Alderman Stacks

EGMT 1520: Poverty Counts


The United States' definition of "poverty" dates to 1963, when Social Security administration economist Mollie Orshansky used the Department of Agriculture's "Thrifty Food Plan" to calculate the amount of economic deprivation in the U.S. But Orshansky never intended for her calculation to become the official poverty line, and it's been challenged by critics on the left and the right ever since. Orshansky's calculation has persisted, however, because (re)defining poverty is both complex and controversial. Like categories such as "race" and "disability," poverty is a socially constructed concept. When we say someone is "poor," what do we mean? Do we mean that his or her income falls below an absolute threshold (a dollar amount) or a relative one (such as a percentage of the median income)? Moreover, what do we mean by "income"? Should we even define poverty in material terms? In answering these questions and related ones, this course will ask you to consider the theoretical and empirical issues involved in operationalizing socially constructed concepts such as poverty. Through critical engagement with the interdisciplinary poverty literature, both qualitative and quantitative, and hands-on research, you will gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of carrying out empirical social science.