Resources for Teaching Students About Poverty

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by Bethany Johnsen

Mentions of poverty and income inequality, in my own high school experience, arose just twice in the American history curriculum—when we studied the Gilded Age and when we studied the Great Depression. In some sense, this is unsurprising; such classes are broad in scope and must exclude in-depth focus on a number of important topics. When learning more about the history of poverty in the United States later in life, however, I have always been struck by the subject's appropriateness for secondary social studies education. When students read about the Civil War or Prohibition, they learn about events that helped shape today’s world, certainly, but also that seem, in some ways, resolved. Such issues do not feel immediately relevant to what we see on the evening news. Poverty, on the other hand, provides an example of a national problem that has existed since our founding and has excited varying degrees of public attention at many historical moments (including our own, with buzzwords like “the 1%” and “class warfare” shaping contemporary discussion). The study of poverty invites reflection on still broader issues important for good citizenship, such as the interrelationship of social beliefs and public policy.

For these reasons, I was excited about the recent launch of an excellent web resource by the Institute for Children, Poverty, & Homelessness, PovertyHistory.org. Although it focuses on New York City, many of the topics it addresses are of national significance, making it a relevant (not to mention engrossing) resource for any American. Students can learn about colonial times, the 19th century, the Progressive Era, the Great Depression, and the origins of New Urban Poverty through carefully researched timelines, maps, stories, and articles.

For teachers who have more time to devote to this issue, the University of North Carolina has developed an interdisciplinary high school curriculum on poverty, including units on The American Dream, Financial Literacy, The Great Depression, Measuring Poverty, Populations, and The War on Poverty.