Reading Group to Focus on Social Mobility

Rebecca Álvarez

Rebecca Álvarez

LAS VEGAS, NM – An upcoming reading group at Highlands University will focus on social mobility in the United States.

The reading group, led by Highlands professor Rebecca Álvarez, is the latest reading group programs sponsored by the Donnelly Library. The three books in this spring’s reading group are Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones, and Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.

“It’s important to look at the factors that affect social mobility right now because so much of recent politics has revolved around our attitudes about social mobility; both the fear of losing it and the hope of gaining it,” Álvarez said. “Like many other people in the United States, my life and career were greatly affected by the Great Recession a decade ago. Many people in this state–and the country as a whole–feel that they have never recovered, even though official statistics tell us that the economy is now whizzing along. I’d like to look at why people feel so differently about this topic.”

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir by a former business manager and current nonprofit director who was born into a tumultuous Rust Belt community who spent much of his childhood with his unstable family members in Appalachia. He looks at social mobility from the perspective of someone who has made it from the bottom to the top of the class hierarchy. While he has received criticism for blaming his community’s culture for its poverty, his firsthand experience is invaluable to the conversation about why some people climb the class ladder in America and others don’t. Hillbilly Elegy won the Audie Award for nonfiction in 2017 and was a New York Times bestseller.

Dreamland is an-depth examination of the development of the opiate epidemic afflicting the United States, which has caused opiate overdoses to become the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. Quinones points out that the opiate epidemic is most prevalent in areas that are experiencing job loss and low social mobility. This is especially relevant for New Mexico, where the per-capita rate of opiate overdoses is among the highest in the country. Dreamland won the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction in 2015.

Evicted takes a structural approach to the issue of social mobility by analyzing the ways people with no money are kept poor by exploitative rental arrangements. Of the three books, this one is the most academic. Its author, a Harvard University professor, uses a combination of personal experiences documented through ethnography and careful statistical analysis to measure one aspect of how social mobility has declined for poor people of all races in the American city. In 2017, Evicted won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction, and the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.

The titles that were chosen came from a list of about a dozen,” Álvarez said. “I was looking for balance in perspectives about social mobility. The book Hillbilly Elegy is written from a mostly conservative perspective, while Evicted is written from a somewhat more liberal perspective. Dreamland provides a nonpartisan and middle-of-the-road stance, with a just-the-facts-ma’am approach to the opioid epidemic that is eating away at our society, which many feel is a reaction to downward social mobility.”

Álvarez joined the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice at Highlands in 2016. Her research interest is in how and why gender violence rates fluctuate over time and between cultures. Her own writing has been featured in Critical Sociology, among other publications. Álvarez earned her doctorate in sociology from the University of California, Riverside.

All meetings will begin at 6 p.m. in Highlands’ Donnelly Library. The dates for Social Mobility in the 21st Century: A Reading and Discussion Group are:

  • Tuesday, Feb. 27: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
  • Tuesday, March 27: Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic
  • Tuesday, April 24: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

“These three books each convey a different narrative about how social mobility has declined in the 21st century,” said librarian April Kent.

This program is free and open to the public. For more information, call 505-454-3139.