Political Science
Katie Singh

Politics, Poverty, and Pedagogy

An Examination of College Teaching about Poverty

  • Faculty Advisor

    Ben Page

Published On

May 2014

Originally Published

NURJ 2013-14
Honors Thesis



With high rates of poverty in the United States in mind, two key research questions were considered. The first was how teaching about poverty varies across different social science disciplines. The second question was what effect this teaching has on students’ knowledge and attitudes toward poverty. Three intro-level social science classes at Northwestern (Sociology, Macroeconomics, American Government and Politics) were studied to see how they approached poverty. I found that the sociology class discussed poverty most broadly, while political science and economics hardly addressed poverty or inequality at all. I also examined changes in student knowledge and attitudes toward poverty by distributing a survey before and after the course. The survey indicated that NU students are generally high-SES and liberal. They overestimate the annual poverty wage, and tend to blame poverty on structural deficiencies rather than individual failings. Thus, they prefer educational remedies, such as improving public schools and funding job programs. While there were no large-scale changes in student attitudes after taking the courses, support for a few key policies did change, especially in the economics and sociology classes where specific policies were mentioned. Sociology students increased support for public housing and subsidized daycare, while economics students decreased support for tax credits for the poor and increasing the minimum wage. This suggests that while courses may not have an effect on students’ general political views, the discussion of specific policies in class may affect students’ attitudes toward those policies and others that are similar.


According to the official measures used by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans living in poverty is 46.2 million, or 15% of the population. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 70% of Americans are either somewhat or very dissatisfied with the nation’s efforts to deal with poverty. The combination of rising poverty and dissatisfaction with poverty policy underscores the importance of understanding poverty policy if these trends continue.

In light of these facts, I chose to examine how poverty is treated in an academic setting. Academic treatments of poverty are important for two main reasons. First, trends in academic discourse may tend to frame political discourse. Second, today’s students are the ones who will shape future politics. It is thus important to understand what they are taught about poverty, and how their attitudes toward this important issue are shaped by their education.

It makes sense that the disciplines that deal most with poverty in an academic setting are the social sciences—especially economics, sociology, and political science. On one hand, one might expect that the three disciplines deal with poverty relatively similarly, as a discussion of important social issues seems to necessitate an examination of poverty. On the other hand, the three are founded on different theoretical frameworks such that their examinations of poverty might differ significantly. I hoped to answer two key research questions. The first is how teaching about poverty varies across different social science disciplines. The second question is what effect this teaching has on students’ knowledge and attitudes toward poverty.


I: Poverty, Economics, and Public Opinion in America

Americans’ views of poverty, inequality, and redistribution are shaped by a national narrative and discourse whose values are simultaneously egalitarian and unequal. Jennifer Hochschild found that American people’s distributive judgments could best be categorized by looking at how they apply distributive norms to different domains: politics, socialization, and economics. Hochschild found that in the domains of politics and socialization, people “usually start from a principle of equality, and use mainly egalitarian norms” (Hochschild 1981, 81). In economics, however, norms are based on the idea that success is a function of productivity and merit. Thus, economic inequality becomes more acceptable than inequality in other domains.

II: Poverty Knowledge and the Social Sciences

The narrative of dominant norms in the realm of economics and poverty is closely related to trends in the social sciences over the past few decades. From its liberal, reform-minded origins in the 1960s, poverty knowledge today has become characterized by “technical language and decontextualized, rational choice models of human behavior” (O'Connor 2001, 5). Since the 1980s, “poverty knowledge has been profoundly shaken by the rise of the political Right, with its ideological…approach to knowledge and its extraordinary success in keeping the locus of discourse away from the economics of rising inequality and centered on…the decline of personal responsibility” (O'Connor 2001, 10). The shift in poverty knowledge reflects one of the tensions at its core—“whether [inequality] is best understood and addressed at the level of individual experience or as a matter of structural and institutional reform” (O'Connor 2001, 9). The current consensus represents a resolution “in favor of the individualist interpretation” that reflects the ideological leanings that currently dominate political discourse (O'Connor 2001, 9).

