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Poverty Education: Where Are the Business Schools?

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The number of Americans living in poverty nearly 15 percent of the population, including about one in five children remains troublingly high. Given the importance of the issue, it۪s both surprising and disappointing that almost no colleges or universities offer an undergraduate curriculum or integrated series of courses on the causes and complexities of poverty. The problem is especially apparent in business schools, where students are predominantly exposed to laissez-faire, neoliberal economic theory which often substitutes a near-blind faith in market outcomes for a more nuanced discussion of the challenges facing low-income Americans.

This complete lack of emphasis on one of society۪s most pressing problems is troubling. If we are serious about addressing poverty and promoting opportunity in the decades to come, we need to equip students with the information and tools to think critically about these complicated issues and how to address them.

While there is a growing awareness of the importance of improving poverty education for American undergraduates most notably through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SHECP) these efforts are still few and far between.
Outside of the roughly two dozen schools who collaborate on the SHECP, there is almost no opportunity for students to encounter a series of well-developed integrated courses on poverty. It is striking that students can take a series of courses in areas such as women۪s studies, environmental studies, pre-law, pre-med, and so forth, but cannot do the same when it comes poverty.

What little is taught about poverty is often frustratingly one-sided, with a clear bias toward less regulation and an assumption that a rising tide will inevitably lift all boats. The idea that these neoliberal policies may exacerbate poverty and inequality is a surprise to virtually all of the students I encounter and clearly contradicts what they have been taught in classes on economics and business.

Existing curriculums reinforce the belief that the poor had a fair shot at economic success and that their poverty is a natural consequence of personal failings. Taken together, the lack of poverty education and the bias toward neoliberalism are wrought with ethical problems.
I۪ve spent much of the past few years examining poverty education specifically within schools and colleges of businessand the same biases that are evident in undergraduate classrooms emerge here as well. This is especially troubling, as these programs hold a unique relationship to poverty given the connections between business and jobs, wages, and economic opportunity.

Instead of reflecting on what the prevalence of poverty in our society says about our existing economic systems, business curriculums foster cognitive distancing, a separation of “us” (successful college student business major) and “them” (undereducated poor) along with a sense that while select businesspeople may choose to become involved with poverty, business has no particular responsibility or role to play in addressing this challenge. A review of the accreditation requirements of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) reinforces this observation, in that the requirements show significant standards related to ethics and social responsibility, but nothing directly related to poverty.

Universities must begin to direct attention toward structural questions of poverty as they relate to our political and economic systems. Business schools in particular need to think more seriously about their connection to issues of poverty and opportunity and cultivate in their students a sense of moral obligation to build an inclusive economy.

A student enrolled in an AACSB-accredited business school will typically find their curriculum so packed with business and general education requirements that there may be little opportunity to enroll in classes on poverty, assuming such classes are available and can be fit into the student۪s curricular requirements for their degree. The AACSB and individual college and universities need to restructure their requirements so that business students are pushed to engage with these issues in a more systematic way in the classroom.

In addition to expanding and improving course offerings, schools should look to foster a more nuanced understanding of the causes of poverty and potential solutions. Many approaches could achieve this goal, but two easy starting points would be for schools and colleges of business to host more on-campus events with poverty scholars and encourage or require students to engage in community service projects where they interact with low-income individuals and communities.
We typically think of addressing poverty in terms of specific policies or reformsexpanding the Earned Income Tax Credit or raising the minimum wage. While these changes are crucial, a long-term commitment to lifting people out of poverty requires broader shifts in awareness and values.

Our institutions of higher learning, particularly our schools and colleges of business, have to be part of this change. Alleviating poverty is a daunting task, but equipping students our future leaders with the tools and desire to think seriously about these questions is a necessary first step.

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Kevin Blair is a professor of social work at Niagara University.

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