Penn Arts and Sciences

Annual Theme 2014-15

SINCE THE LAUNCH OF THE WAR ON POVERTY 50 years ago, there has been no shortage of proposals to combat this persistent American problem, ranging from statist to community-centered, from universal to tightly focused on the poor themselves, and from Keynesian to neoliberal.

During the 2014-15 academic year, the Penn Social Science & Policy Forum will take stock of the past and future of anti-poverty efforts, and their relation to economic opportunity more generally, both in the U.S. and globally. SSPF will draw on expertise across disciplines to address not only the economic issues involved, but the social factors of race, class and gender, as well as the overwhelming political problem of gearing policy to the needs of the powerless.

  • Friday, September 19, 2014 - 9:00am - 5:00pm

    AS HISTORIAN MICHAEL KATZ (who passed away on August 23) noted in a new edition of his classic, The Undeserving Poor, “poverty is deeply rooted” in American life. “Before the twentieth century, the nation lacked both the economic surplus and policy tools to eradicate it.” With the inception of the War on Poverty fifty years ago, however, economic abundance and new methods of providing social services joined together to confront poverty and, “for about a decade, this combination, backed by popular support and political will, did spectacularly well.” Since then, “poverty has been allowed to grow again.”

    Honoring and critically appraising his work in its first roundtable session, the Penn SSPF fall conference, “The War on Poverty at 50: Its History and Legacy,” will bring together leading scholars and policy analysts to examine the key questions Katz raises. What worked and what did not in the War on Poverty? Were its successes and failures the outcome of methods or of political will? Where did the political will to declare such a war come from? And in twenty-first century America, can it ever be regained?

    Participants include Gretchen Aguiar, Merlin Chowkwanyun (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Peter Edelman (Georgetown Law), Roberta Iversen (Penn SP2), Ira Katznelson (Columbia University and the Social Science Research Council), Felicia Kornbluh (University of Vermont), Sophia Lee (Penn Law), Greg Kaufmann (Center for American Progress), Alice O'Connor (University of California, Santa Barbara), Amy Offner (Penn), Annelise Orleck (Dartmouth), Wendell Pritchett (Interim Dean, Penn Law), Brian Purnell (Bowdoin), Dorothy Roberts (Penn Law), Crystal Sanders (Penn State), Eric Schneider (Penn), Gareth Stedman Jones (Queen Mary University of London), Thomas Sugrue (Penn), Karen Tani (University of California Berkeley, Law), Heather Ann Thompson (Temple), William Julius Wilson (Harvard), and more.

  • Tuesday, September 23, 2014 - 5:00pm - 6:30pm

    View now on YouTube.

    Co-sponsored by the Center for Africana Studies

    IN A TIGHTLY-ARGUED, EXHAUSTIVELY RESEARCHED article in The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations," acclaimed journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued that the injustices suffered by African Americans, from slavery to discriminatory housing policies,in both the South and the North, have continued to compound to the present day. The resulting segregation and disadvantage have, among other things, shaped the policing of African-American communities, with outcomes such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the harsh police response to the protests that followed.  In conversation with Thomas Sugrue, SSPF director and author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, Coates will explore the past and present of racial policies and politics in the U.S., as well as the prospects for achieving true reparations.

  • Friday, October 3, 2014 - 12:00pm - 1:30pm

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    DRAWING FROM THE THEMES OF HIS BOOK, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality, Deaton examines the health of nations, and its relation to their wealth. Deaton describes vast innovations that enabled developed nations’ great escape from deprivation and disease, as well as the wrenching setbacks: the successes of antibiotics, pest control, vaccinations, and clean water on the one hand, and disastrous famines and the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the other. He examines the United States, a nation that has prospered but is today experiencing slower growth and increasing inequality. He also considers how economic growth in India and China has improved the lives of more than a billion people. Deaton argues that international aid has been ineffective and even harmful. He suggests alternative efforts – including reforming incentives to drug companies and lifting trade restrictions – that will allow the developing world to bring about its own Great Escape.


  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014 - 4:30pm - 6:00pm

    PETER SINGER, author of The Life You Can Save and renowned Princeton philosophy professor, argues that we can, and should, donate to highly cost effective charities to improve the health and wellbeing of the world’s poor. Peter Singer is one of the most well-known living philosophers and a leader of the Effective Altruism movement, which applies evidence, reason and rationality to doing good. (See Professor Singer will discuss the moral case for helping others, and the evidence available to do so most effectively.