III: The Effects of Education

British sociologist Adrian Furnham more specifically examined the role of political socialization as it related to adolescent views of poverty. He found that wealthy private school students were more likely to overestimate the income of a person in poverty, and were more likely to focus on individual failings as the cause of poverty (Furnham 1982, 144). In contrast, public school students provided income estimates for a poor person that were closer to reality, and cited structural causes as explanations for poverty. Furnham found that the students’ different personal experiences with money informed their understandings of poverty.


In my research, I hoped to answer two key research questions. The first was how teaching about poverty varies across different social science disciplines. The second was what effect this teaching has on students’ knowledge and attitudes toward poverty. To answer these questions, my research included two main components. The first was an analysis of the course content of three different introductory-level social science classes at Northwestern: Soc 110 (Intro to Sociology), Econ 201 (Intro to Macroeconomics), and Political Science 220 (American Government and Politics). The first two were analyzed in fall 2012, while the latter was analyzed in winter 2013. The course analysis examined the content of textbooks, syllabi, lectures, and assessments. I counted the number of mentions of poverty and inequality, and qualitatively analyzed the context in which poverty was addressed. In addition, I attended selected lectures to see how the topic of poverty was addressed by each professor in class.

The second component of my research was a poverty attitude survey that was distributed to students before and after taking the course. I distributed the survey link electronically to students during the second week of the course. I then distributed a follow-up survey link to them during reading week at the end of the course. The survey contained questions about different aspects of poverty, as well as demographic questions to help sort and classify responses.

Survey questions focused on four key aspects of poverty:

1. Causes of poverty: I hoped to find out whether students believe that poverty is the result of societal shortcomings (i.e. lack of opportunities for education, jobs, etc.) or individual shortcomings (i.e. laziness, poor money management, etc.).

2. Remedies for poverty: This section of the survey focused on policy remedies. I hoped to find out whether students prefer more government intervention or not.

3. Importance of poverty: I hoped to find out how important students believe poverty is in the US today.

4. Nature of poverty in the US: Questions that were addressed include: How many people are poor in the US? Who is poor? How do we determine who is poor?

I saw these four facets as the most important areas to address when measuring students’ knowledge and attitudes. I used them to create a more systematic approach to measuring public opinion about poverty, making analysis and comparisons of data easier.


I: Disciplines

Because of the ideological standpoints of each discipline, I expected that distributive justice norms underlying approaches to poverty would be consistent with the norms Hochschild found in public opinion domains of politics, economics, and society. Sociology would come from a perspective most focused on inequality, so it would have the most discussion of poverty.

II: Demographics

As part of an elite private university, I hypothesized that Northwestern students would tend to come from affluent socioeconomic backgrounds. I also expected that Northwestern students would tend to be more liberal than the American public. Finally, I expected to see that students in sociology and political science would be more likely to self-identify as liberals. As I expected these courses to take the most liberal stances on social issues, I hypothesized that the students who choose to take these courses would self-select based on their interests. Conversely, I expected more conservative students to take economics, as it is the most conservative of the three.

III: Influences

I expected that more mentions of poverty in a class would lead to increases in knowledge and the perceived importance of poverty after taking the course. I also hypothesized that student opinion changes would reflect the distributive norms presented to them in each course. At the end of each respective course, students in sociology may show a preference for more structural causes and remedies for poverty, while econ students’ preferences may tend toward individualism.


I: Demographic Characteristics

Of 209 students enrolled in Intro to Sociology in fall 2012, 58 responded to the initial survey distributed to them at the beginning of the course. This was a 28% initial response rate. Of 228 students enrolled in Intro to Macroeconomics in fall 2012, 71 responded to the initial survey distributed to them at the beginning of the course, for a 31% initial response rate. The survey was sent to 124 total students in American Government and Politics in winter 2013. Of these 124 students who received the initial survey, 67 responded, for a response rate of 54%.

The overall demographic breakdowns of each course were fairly similar, especially between sociology and economics. Both had large numbers of freshmen, similar proportions of Democrats and Republicans, similar incomes and most self-identified as moderate. Political science students resembled sociology and econ students in income, but varied greatly in age, party ID, and liberal-conservative self-rating. Three-fourths of political science students self-identified as Democrats.

