Poverty has been a feature of American society from the colonial era up through the present. In times of economic crises, which have punctuated the whole of the nation’s history, poverty has been especially visible. But what it means to be poor in America has changed over time. Americans have viewed poverty contradictorily over this period, as both inevitable and eradicable. Responses to poverty have also varied throughout American history. As a result, we can view poverty as a historical phenomenon, one whose change and persistence we can chart, and whose narrative sheds light on how Americans have chosen to construct and organize their society over time.
The course examines a variety of perspectives on the history of poverty and economic crises: how poor people made their way in the world and organized for their own benefit; how poverty has been viewed by experts, advocacy groups, and media; and how poverty has been addressed by the government, through legislation. We will be attuned to the way that age, status, employment, race and gender have played a role in how poverty has been experienced, perceived, and addressed.