A Cross-Curricular, Problem-Based Project to Promote Understanding of Poverty in Urban Communities
Gardner, Daniel S., Tuchman, Ellen, Hawkins, Robert, Journal of Social Work Education
FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY, reducing poverty and increasing economic opportunity have been fundamental to the mission of the social work profession. Social workers view poverty not as evidence of individual failing, but as a social problem rooted in historic and contemporary social structures, policies, and values that support the inequitable distribution of resources among individuals and communities (Abramovitz, 1998; National Association of Social Workers, 2009). Poverty is inseparable from social problems including racism, sexism, ageism, homelessness, hunger, poor health, inadequate health care, family violence, lack of educational opportunities, and limited access to community resources (New York City Commission for Economic Opportunity [NYCCEO], 2006; Rank, 2005).
A community-level perspective is particularly relevant given the current period of economic insecurity and widening income gap; deteriorating public infrastructure (e.g., the failure of the New Orleans levees, and the 2007 collapse of the Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis); and inadequate federal and municipal responses to disasters such as severe storms, flooding, heat waves, and the attacks of 9/11. As social work educators, we prepare our students to look beyond individual and family vulnerabilities and to appreciate the multidimensional structural aspects of poverty, the barriers placed on the health and well-being of all Americans, and the importance of engaging in antipoverty work with vulnerable communities.
In this article we describe the use of problem-based learning (PBL) to teach students about the scope and consequences of urban poverty through an innovative cross-curricular project that incorporates community-level assessment, collection and surveying of public data, and social policy analysis and planning. We describe the Community Assessment Project (CAP) to illustrate the planning, implementation, and preliminary evaluation of an assignment designed to promote a deeper, more comprehensive and critical understanding of the multiple and interacting factors that affect the lives of the clients and communities that social workers serve. Students in three master's classes worked together to examine urban communities and assess the needs and resources of at-risk populations, in order to determine the impact of poverty and economic insecurity on our most vulnerable clients. We (the instructors of the three participating courses) discuss the challenges and implications of developing and implementing a problem-based assignment that integrates material from social work research and policy practice.
Poverty and Vulnerability in New York City
In each of the last 15 years, between 11 and 15% of the population in the United States has lived below the poverty line (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, Smith, & U.S. Census Bureau, 2006), with roughly 40% dropping into poverty at some point over a 10-year period. Almost 20% of the population--more than 1.5 million people--lives below the poverty line in New York City, and an additional 19% of New Yorkers are considered "near-poor" (NYCCEO, 2006). Three distinct categories of New Yorkers are more likely to live in poverty: older adults, children under 18 years of age, and female-headed households. For those over age 65, the poverty rate was approximately 19% in 2006; for children and single-parent families the rates were 28% and 30%, respectively (NYCCEO, 2006). Economic status varies widely, with significant disparities between high income and poor or near-poor residents. Although those living in poverty reflect the diversity of the city as a whole, poverty in New York is concentrated both geographically in neighborhoods and communities and demographically by age, gender, race, and immigration status.
Systematic exclusion from power; poor public planning; and a lack of access to basic housing, jobs, and critical community services limit the opportunities and social capital of low-income urban community members. …