There was also evidence to suggest that Northwestern students are in fact more liberal than the general public. Although the most common response to the liberal-conservative self-rating was to identify as moderate, the overall percentage of students who rated themselves as “very liberal” or “liberal” was much higher than those who chose to rate themselves as “very conservative” or “conservative. In addition, in all courses there were fairly large majorities of Democrats. All three had initial proportions of Democrats over 55%. Northwestern students are more Democratic than the public as a whole, which lends support to my initial hypothesis.

Northwestern students also tended to have higher family incomes than the American general public. In each course, the majority of students reported family incomes of over $100,000. This is a great deal higher than the U.S. median household income, which was $52,762 in 2011 (U.S. Census Bureau 2013). This supports my hypothesis that Northwestern students tend to come from affluent socioeconomic backgrounds.

II: Self-Selection

One of my hypotheses was that students would self-select into disciplines that matched their own initial political beliefs. At first glance, the similarities between economics and sociology students’ liberal-conservative self-ratings appeared to contradict my initial hypothesis about what kinds of students would take each course. In both courses, the majority of students’ beliefs were at the middle of the political spectrum.

However, although economics and sociology students self-identified similarly, there was still the possibility of differences in their initial attitudes toward poverty. These would be reflected in their responses to the substantive questions on the survey, but not necessarily in their liberal-conservative self-ratings or party IDs. I tested for these differences by aggregating all the initial survey responses and performing a regression over the courses the students were enrolled in. I was specifically interested in seeing if there were differences between sociology and economics, since there were fewer apparent political self-identification differences between the two courses. Political science served as a comparison group.

Contrary to my initial hypothesis, the economics responses did not appear to reveal any sort of conservative preference. In fact, the sociology students appeared to be more conservative than the economics students, completely countering my hypothesis. They tended to oppose structural causes of and structural remedies to poverty (medical bills, subsidized daycare, and food stamps, respectively). The regression results reveal a preference for individualistic causes of and remedies to poverty among sociology students. This firmly refutes my hypothesis that sociology students would initially be more liberal than economics or political science students.


I: Sociology

You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking like a Sociologist by Dalton Conley, the textbook used by the fall 2012 section of Intro to Sociology offers an in-depth, comprehensive account of poverty. Poverty is mentioned 224 times in-text, including an entire chapter dedicated to understanding its existence. Conley critically examines arguments like the “underclass” theory, typically cited by conservatives to explain the existence of poverty over many generations. He also looks at more structural causes for poverty, like the effect of residential segregation on economic opportunity. However, the textbook does not include discussions of possible policy remedies to address poverty. The solid in-depth examination of poverty presented in You May Ask Yourself appears to be consistent with my hypothesis about the way that poverty would be presented in sociology’s course material.

Course lectures examined poverty in even more depth. One full lecture was devoted to discussing class stratification in the U.S. and abroad, and two lectures were devoted to discussing poverty. The lesson about class stratification served as an introduction to poverty, and included a conceptual discussion of different types of equality. This transitioned into a discussion of the reality of inequality in the U.S, and then turned to poverty in the United States. The professor explained how the current official poverty threshold was developed in the 1960s, and told the class what it currently is for a family of four. She then presented some possible causes for poverty, including structural ones (too many low-wage jobs, insufficient safety net) and individual ones (personal failings). Different components of social safety net programs in the U.S. were discussed, and there was also discussion of what kinds of personal failings could contribute to poverty. The lecture supported my hypotheses about course material in sociology.

Section II: Economics

Northwestern’s fall 2012 Intro to Macroeconomics course text was the sixth edition of Principles of Macroeconomics, by N. Gregory Mankiw. In 545 pages of text, the word “poverty” was mentioned 18 times, with only 6 of these mentions relating to poverty in the United States and what can be done about it. The majority of these mentions came when Mankiw discusses the effects of minimum wage laws on poverty and unemployment. It is clear that he puts little credence in arguments that raising the minimum wage can help alleviate poverty, emphasizing that minimum-wage earners “are teenagers from middle-class homes working at part-time jobs for extra spending money” (Mankiw 2012, 120). Nonetheless, he does at least mention the lack of consensus among economists as to what the actual effect of raising the minimum wage may be. Mankiw frames minimum wage policy as a tradeoff between equality and efficiency.

