Reviewed: Poverty in America, A Handbook

In an attempt to break out of our culture's crack-addled attention span shortening (BTW, did you see that I'm on twitter now?), I've gone so far as to start reading books again. Remember books? Well, turns out that you can go on the internet and get them delivered to your house. Download speeds suck, but you can't beat the battery life.

Har de har har. Anyway, Every once in a while I pick up something debate-related, and so I thought I'd be useful and do a debate-centered review. First up is John Iceland's Poverty in America: A Handbook, chosen semi-randomly from an Amazon search for "Poverty in America". It was high in the rankings, reviewed generally well, and the Table of Contents suggested a focus on some topics of relevance to the upcoming season. Looked like it would make a good debate book.

Speaking of "good debate book", I should probably explain what I mean by that, IE how a book is "good for debaters." Really this is one of two things: a book can be a "good debate book" because it has a lot of good cards, or a because it makes you smarter, provides a deep, well explained introduction to important debate-related content. It is the rare book that succeeds at both (Nye in 03, for example), but succeeding at one or the other is still laudable.

Unfortunately, Handbook doesn't really succeed at either goal, failing at both for the same reason. Though Iceland has clearly done his research, the book lacks a strong enough sense of advocacy to really produce any good cards. For example, he does wonderful explanation of the various ways of defining poverty (via absolute, relative, or hybrid measures), but only lukewarmly comes down in favor of a particular metric, and without enough warrants to produce a good T card.

This pattern repeats itself throughout the book: either Iceland will present both sides of an argument with enough caveats that he never really takes a position, or he'll hint at his position without spending the ink to defend it. For example, he brings up some of the popular counter-arguments to increasing spending on social services, such as the notion that the poor will become dependent on aid. Though he discredits this argument, he does it with a simple "studies show..." statement, leaving us guessing at the data behind his rebuttal (or fishing through the footnotes). All of the cards in this book would be easy enough to find just about anywhere.

As an introduction to the topic, though, Handbook is substantially better. As I mentioned, Iceland has clearly done his research. This book presents a detailed analytical picture of who "persons living in poverty" are in america, how they came to be in poverty, and what is being done about their condition. Iceland does a good job distilling raw data into explanatory trends.

I worry, though, that the best audience for this book as an introduction would be put off by Iceland's very mechanical tone. This is definitely not the book to give your novices to get them excited about the debate topic. Iceland's lack of rhetorical fire helps maintain his objective stance, but if you want to hook newbies you need to give them something spicier than "fact soup."

One particular vein of explanation that I found helpful was the discussion of the history of poverty policy in the United States. Iceland traces America's attitude toward people living in poverty from colonial poorhouses and indentured servitude, through reconstruction, the great depression, the great society, and into the 21st century. A lot has changed in the American narrative on poverty over the years, the increase in government aid for example, but a lot hasn't. We still seperate the poor into two groups, the "deserving" and the "undeserving", and a lot of times we draw the line between the two groups in a way that's not entirely rational. I think that there will be many a Kritik next year (aff and neg) that starts at that division, so it's a useful background to have.

Another thread that Iceland weaves into the book rather well is the idea that there are many popular misconceptions about what poverty is like in the United States. I wouldn't be surprised if my debaters (especially my novices) begin next year with the notion that most people who live in poverty are minorities (they aren't, though disproportionately many do), that most people in poverty don't work (most do), that people in poverty tend to stay there all their lives (they don't), and other bits of folk knowledge about poverty. Iceland does a good job dispensing with these myths, though it'll take some cut-and-paste to get all those sections together.

I think that's the bottom line on the Handbook. There's a lot of material that can provide a useful introduction, but it's spread out in a book that comes off pretty dry and mechanical. I get the impression that Iceland could have condensed the tasty parts of the book into a long article that would get a huge recommendation from me, but as it stands the book gets my tepid recommendation.

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