Book Review: “The Sum of Us” by Heather McGhee

The Sum of Us explores economic policy through the lens of who benefits and who suffers.  McGhee’s central claim is that policy has been crafted over the years to prevent services, upward mobility, and wealth accumulation for people of color, often at the expense of white people.  A signature example referenced throughout the book highlights the proliferation of public pools in the 1920s and 30s.  Towns and cities tried to “one-up” one another with gorgeous, expansive public pools which were wildly popular with residents.  During this time, of course, communities were segregated and these public pools catered to white residents.  In the 1950s, efforts to integrate public pools led to their closure – denying everyone the opportunity to cool off during the hot months of summer.  McGhee also explores more recent policies including Medicaid expansion, drug possession penalties, sub-prime loan practices, tuition costs, globalization and automations, etc.  It’s a wonkish dive into policy brought to life with so many personal narratives that tell the story of the real-world impact of these economic directives.

There’s a chapter that hits close to home when McGhee’s travels take her to Lewiston, Maine.  She explores the history of Lewiston’s glory days as a mill town, its depression as mills closed, and its current renaissance.  She’s honest about the tensions in Lewiston surrounding the immigrant population.  She’s equally encouraged by the stories of solidarity that have emerged as new Mainers have contributed to the economy and helped to revitalize Lewiston.  There’s an anecdote about a woman who grew up in a French-Canadian family.  Like so many Francos, she stopped speaking French as a girl to better assimilate at school.  Upon retirement, she wanted to re-connect with her heritage and sought out French conversation groups to brush up on her native tongue.  To her great surprise, she found that her best opportunity to speak French was with African immigrants from Congo.  Friendships and partnerships flourished as immigrants and Lewiston Francos worked together to teach one another French and English.  These stories of personal connection serve as an aspirational framework for how Americans can prosper together.  McGhee rejects the idea that expansion of opportunity is a zero-sum endeavor. She advocates for an expanded middle class that includes everyone.  Her proposals run the gamut from individual efforts to grass-roots organizing to government support.  I confess that I don’t spend much time thinking about economic policy, but this book definitely puts it on my radar.  Thought-provoking, inspirational, and optimistic, The Sum of Us is worth checking out.   

 

Review by Emily Read, Development Director. 

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