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Public Affairs 5250: Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy

This is a sample syllabus to provide general information about the course and it's requirements. Course requirements are subject to change. This syllabus does not contain all assignment or course detail and currently enrolled students should reference the syllabus provided by their instructor. For a specific syllabus, please email us a request.

Course Overview

3 Credit Hours
Modalities Available: In Person 

This course presents the opportunity to think analytically about policy design related to the distribution, trends, causes and consequences of poverty and inequality in the United States. Students will also learn frameworks for understanding and analyzing public programs available to poor and near-poor Americans and will study relevant program design and implementation.

Learning Outcomes.

After completing this course successfully, students will have a deeper understanding and knowledge of poverty in the United States, including current issues, challenges, and differing perspectives on its causes, consequences, and solutions. This knowledge will include basics of the design and implementation of major social and anti-poverty programs in the United States intended to improve conditions for low-income and poor Americans via cash, food, housing, education, and health assistance programs.

Specifically, at the conclusion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Understand the historical and political context for the distribution of poverty in the United States
  • Identify key trends and issues in current social and anti-poverty policy debates
  • Describe the scope of programs available to poor and near-poor Americans
  • Critically analyze the design and impact of current safety net programs, potential changes to those programs, and proposals for new or different programs
  • Demonstrate effective communication skills in policy analysis and debate

Requirements and Expectations

  • Opinion or Blog Analysis and Reaction,  60 points, 15%
  • Report on Policy Meeting, 60 points, 15%
  • Reading questions (4), 100 points (25 each), 25%
  • Attendance and active participation, 60 points, 15%
  • Final paper, 120 points, 30%
  • TOTAL: 400 points, 100%

Note: Rubrics for all assignments will be provided on Carmen. The descriptions below are preliminary; students should refer to posted assignments on Carmen for more up-to-date and specific instructions and guidance.

You must come to class ready to discuss assigned readings (and other required content, such as movies or podcasts) with nuance and sophistication. Readings and podcasts in this class vary widely. They may be reports meant to convey straightforward facts, academic research papers or syntheses of a body of research, news articles or podcasts, opinion pieces highlighting major political debates, arguments about policy design by experts, or personal testimonies. You are expected to adapt your reading and analysis to the piece you are reading. Even when readings are difficult and you struggle with the content, you should still strive to identify the central arguments in a given set of texts, the deeper and more subtle points that arise from each individual reading, and the assumptions embedded in any argument. You are also encouraged to actively note linkages, similarities, contrasts, and differences across assigned readings. I caution you at the outset that the only assumption you can make about a reading on the syllabus is that I judge it to be useful and insightful or provocative—not that it is “good” or “bad” or “right” or “wrong.” Students can expect readings to be finalized and posted at least two weeks before they are to be completed.

Description: *please note, more details regarding this assignment will be posted on Carmen*. You will choose an opinion/recommendation piece or blog post from a newspaper, magazine, policy advocacy organization, nonpartisan think tank, or policy group that addresses a current policy issue related to poverty/low-income or economic inequality and/or programs or policies designed to address poverty/low-income or economic inequality. The piece you choose should suggest or advocate for a course of action; that is, you should not pick a straightforwardly reported piece, but rather one intended to express the opinion of the author. This opinion might be informed by research, politics, values, or other influences. You do not need to agree with the opinion to write about it. Indeed, you may even find this assignment easier if you choose a piece you disagree with. An incomplete list of potential sources can be found below. You may choose from outside of this list, as long as the piece is accessible and published by some sort of news or policy organization (i.e. no random reddit posts). 

You will write a 2-page, single-spaced paper that includes the following, separated into the subtitled sections in bold: 

  • Details: Title, author, and source of the piece (you must provide a link to the piece for grading; it does not count toward the page limit).
  • Summary: Brief summary of the piece’s main argument and supporting evidence. This summary must be accurate, and must not plagiarize.
  • Implications: An analysis of the (potential) policy implications of the view, opinion, or recommendation for poor or low-income people, drawing on and linking to course materials
  • Reaction: A reaction or critique of the piece, based on assigned and outside readings and your own values, beliefs, and experience (informed by facts, not
  • myths). You may fully agree, partially agree, or fully disagree with the authors (or anything in between). You will likely need to read ahead of the class or look for outside readings to inform your opinions. For example, if you pick a blog post with policy recommendations regarding the future of the National School Lunch Program, you might read assigned articles from our Food Assistance week and also seek out additional reading on the program.

Description: You will (virtually or in person) attend a meeting, briefing, or hearing at which poverty or inequality policy issues are being discussed. This may be a Congressional hearing, city council hearing, government meeting (e.g., school board meeting), judicial proceedings (e.g., Supreme Court oral argument), advocacy meeting (e.g., Children’s Defense Fund), or a policy briefing at a think-tank (e.g., the Urban Institute, Heritage Foundation, Center for
American Progress, American Enterprise Institute) that focus on an issue pertaining to poverty or inequality and policy. You will write a 2 to 3-page, single-spaced paper that includes the following, separated into the subtitled sections in bold (please see assignment on Carmen for more details about requirements): 

  • Meeting Details: Name, date, duration, and brief description of the meeting (e.g. who are the speakers/panelists? What is the point of the meeting?)
  • Summary: Short summary of what happened, how decisions were made or will be made (if applicable), and recommendations given 
  • Implications: Potential implications of what was discussed for poor and low-income people, drawing on linkages to course material
  • Takeaways: What you learned about policy and/or the policymaking process, drawing upon connections and contrast with course material and your own experiences

Description: Four times throughout the semester, you are responsible for submitting responses to posted reading questions. Responses should range from one-half page to a full page (single spaced) per question and are to be no longer than one page per question. Responses should incorporate and integrate readings, properly cite sources (APA style), and be comprehensive. Writing should be clear and professional. You should expect two to four questions per week. You are free to choose which weeks you submit responses to reading questions.

