7 Books About Living Paycheck to Paycheck
Jeni McFarland recommends fiction about the vulnerability of poverty
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Lately, so much talk has been focused on the more vulnerable populations in our society, including workers whose jobs don’t afford them paid sick leave. Many Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, and these jobs provide no safety net. This is a reality we often shy away from in polite conversation: poverty is so taboo as to render it unspeakable. When we do speak about it, it’s often in terms of what people did or didn’t do to earn their poverty; rarely is it given honest consideration. Yet for far too many, poverty is a reality we’re born into, and one that greatly shapes what opportunities we do or do not have in life.
In my novel, The House of Deep Water, Beth DeWitt moves with her two children back to the Michigan farming community where she grew up. The move is necessary due to financial trouble, and on the surface, it may seem as if Beth’s decisions led to this outcome, as she has lost her job. But there’s a deeper trauma lurking beneath, one related to the poverty in which Beth grew up. The only affordable childcare option for her family was to leave Beth in the care of her neighbor; as the story opens and Beth returns to the same Michigan community, the son of her old babysitter is arrested for unthinkable crimes, of which Beth was a victim during her childhood.
The following is a list of other books that work well to highlight the vulnerability of poverty.
Love War Stories by Ivelisse Rodriguez
These stories chronicle the woes of love, as told by young women in various walks of life. Running beneath these stories, though, is an undercurrent of vulnerability, what happens when you fall in love with the wrong guy, when you make the wrong match, the financially insecure match. From the aunt who pines for her absent husband—a man who went off to work in America, to build a better life for his wife—to the woman who stalks her ex, watches him “overreaching,” trying to disguise his roots, these stories truly highlight the vulnerability so many people face when money is tight.
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
Like Rodriguez’s stories, A Lucky Man follows the lives of men and boys moving through a world of limited opportunities, each of them trying to figure out what masculinity should look like, even when their closest role-models are women. The writing is both down-to-earth and earth-shattering as we see these males strive towards something bigger than themselves, in a world where bigger comes with a price.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This novel, about a mother and daughter who move into a rental house and quickly become caught up in a local custody case, is underpinned by the choices available to the mother, and the opportunities that come with those choices. In many ways, the custody case echoes the mother’s own choices. The book raises a lot of questions regarding who has the right to raise a child, and how wealth, race, and privilege play into that.
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
This memoir follows a family torn apart by war, the Nguyens move to a small town in Michigan to escape Vietnam, leaving behind the mother. In her new home, Bich Minh longs to fit in, like all children; “fitting in,” though, requires a level of wealth her family hasn’t acquired. Nguyen highlights these wealth disparities with food, especially the foods her family eats versus the foods the local Michiganders have on their tables.
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
This novel shows four friends in the classical music scene. Each performance deepens their loves, conflicts, and heartbreaks as they strive for success collectively and individually. These characters’ struggles come replete with notable differences depending on each musician’s familial background, portrayed with prose so lovely and real you feel you could reach into the page and touch these people.
First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers
This book focuses on the Soviet space race, chronicling the lives of cosmonauts hailing from poor villages in the Soviet Union. The cosmonauts live and work at Space City, an insular government-run installation where they are taught to toe the party line and tout the party story. Even in a novel where the people all operate under pseudonyms, which are often just job-descriptions, Powers manages to create characters who live and breathe on the page.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
This novel shows a love triangle reconfigured after a husband is wrongfully incarcerated. His extended absence exacerbates tensions caused by the asymmetry of each spouse’s socio-economic background. Try as they may, even his wife’s money and social ties can’t save him in time.