Spotlight Exclusives

Why Don’t Students Learn About Poverty?

Harlan Beckley, Washington & Lee University Harlan Beckley, Washington & Lee University, posted on

The United States is one of the most impoverished developed nations on the planet. Extensive research makes this clear. Graduates of our undergraduate and professional schools should know this. They don’t.

Despite the importance and relative lack of awareness around this issue, colleges have not developed sustained curricula to study poverty. Whatever future profession students pursue, they should know that poverty is a chronic challenge in the U.S. and that there are policies and approaches that can help ameliorate it. We need an educational system that recognizes and understands poverty as a fundamental societal problem.

Although the U.S. has a higher GDP per capita than most developed nations, data from University of Wisconsin Professor Timothy Smeeding show that the percentage of U.S. population below the established relative-income poverty threshold (18 percent) is higher than 28 of 29 “rich nations.” Among “rich nations,” only Israel has a higher poverty rate. The U.S. ranks somewhat better based on market income alone (i.e., excluding taxes and government transfers) and on absolute thresholds, but it ranks low among developed nations by all income measures of poverty.

Data regarding health and education reveal even bleaker international comparisons. The CIA World Fact Book estimates that the 2014 U.S. infant mortality rate will be higher than in Serbia and 54 other countries and ranks the 2010 U.S. maternal death rate in childbirth as higher than in Iran and 47 other nations. The incidence of low-birth-weight in the U.S. also exceeds most other developed nations. The reasons for these startling figures are complex, but they include deficient healthcare and public health among lower socioeconomic status and minority populations.

Comparisons of overall educational achievement and attainment offer little solace. Indeed, much of the deterioration in the U.S. standing in education is attributable to an increasing achievement and educational gap between social classes. Sean Reardon of Stanford University finds that the math and reading achievement gap between children at the 10th and those at 90th income percentile has increased by 50 percent during the past 50 years. The trend is in the wrong direction.

The evidence is incontrovertible. Despite high per capita GDP and wealth, the United States ranks among the most impoverished developed nations.

Yet, as Kevin Blair from Niagara University observed in a 2014 Spotlight commentary, higher education has not responded to this persistent problem as well as it has to other chronic problems and societal needs.

While recent research has revealed the severity of poverty within the U.S., it۪s also begun to point the way towards potential solutions. The Census Bureau۪s new Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) has been especially helpful in this regard by quantifying the impact of many anti-poverty efforts.

Food stamps (SNAP) greatly reduce extreme poverty and child poverty; the Earned Income Tax Credit reduces poverty among low-income working families with children, and public health insurance, including the Affordable Care Act, increases disposable income among poor families and almost certainly improves the health and life expectancy of recipients.

Graduates from our colleges and professional schools should know these facts as well as the comparative depth and persistence of U.S. poverty. The problem lies in the absence of sustained coursework and firsthand educational experiences available for undergraduate and professional students to learn more about what the research reveals.

College students, many of whom are destined to be engaged in civic and political leadership, need to know about the causes of poverty, moral obligations to address it, and the practices and policies (in the U.S. and in other nations) that have been most successful in alleviating it. They do not need to prepare for cutting-edge research; they need to know and apply it in their professional and civic work.

As David Bradley, executive director of the National Community Action Foundation and prot̩g̩ of Sargent Shriver, once said: “If we graduated twenty to thirty students each year from two or three hundred colleges and universities who understand and are committed to how their future careers and civic leadership could diminish aspects of poverty, the collective impact would surpass any policy initiative since the mid-seventies.”  Where in higher education can we find poverty studies similar to environmental studies and women۪s studies in order to nurture a more informed citizenry?

Kevin Blair mentioned the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SHECP)of which I serve as executive director. The nearly two-dozen member schools of SHECP not enough to realize David Bradley۪s vision promote curricula with diverse courses and firsthand experiences that prepare and enable students in almost every major and career trajectory to make reducing poverty a part of their professional and civic lives. Such poverty studies programs also exist in a few schools outside of SHECP, but we need more such individual and collaborative initiatives.

I have spoken in several contexts, including at the Chautauqua Institution and Ohio University, about the kind of poverty studies programs that can satisfy David Bradley۪s vision. The key is to integrate traditional coursework on poverty with community engagement relevant to our students۪ future careers and civic leadership. We do not need to push students towards a new career path, but we should find ways to supplement their current studies and interests.

Poverty is a pressing problem in our country, but equipping students with knowledge of the problem and the tools to help address it will go a long way towards building a more just and fair society for all.

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Harlan Beckley is the Fletcher Otey Thomas Professor of Religion Emeritus at Washington and Lee University and executive director of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty.

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