Academic journal article Social Education

The Causes of Poverty: Thinking Critically about a Key Economic Issue

Academic journal article Social Education

The Causes of Poverty: Thinking Critically about a Key Economic Issue

Article excerpt

From the first day of my economics course, I work hard to explain to students what they are not going to learn about in my class. There will not be a stock-market competition; we will not learn how to read a balance sheet; and we will not start our own business. This causes some confusion. Many students sign up for my class expecting to learn about entrepreneurship, investing, and finance. All of these topics are worth our students' time, but in social studies, economics means something very different from what it does in business studies. Business education helps students become business leaders; social studies education helps students become socially responsible citizens.

Economics is a central part of civic education. Students need to know about the Constitution and the party system, but active citizenship in the twenty-first century requires much more than our standard civics courses offer. Economic issues dominate public policy debates ranging from Social Security to immigration to international security. If our students cannot evaluate economic arguments, they can do little but watch democracy from the sidelines or step into the fray partially blindfolded. Consider the following: an 18-year-old voter hears a candidate make an argument for carbon trading, and she tries to determine if the argument is a good one. She needs to use economic reasoning to predict the short-term and long-term consequences for the U.S. and global economy and environment. She must apply ethical reasoning to evaluate the moral implications of the policy, and she needs to employ political reasoning to estimate the policy's likely impacts on international relations. Helping students develop proficiency in this type of decision making is challenging, exciting, and critically important.

The first step is teaching students the nature of arguments about economic issues. In arguments about economic policies, both of the opposing sides cite data and graphs and use technical jargon in support of their views. While these create an impression of scientific objectivity, students need to understand that arguments about economic issues are based on interpretations of data, and that different analysts can reach different judgments about those data. These judgments and interpretations are often subjective and rooted in political beliefs. I start teaching students about these arguments with an introductory lesson on poverty and welfare (I use two 90-minute blocks for the lesson).

I choose to begin with poverty for a few reasons. First, the topic is provocative and engaging. Most students are interested in poverty and welfare due to the stigma attached to both. Second, a lesson exploring statistics on poverty provides a good opportunity to think critically about data, because measuring poverty is fraught with technical and political problems. In addition, the data on poverty is relatively easy to understand for students unfamiliar or uncomfortable with quantitative analysis. The data's accessibility helps to build students' confidence, while the shortcomings of the data bring real complexity to the topic. Lastly, arguments over poverty and welfare are emotional and political. This helps students grasp the subjective and political dimension of arguments about economic issues.

The lesson begins with a "barometer" activity where students stand at various points on a spectrum to indicate their agreement or disagreement with various statements about welfare and poverty (Figure 1, pg. 75). A barometer activity gets my students out of their chairs and talking to one another, and provides me with some early indications of student attitudes and prior knowledge. We debrief by talking about the origins of students' positions and by identifying the core areas of disagreement. I explain to students that our study of poverty will not resolve the debate, but it will help them be more informed, critical decision makers.


Figure 1. … 
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