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Top Social Policy Books 2018

The vast majority of last year’s popular writing in social policy falls into two categories: “What is wrong with America?” or “What is wrong with Trump?” The best of this genre for observers of social policy was Steven Brill’s Tailspin, a wide-ranging critique and analysis of recent misguided political and policy history. Brill believes that many of America’s ideals – a meritocracy, freedom of speech – have turned back on themselves as financialization, short-termism, cronyism, and our deep polarization have created a profound downward spiral with deep implications for lower and middle class citizens.

While this kind of commentary was sucking up much of the political and policy oxygen – American book buyers seem to have endless appetite for books on the Trump administration – several important alternatives appeared in the 2018 literature. They consist of narrative accounts of the ingredients of successful local communities and institutions, the changing nature of work and its implication for jobs, and the plight of the most vulnerable, including those in the criminal justice system. Most importantly, despite the headwinds of Washington we have scholars developing new policy agendas for social policy.

Local Communities and Social Infrastructure

Maybe there is a danger at the moment of romanticizing local communities as the solution to all social problems. Many books and essays are arguing the virtues of small- town-America innovations, invoking the virtues of volunteerism, innovation, and civic life.

For example, my friend Michael Koetting has criticized David Brook’s over-the-top embrace of “constitutional localism” as a substitute for strong federal responsibility. He thinks this is both naïve and a potential excuse for not facing up to the important project of fixing our national government.

Nonetheless, there is clearly a yearning for local and regional solutions in this current period, and it is reflected in an active literature this year about local communities and the importance of indigenous, bottom-up initiatives.

James and Deborah Fallows’ Our Towns recounts their five-year, 100,000 mile airplane visits to a diverse set of cities and towns all across the country. In this beautifully written book, the Fallows make trenchant observations about the qualities of leadership and civic engagement that define more successful communities. While there is much optimism about what is happening on the ground, the overall policy lesson here is more complicated. Most disturbing in the end though is their discussion of the lack of big national policy, which historically created much of the landscape and quality of life that they are celebrating in their case studies. Small community initiatives – innovation, entrepreneurship, etc. – are nice and necessary, but certainly not sufficient for the challenges of so many midland communities.

Eric Klinenberg argues in Palaces for the People that a long neglected aspect of successful communities, social infrastructure, is critical to the success of places and deserves to be a policy priority in its own right. The paradigmatic examples of social infrastructure are local libraries, still melting pots of classes and identities, providing all kinds of important functions of education and engagement necessary for the success of modern democracy. Other important institutions in this mix include universities, museums, parks, and organizations and places that are open to all, improve the sense and functioning of place, and create collective civic life. One wishes that Klinenberg had stretched further to articulate a strategy for how social infrastructure can be produced, maintained, and reinforced as a matter of public policy.

Vulnerable Groups and How We Treat Them

American Prison pulls off a double dip, simultaneously providing a visceral and gut-wrenching account of daily life inside a prison, and at the same time analyzing the history, incentives, and behavior of for-profit-corporate control of the prison. The case study is the Winn Correctional Center in rural Louisiana, a facility run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA – now CoreCivic). Bauer gets himself hired as a guard in the prison, giving him a front-row seat to observe and write about the relentless push by CCA to manage costs and produce profit, often at the expense of the inmates’ wellbeing and rights. The larger point of the book is how powerful incentives and the profit motive can produce dysfunctional results, especially in the absence of meaningful oversight and accountability.

As the opioid epidemic and deaths of despair have rightly garnered more and more attention, so a number of detailed analyses have appeared to document how we got here and what we might do about itDopesick, Pain Killer, and American Overdose are the best of the lot, with each of them providing different emphases on the history of the epidemic, the accounting of its consequences, and the roles of Purdue Pharmaceutical and Big Pharma. Dopesick is especially poignant and searing in its retracing of the epidemic, working through the narratives of particular families and individual counties.

Jobs and the Changing Economy

2018 saw a mass realization that automation and the changing of the economy are permanently altering the labor force, especially the prospects for low skilled workers. While globalization and trade dominated the political rhetoric, economists and other social scientists brought bright focus to the effects of artificial intelligence, automation, and robotics on jobs and the demand for labor. The images that captured public attention were driverless cars and trucks, and the disruptive prospect of the trucking industry eliminating as many as two million jobs, most of them held by men. Of the many books in this genre – Gigged, Temp, The Job, Uberland, etc. – The Future of Work by Daniel West is the most balanced, comprehensive, and policy-oriented. Even here though, the policy recommendations are underwhelming, dealing mostly with symptoms and remediation rather than providing a compelling agenda for preparing cohorts of workers for the dramatic transformation underway. This broader 2018 literature on technology, changing jobs, and the workforce is truly challenging, raising profound questions about our prospects for employing vast segments of the population.

What to do about it? A Policy Agenda

The 2018 bookshelf is full of analyses of the opioid, prison, workforce, housing, poverty, and other social policy crises of our time. However, perhaps because of the larger malaise and pessimism about prospects for policymaking in Washington, there is relatively little new work proposing original social policy ideas, reforms, and strategies. A notable exception is Isabel Sawhill’s Forgotten Americans. Sawhill is focused on getting relatively low-income working Americans what she calls a “hand-up,” not a hand-out. She grounds her proposals in the American values of education, work, and family. Practically, her agenda includes a modern version of a GI bill; minimum wage, training, job creation, and enhanced EITC reforms; and changes in social insurance.


Shane Bauer, American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment (Penguin Press, 2018).

Steven Brill, Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–and Those Fighting to Reverse It (New York: Knopf, 2018).

Debra and James Fallows, Our Town:  A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America (New York: Pantheon Books, 2018).

Louis Hyman, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary (New York: Penguin, 2018).

Sarah Kessl, The End of the Job and the Future of Work (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018).

Eric Klinenberg, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018).

Beth Macy, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America (New York: Little, Brown, 2018).

Chris, McGreal, American Overdose: The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts (New York, Hachette Book Group, 2018).

Barry Meier, Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origins of America’s Opioid Epidemic (New York, Random House, 2018).

Isabel Sawhill, The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

Ellen Ruppel Shell, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change  (New York: Currency, 2018).

Darrell West, The Future of Work: Robots, AI, and Automation (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2018).

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Joe Steensma #

    I look forward to reading as many of these as possible. That said, your synopses are tantalizing!


    February 5, 2019
  2. Enormously tantalizing. If only there were time in the day. Mike Koetting


    February 6, 2019

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