republicans on Capitol Hill. A window of opportunity to transform the nation opened in the mid-1960s, and then soon closed.

By Julian E Zelizer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Fierce Urgency of Now as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A majestic big-picture account of the Great Society and the forces that shaped it, from Lyndon Johnson and members of Congress to the civil rights movement and the media

Between November 1963, when he became president, and November 1966, when his party was routed in the midterm elections, Lyndon Johnson spearheaded the most transformative agenda in American political history since the New Deal, one whose ambition and achievement have had no parallel since. In just three years, Johnson drove the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts; the War on Poverty program; Medicare and Medicaid; the National Endowments…

Book cover of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics

Marc Dollinger Author Of Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s

From my list on social justice.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve devoted my academic career and personal life to the limits and possibilities of white liberal approaches to civil rights reform. Trained in U.S. history and published in American Jewish history, I look closely at how ethnic groups and religious minorities interact with their racial and gender status to create a sometimes-surprising perspective on both history and our current day. At times powerful and at other times powerless, Jews (and other white ethnics) navigate a complex course in civil rights advocacy.

Marc's book list on social justice

Marc Dollinger Why did Marc love this book?

Another classic, Lipsitz’s book turns so many white-centered social justice assumptions on their heads. In chapters that explore incidents well known in American popular culture, and a 20th-anniversary edition that brings his subject to the current day, Lipsitz offers a much-needed correction to well-meaning social justice advocates.

By George Lipsitz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Possessive Investment in Whiteness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

George Lipsitz's classic book The Possessive Investment in Whiteness argues that public policy and private prejudice work together to create a possessive investment in whiteness that is responsible for the racialized hierarchies of our society. Whiteness has a cash value: it accounts for advantages that come to individuals through profits made from housing secured in discriminatory markets, through the unequal educational opportunities available to children of different races, through insider networks that channel employment opportunities to the friends and relatives of those who have profited most from past and present discrimination, and especially through intergenerational transfers of inherited wealth that…

Book cover of The Trickle-Up Economy: How We Take from the Poor and Middle Class and Give to the Rich

Blaine Stewart Author Of Hourglass Socioeconomics: Vol. 1, Principles & Fundamentals

From my list on reads that are almost economics.

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm addicted to discovering what lies within the unknown. The biggest mystery, I believe, that baffles us today is not necessarily what lies at the edge of the universe but what lives within this one here. I enjoy attempting to solve large problems and if I can’t compute a result at least understand what the problem suggests. In the realm of the unknown, I'm an expert of nothing. In hours of research and reading and writing, one comes to a point in their process of learning with the realization that it does not matter how much one learns, there will always be that much more, logarithmically multiplied exponentially by the rate of acceleration, to learn.

Blaine's book list on reads that are almost economics

Blaine Stewart Why did Blaine love this book?

Since the days of Ronald Regan, trickle-down economic theory has been a pipe dream of the uneducated and I don’t even have a degree. Mark Mattern does a great job inverting the theory of trickle-down in explaining that indeed wealth piles from the bottom up not drip down from the top. I recommend reading this book before you read mine for the simple fact that instead of inverted trickle-down theory, I describe how water moves like a stream through an ecosystem. If it is not properly pitched from the mountaintop to the valley, with proper displacement of creatures below, and flow rate through the foothills, we are inevitably left dependent on drinking from a wasteland.

By Mark Mattern,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Trickle-Up Economy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the most durable myths of US political economy is that we take from the rich and give to the poor - penalising the rich for their hard work and rewarding the undeserving. Mark Mattern turns that story on its head. Documenting the everyday, institutionalised ways that income and wealth are transferred upward in the United States, Mattern shows how in fact the bottom subsidises the top.

His provocative analysis, describing in detail the processes and policy choices that systematically favour the rich, is both a tale of "Robin Hood in reverse" and a call for a more equitable,…

Book cover of The War Years and After

David Emblidge Author Of My Day: The Best Of Eleanor Roosevelt's Acclaimed Newspaper Columns, 1936-1962

From my list on Eleanor Roosevelt, her times, and her column “My Day”.

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a cultural historian (degrees in English and American Studies). I taught at the university level for 25 years (Emerson College, principally) and worked 20+ years as an acquisitions editor, in book publishing, at Harvard, at Cambridge University Press, and for a small company I founded, Berkshire House. I was politically sympathetic to Mrs. Roosevelt’s POV before the “My Day” book project came to me, but, coincidentally, her long run as a syndicated columnist interested me also because my first job, fresh out of college, was as a cub reporter for Associated Press. I learned, in a hurry, how to deliver a story on deadline, with all the facts double checked.

David's book list on Eleanor Roosevelt, her times, and her column “My Day”

David Emblidge Why did David love this book?