Questions will cover readings for the entire week, requiring you to read early. There are a total of 11 weeks you may choose from to complete your four required reading question submissions. You are encouraged to plan which weeks you will respond to reading questions to avoid running out of opportunities at the end of the semester. Late submissions will not be accepted. Those with fewer than four submitted reading question responses will receive grades of zero (0) for any missing assignments

Description: You are expected to attend every class session. If we are on Zoom, please turn your camera on, if at all possible, and log in at least two minutes before class starts. You may miss two class sessions, no questions asked, but please notify me ahead of time. Any absences beyond that requires
documentation/discussion with me in order for them not to impact your grade.

Active attendance means you are expected to consume required content before class and come prepared to discuss questions raised by the material, peers, and me. Content presented in class may go above and beyond the readings, based on the assumption that you are fully prepared. Participation will be assessed by the extent to which you engage in weekly lectures and small group activities as well as the extent to which you do not disengage via technology or other distractions. The substance of your contributions will be considered, as well as the frequency. 

Class participation will also mean handing in in-class assignments, graded for completion and effort. These will vary throughout the semester but may include short reflections or worksheets.

As you might be able to tell, class discussion, in-class assignments, and overall participation is an important part of this course. Your dedication to fully engaging with the content and your classmates will directly affect how enjoyable and useful this class is. There are very often not right or wrong answers to the questions we will be exploring in this class, but there are facts and myths. Discussion should take place on the academic plane of reasoned argument. Opinions are to be informed and carefully considered, and you should be prepared to have others disagree with them. You are encouraged to take reasoned exception and to respectfully voice opinions contrary to those offered by me and/or other students.

Topics discussed in this class will almost certainly surface deeply held beliefs and senses of self. With this in mind, remember it is always your responsibility to think before you speak, so that you share your thoughts in a way that respects the dignity and humanity of others (present in the classroom or not). This applies to me as much as it applies to you. If I or another person in class says something that you find offensive, hurtful, or otherwise harmful, please point this out. There are a number of ways you can do this:

  • Speak up in class. You are welcome to address concerns directly, in the moment. Calling out (or calling in) is part of the process of creating a welcoming and intellectually engaging space.
  • Speak with me after class. We can discuss the situation and decide how to handle it together. Options include scheduling a meeting with involved individuals, using class time to address the issue, or another process you feel comfortable with. You may choose to remain anonymous throughout this process.

Given that we are all learning (indeed, that is the very point of our convening!), I encourage you to practice the skill of assuming positive intent on the part of others, at least as much as you reasonably can. This means that you try your best to assume that people are at least attempting to honor the dignity and humanity of others and are not trying to inflict harm. In other words, their words are well-intended, even if what they say is, in your opinion, misguided, offensive, or harmful. Pointing out this offensiveness or harm is absolutely encouraged but – if possible—I encourage you to practice doing so in ways that are not themselves belittling or dehumanizing. I recognize that being forgiving and compassionate in this way can be incredibly difficult, and that the burden of this practice falls disproportionately on certain groups of students. I appreciate your efforts to this end. As the instructor, I will bear the burden of this as much as I possibly can, but I, like all people, am also continuously learning and have blind spots.

In addition to these basic ground rules of (1) respecting the dignity and humanity of others and (2) assuming positive intent (as much as is reasonable), the class will work together to determine the full set of guidelines for class discourse during Week 1.

Description: You will assume the role of experts convened by a government official’s policy staff to design an anti-poverty agenda for their jurisdiction. You may choose any level of government you wish – federal (perhaps imagining you are on the policy staff of a U.S. Senator or the President of the United States), state (Governors, state legislators), or local (city council, mayor). You can choose to address either the executive or legislative branch of government.

You must apply social science and social policy evidence to recommend, in an original written presentation, a new policy (or policies), program (or programs), or changes to existing policies or programs. These recommendations should be designed to reduce poverty or the harmful effects of poverty. The proposal must be targeted towards a specific jurisdiction (the full country, a specific state, or a specific locality), and the policy/program must not already exist within this jurisdiction. The final product will be a formal policy memo arguing for specific policy recommendations and actions. 

Recommendations can involve legislation or administration actions. It is important to be specific, concise, and thorough. The suggestions may be beyond what you believe to be politically possible, but must be within the realm of potential human achievement. 

More details will be provided on Carmen.

Course Schedule

Week 1-2:

  • Introduction
  • Early views, history, and current debates
  • Measuring poverty and inequality

Week 3: 

  • Race, racism, and poverty

Week 4: 

  • Causes and distribution of poverty

Week 5:

  • Experience and consequences of poverty

Week 6-7:

  • Inequality and economic and social mobility
  • Welfare and welfare reform

Week 8:

  • The working poor and employment-based safety net programs

Week 9:

  • Families and early childhood

Week 10: Spring Break

Week 11-12:

  • Housing and Homelessness

Week 13-15: 

  • Food Assistance
  • Health
  • Higher education

Previous Instructors Have Included