The other relevant mentions of poverty come in Chapter 15, about unemployment. This chapter focuses on why a certain level of unemployment is inevitable in an economy, though it does not say what that amount should be. Poverty is mentioned in the context of government-sponsored job-training programs. Mankiw acknowledges that “public training programs…aim to ease the transition of workers from declining to growing industries and to help disadvantaged groups escape poverty” (Mankiw 2012, 320). His next paragraph detailing criticisms of public job training programs is almost twice as long as the one preceding it, arguing that “government is no better—and most likely worse—at disseminating the right information to the right workers and deciding what kinds of worker training would be most valuable” (Mankiw 2012, 321).

Of the two chapters presenting information about poverty in the United States, the class readings only included one—Chapter 15, about unemployment. The lectures about unemployment reinforced Mankiw’s arguments, and framed unemployment in terms of supply, demand, and business cycles. In addition, since students were not required to read the chapter discussing the relationship between minimum wage and poverty, their only information about minimum wage policy came in lectures and practice problems for exams. Practice problems for the second midterm and final exam addressed minimum wage, and the professor’s solutions to both problems unequivocally stated that “unemployment increases as the minimum wage rises.” There was no discussion of the nuances of minimum wage policy, and minimum wage problems did not appear on the actual midterm or final exam. Lectures made no mentions of poverty or inequality. The kinds of material presented in class about poverty, minimum wage, and inequality are in line with my hypotheses about the material that would be presented in class.

III: Political Science

The textbook used by the winter 2013 section of Intro to American Government and Politics was American Government: Power and Purpose by Theodore Lowi et al. In nearly six hundred pages of text, poverty is mentioned only 7 times. There is no look at the context, causes, or experiences of poverty; instead, poverty tends to be mentioned as an example of an issue relating to the concepts of the text. Poverty programs are mentioned as one of the “most notable instances … of regulated federalism” (Lowi et al., 2012, pg. 79). Inequality in the American political system is also largely ignored. Inequality is only mentioned 9 times, and only 3 of those are not in footnotes. From this analysis, it appears that poverty and inequality in the American political system tend to be overlooked. This does not support my hypothesis that political science would have more discussion of poverty than economics.

Students in the course were assigned all chapters of the textbook that included these brief mentions of poverty. The issue of inequality was somewhat more elaborated on in class lectures, especially during the lecture about interest groups and American politics. The professor explained that interest groups tend to represent the rich, as interest group participation increases by income. This course material was a more in-depth discussion of poverty than in economics, though it was nowhere near the level of sociology. This in-between treatment was consistent with my original hypothesis about political science’s treatment of poverty.


At the end of each course, students were sent a follow-up survey to determine if and how their knowledge and attitudes toward poverty had changed. Of the economics students who were sent the survey, 51 responded, for a response rate of 22%. In political science, 35 students, or 29%, responded to the follow-up survey. The course with the worst response rate to the follow-up survey was the sociology course. Despite repeated email reminders to complete the survey, only 14 people, or 7%, responded. This small sample size unfortunately made it impossible to conduct statistical analysis of the sociology data. However, qualitative analysis still yielded fruitful and interesting results. In all three cases, the samples were very similar demographically, suggesting that both samples were in fact representative of the general class population.

There were no large-scale shifts in opinions after taking the courses—however, there were some small but important changes. The following sections examine the most notable changes in belief of each course as a whole, as these provided the largest samples for analysis and the most interesting results. Statistical significance was determined using a simple t-test for difference of means between the before and after samples for each class. Only economics and political science’s statistical significance were analyzed as those had before and after samples large enough for a statistical test to be valid. The value of a mean represents the average of all responses to a particular question. Because responses were coded monotonically (e.g. scale of 1-3, where 1 indicates the least amount of support for a policy and 3 indicates the most support), statistically significant changes of mean responses meant that there were significant shifts in support/opposition to policies. P-values of 0.05 or less were considered significant.