There are several biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt, but few match this 3-vol. effort for its comprehensiveness and its sensitivity to the inner life of Eleanor (who led an exceedingly public life). All of Mrs. Roosevelt’s accomplishments are covered—with excellent contextand the bonus here is coverage of her private struggles as a shy, “orphaned” child, then as a beloved wife (to a disloyal husband), her failures as a mother, and her apparently quasi-lesbian attraction to another woman, as well as an unusual attachment to her doctor. Not a simple story!

By Blanche Wiesen Cook,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The War Years and After as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the New York Times's 100 Notable Books of 2016
One of NPR's 10 Best Books of 2016

"Heartachingly relevant...the Eleanor Roosevelt who inhabits these meticulously crafted pages transcends both first-lady history and the marriage around which Roosevelt scholarship has traditionally pivoted." -- The Wall Street Journal

The final volume in the definitive biography of America's greatest first lady.

"Monumental and inspirational...Cook skillfully narrates the epic history of the war years... [a] grand biography." -- The New York Times Book Review

Historians, politicians, critics, and readers everywhere have praised Blanche Wiesen Cook's biography of Eleanor Roosevelt as the essential…

Book cover of Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement

Ángela Vergara Author Of Fighting Unemployment in Twentieth-Century Chile

From my list on the history of the welfare state.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian of Latin America and a professor at California State University, Los Angeles. I write about Chile’s labor and social history in the twentieth century. As a historian, I am especially interested in understanding how working people relate with public institutions and authorities, what they expect from the state, and how they have organized and expanded social and economic rights. While my research centers in Chile and Latin America, I also look to place regional debates in a transnational framework and see how ideas and people have moved across borders. I like books that bring working people’s diverse voices and experiences. 

Ángela's book list on the history of the welfare state

Ángela Vergara Why did Ángela love this book?

It is difficult to find an accessible and comprehensible history of the welfare state in the United States. But this book does exactly that. Premilla Nadasen writes an engaging overview of the welfare rights movement and the role played by radical Black feminist organizations. By analyzing the primary campaigns of the movement for welfare reform throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the reader gets a complete picture of the main actors involved and their political demands.

By Premilla Nadasen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The welfare rights movement was an interracial protest movement of poor women on AFDC who demanded reform of welfare policy, greater respect and dignity, and financial support to properly raise and care for their children. In short, they pushed for a right to welfare. Lasting from the early 1960s to the mid 1970s, the welfare rights movement crossed political boundaries, fighting simultaneously for women's rights, economic justice, and black women's empowerment through welfare assistance. Its members challenged stereotypes, engaged in Congressional debates, and developed a sophisticated political analysis that combined race, class, gender, and culture, and crafted a distinctive, feminist,…

Book cover of The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

Marian Lindberg Author Of Scandal on Plum Island: A Commander Becomes the Accused

From my list on power, gender politics, and stereotypes in America.

Why am I passionate about this?

Based on my experiences as a single parent and worker in traditionally male fields (journalism and law, back when newsrooms and law firms resembled men's clubs), I believe that each person contains both “feminine” and “masculine” behaviors and feelings. Yet socially constructed gender norms discourage people from exhibiting this full range of being. Ben Koehler’s troubling and tragic story presented a way to explore the origins of 20th-century American gender norms while trying to solve the mystery of Ben’s guilt or innocence. A bonus was the opportunity to write about Plum Island, an environmental treasure with a fascinating history that many people, including myself, are seeking to preserve and open to the public.

Marian's book list on power, gender politics, and stereotypes in America

Marian Lindberg Why did Marian love this book?

Men, did you know that too little body hair or too much talkativeness could keep you from being admitted to the United States in the early 1900s? The Straight State will have readers shaking their heads at the outrageous presumptions that immigration inspectors applied to keep “degenerates” out of the country. This was the first time that federal officials had both the interest and power to create policies against homosexuality, and they were crassly influenced by the eugenics movement and hostility to the poor. Canaday also shows how early welfare policies perpetuated gender stereotypes and discrimination against sexual “deviants,” favoring the married over the single. I learned so much! 

By Margot Canaday,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Straight State as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Straight State is the most expansive study of the federal regulation of homosexuality yet written. Unearthing startling new evidence from the National Archives, Margot Canaday shows how the state systematically came to penalize homosexuality, giving rise to a regime of second-class citizenship that sexual minorities still live under today. Canaday looks at three key arenas of government control--immigration, the military, and welfare--and demonstrates how federal enforcement of sexual norms emerged with the rise of the modern bureaucratic state. She begins at the turn of the twentieth century when the state first stumbled upon evidence of sex and gender nonconformity,…