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In a New Stanford MOOC, Leading Scholars Shed Much-Needed Light on Poverty in America

July 26, 2017
Americas Course on Poverty


“America’s Poverty Course” offers a timely and comprehensive introduction to the causes of — and potential remedies for — inequality across the nation

By Simon Firth


A new Stanford Online course starting in July provides the first comprehensive open course on poverty and equality in the United States.

“Not only do we have very high levels of poverty and inequality in America today,” notes course co-creator David B. Grusky, professor of sociology and director of Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, “but we also have extraordinary inequality of access to information about that inequality.”

In America’s Poverty Course, Grusky and Lindsay Owens, a Stanford-trained sociologist and economic policy advisor to Senator Elizabeth Warren, tackle both issues head-on: offering a comprehensive exploration of the extent of poverty and inequality in the United States through an online course that is free and accessible to all.

The self-paced class explores changes in U.S. inequality and poverty levels over the last forty years and asks why those levels have increased so much and what might be done to help bring them down.

“This course rounds up all of the best research over the past decade that takes on those questions,” says Owens. “We’ve asked pretty much everyone who has made an important contribution to this field of inquiry — including leading economists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, and educators — to weigh in. It’s an incredible opportunity to hear from a group of people who you would otherwise never have access to.”

Each topic opens with a video introduction from Grusky and Owens laying out the key questions and themes to be addressed. Participants then view a series of short video presentations in which experts share their research and perspectives on the question at hand.

Topics covered include the extent and causes of poverty in America, the lived experience of poverty in the US, educational inequality, social mobility, gender inequality, and racial and ethnic inequality.

Among the more than forty featured contributors are Johns Hopkins University sociologist Kathryn Edin on living in poverty, Harvard social scientist and MacArthur fellow Matthew Desmond on unstable housing, Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist James Heckman on the impact of early childhood intervention, and Stanford economist and MacArthur fellow Raj Chetty on current trends in social mobility.

Video material is supported by suggested reading and links to other resources that participants can explore to delve deeper into the topic. Participants can earn a statement of accomplishment by completing graded assessments. They are also encouraged to discuss their ideas and opinions with fellow participants online.

“Any of the videos we feature can also stand alone, so if you are interested in, say, Raj Chetty’s work on geographic differences and intergenerational mobility, you could watch just that one mini-lecture,” Owens explains.

The course has already generated much interest among students, policy makers, researchers, and employees of US non-profits. The entire economics reporting staff of a major national magazine have been asked, for example, to sign up to become familiar with the latest research in the field.

For the general public, says Owens, “there’s a real opportunity for people who are on the front line, like small business owners and managers, to learn about hiring discrimination, stereotyping, wage inequality, and other organizational dynamics that they will find useful to their day-to-day operations.”

The online format allows participants to travel across the country to learn from the top scholars where ever they are. As Grusky notes, “Even students attending elite institutions only have access to the professors in their own institution, which is a real disadvantage because -- as it happens -- there are great professors all over the country. With the MOOC format, we can present the field in its entirety — and that’s pretty special.”

Also distinctive is his and Owens’ commitment to delivering cutting edge results in an understandable way, Grusky adds. “Even academics appreciate a straightforward introduction when they need to access a field in which they aren’t specialists,” he says. “It’s a painless way to cut to the chase and learn about key results in the field.”