I: Importance of Poverty

The proportion of people ranking child poverty as very important remained relatively similar before and after the class in both economics and political science. This makes sense, as neither class really mentioned the issue so it is unlikely student opinions changed. However, in sociology the percentage of people ranking child poverty as very important dropped by 15 points. Though this course was the one that focused the most on poverty, perhaps the focus on other social inequalities meant that students found child poverty to be less of an important issue. The perceived importance of adult poverty remained almost identical in all three classes, though political science saw a slight drop in the perceived importance of the issue. This suggests that mentioning adult poverty in sociology had little effect on how important students thought the issue was, as their lack of changes resembles the courses that did not discuss poverty at all.

II: Nature of Poverty

All students overestimated the poverty threshold for a family of four by nearly $10,000 both before and after the course (the actual official poverty line is $23,550). The average estimation dropped after both the sociology and political science courses, while after taking the economics course student estimates actually increased. Sociology students’ estimates after taking the course were closest to the actual poverty line, which suggests that the discussion of poverty may have had at least a minimal effect on students’ knowledge of what it means to be poor.

The tables in this section show some changes in what students thought were the most important causes of poverty in each class. Students in the economics class demonstrated the largest shifts in attitude. After taking the course, fewer named shortage of jobs as a major cause of poverty (Table 6.1). Shortage of jobs was the named as a major cause of poverty most often in the initial survey, so this decrease in support is particularly notable. It is likely that decreased support for shortage of jobs may come from the course material. In economics, economies are presented as having a natural rate of unemployment. This suggests that poor people’s inability to find jobs may not be the result of not enough jobs, but rather a natural phenomenon.

Sociology students also saw large changes in what they saw as the most important causes of poverty. The proportion of students who said that drugs and medical bills were major causes of poverty greatly increased, while those who saw too many immigrants as a problem essentially disappeared. This is relatively consistent with the themes of the course. The high cost of medical care and drugs were both mentioned during the class discussion of poverty, while the immigrant experience was discussed at a different point in the class. In this instance, it appears that the issues discussed in class did have a strong impact on student opinions.

Political science saw minimal changes in what students thought were the most important causes of poverty. There were no statistically significant changes.

This final set of tables shows the changes in which remedies students preferred to address poverty before and after taking the courses. In economics, students significantly decreased their support for several structural remedies for poverty, such as food stamps (Table 6.4) and tax credits for low-income workers (Table 6.5). This significant decrease in support for policies that require government intervention appears to be in line with the general attitudes presented in class—that the free market alone works better with minimal government intervention.

Sociology students also experienced major changes in attitudes. They increased their support for subsidized daycare and housing for poor people (Tables 6.6 and 6.7). These increases reflect the structural attitude toward poverty presented in the class. The increased support for expanding subsidized daycare is especially notable because sociology students were initially statistically significantly less likely than economics and political science students to support this policy. This nearly-20% increase in support, with the accompanying increase in support for public housing suggests that the ideas about poverty presented in the sociology class did indeed have an influence on students’ views. Finally, support for remedies for poverty changed very little after the political science course, reflecting poverty’s absence in the course material.


Overall, the hypotheses about disciplines mostly held true. Sociology, economics, and political science each utilized different approaches to address poverty. Sociology had the most discussion. Both political science and economics largely ignored the subject, though political science lectures did address inequality in a way that economics did not. Unfortunately, there was some difficulty in gauging the results due to the small size of the sociology “After” sample. Nonetheless, there were results of note. There were no large-scale general shifts, suggesting that one course alone may not have a significant of an effect on students’ political opinions or attitudes.

Several specific policies did exhibit significant changes. In economics, support declined for expanding food stamps, tax credits for the poor, and subsidized daycare. In contrast, sociology students tended to increase their support for such policies after the course. Political science, which neither espoused a specific economic view nor made mention of specific policy saw hardly any changes at all. This suggests that mentioning certain policies in classes may have an effect on what students think about those policies and policies similar to them. The different way that government intervention was portrayed in sociology and economics was also reflected in the way students’ attitudes toward government policy changed after taking each course.


Katie Singh


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