The Problem of Poverty in America

One of the enduring ideals of America is “the American Dream,” or the promise that any who work hard will be rewarded with economic mobility.  But this premise presents a problem, in that poverty in the United States has too often been explained away as simply an unfortunate consequence of laziness, or, in other words, the fate of those who do not work hard. The ideal of America makes it almost impossible for many Americans to explore the structural and historical causes of poverty. This course unpacks this problem by focusing on the history of the poor in the United States largely from the perspective of the poor themselves. This course will challenge students to learn about the various ways the poor have coped with poverty; analyze how intellectuals and reformers have conceptualized poverty; explore the assumptions of policymakers who have addressed the issue of poverty; and learn about the history of poverty, activism, and policy within Washington DC. Taking a longer historical view teaches students to see how the “conventional wisdom” (as John Kenneth Galbraith said) about poverty, culture, and policy has and has not changed over time.