Poverty in a Rich Country

Do some Americans choose to be “takers” rather than “makers”? Or is the economy “rigged” to ensure that money and power flow continually from the poor to the rich? Through multi-media sources drawn from economics, history, philosophy, sociology, public policy, medicine, religion, and journalism, this course will explore a wide range of ideological and evidence-based explanations for the complex problem of poverty amidst plenty. Students will construct and deconstruct arguments and stage debates around several persistent questions: What does it mean to be poor in the US? Who gets stuck at the bottom of the American income distributions, and why? Who escapes the poverty trap, and how? Answers to those question tend to distribute blame for poverty among different combinations of individual behavior, family legacies, labor markets, cultural attitudes, and institutional structures. Anti-poverty proposals cannot and should not be separated from causal explanations, but progress requires moving beyond the repeated oversimplifications that dominate policy debates about the real roots of poverty and social immobility. This course seeks to help students explore their own beliefs and navigate beyond sound bites to deeper and more critical truths. Part I of the course will focus on current rhetoric regarding the causes of domestic poverty, with texts for each week reflecting points along the political spectrum. Students will be assigned to argue in favor of different positions in different weeks, based on designated texts, and will submit one-page memos on their positions for low-stakes grading with detailed feedback on substance and writing skills. In addition to in-class debates between assigned positions, students will work in groups to examine what they are discovering about their own personal beliefs and biases and to identify factual questions raised by the arguments under study.   Part II of the course will seek to answer those factual questions by applying selected social-science research findings and noting gaps where additional research appears to be needed. Students will receive a basic, non-technical introduction to appropriate uses of quantitative vs. qualitative vs. mixed methods of social science research to answer different types of questions, and will discuss the pros and cons and challenges of interdisciplinary research. At the end of Part II, they will submit non-technical outlines of proposals for research projects to fill the identified gaps. Part III of the course will examine government- and non-government-based approaches to combating poverty and improving social mobility in the US. Students will connect current proposals for anti-poverty strategies to the various causal explanations studied in Part I and the available facts discussed in Part II, incorporating feedback received on previous assignments. Looking beyond existing, mainstream proposals for fighting domestic poverty, students will be encouraged to innovate, with a focus on hybrid strategies that draw on traditional left- and right-wing ideas as well as shared values and historical sources of ideas. Final assignments will consist of multi-media presentations of students’ own anti-poverty strategy packages, justified normatively, logically, empirically, and with explicit awareness of how their own cultural biases have shaped the final product.