  • Wednesday, November 5, 2014 - 12:00pm - 1:30pm

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    Co-sponsored by the Penn Department of Sociology as part of their 2014-15 Colloquium Series.

    TO THE EXTENT THAT THE PUBLIC ACKNOWLEDGES POVERTY as an “accident of birth” rather than the outcome of an individual’s choices or abilities, it is often demographic features – race, class, ethnicity, family background, parents’ marital status – that are foregrounded.  David Brady’s work, however, points to what he argues is an even greater determinant of poverty: the “accident of birth” into a country with a greater or lesser commitment to supporting its citizens socially and economically. Among the world’s affluent nations, those where the welfare state has been and remains more robust exhibit lower levels of poverty.  The variation is striking even when the example of the United States, exceptional in its high levels of poverty, is removed.  In this talk, Brady questions the customary focus on demographics within nations to explain poverty, and shows that these explanations fall short from a comparative global perspective.


  • Friday, November 14, 2014 - 12:00pm - 1:30pm

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    AS THE FEDERAL MINIMUM WAGE HAS DECLINED in real terms over the decades, state and local governments have increasingly taken the initiative to provide a wage floor for low-wage workers. Dube, who participated in groundbreaking case-study research establishing the low impact of minimum wage laws on overall and teen employment, argues that local minimum wages make sense beyond being stop-gap measures in the face of inaction in Washington, D.C.  The cost of living varies widely in different localities, often resulting in low-wage workers being pushed deeper into poverty in areas where the median wage is higher. Even when the federal minimum wage is increased, he proposes that the nation’s minimum wages – plural – be pegged at half local-area median wages.

  • Friday, December 12, 2014 - 12:00pm - 1:30pm

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    FOR MORE THAN THREE DECADES, the policies that set the menu of opportunities and obstacles for poor and near-poor Americans have operated on false premises. Federal programs have assumed that low-income people face few barriers in searching out opportunities and exercising choice in the free market, even as state and local policymakers have created numerous spatial barriers that have made employment, social services, and other opportunities costly, difficult, or impossible to access. Moreover, federal policies have ignored the need to build supportive institutions to assist low-income Americans, assuming that private organizations will emerge when and where new needs appear. But dwindling federal funds, local indifference, and weak local capacities have meant that organizations designed to assist low-income people are overburdened, poorly located, or simply do not exist. Drawing on the cases of Chicago and Atlanta, as well as on national data on nonprofit organizations, Weir considers the disjuncture between federal programs directed at low-income people and the local spatial barriers that confront them.

  • Friday, January 23, 2015 - 12:00pm - 1:30pm

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    See an essay featuring Zelizer's book in the New Yorker and Zelizer's column for CNN on Johnson's portrayal in the new movie, Selma.

    BETWEEN NOVEMBER 1963, WHEN HE BECAME PRESIDENT, and November 1966, when his party was routed in the midterm elections, Lyndon Johnson spearheaded “The Great Society,” the most transformative agenda in American political history since the New Deal. Contrary to the conventional understanding that this was an unprecedented “liberal hour” in America, a moment, after Kennedy’s death, when the seas parted and Johnson could simply stroll through to victory, Professor Zelizer argues that Johnson’s legislative program faced bitter resistance, and that was the election of 1964 and burgeoning civil rights movement transformed conditions on Capitol Hill and made Congress receptive to passing the legislation in a short period of time.

  • Friday, February 27, 2015 - 12:00pm

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    See Ta-Nehisi Coates's column for the Washington Post's Wonkblog on a graph from Sharkey's "deeply troubling book, Stuck in Place."

    GROWING UP IN HIGH-POVERTY NEIGHBORHOODS has severe consequences for child development.  Sharkey argues that exposure to violent crime is a central reason for this, as indicated by several studies designed to identify the causal effect of exposure to specific incidents of violence on children’s cognitive functioning and academic performance.  In this light, what does the two-decade long drop in violent crime in the U.S. mean to those growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods? Sharkey examines evidence showing where violence has declined and where it has not, and seeks in ongoing research to determine whether the crime decline has reduced childhood inequality in America and whether it has changed the meaning of urban poverty.

  • Friday, April 10, 2015 - 12:00pm - 1:30pm

    WHY DO SOME POLITICAL ACTORS SEEK TO INCLUDE immigrants in civic life – for example, widening the pathway to citizenship or encouraging electoral participation – while others are indifferent or actively seek to exclude new arrivals?  In this manuscript workshop, SSPF Postdoctoral Fellow Erica Dobbs explores variation in civic outreach to immigrants in “new destinations,” societies where immigration is a recent phenomenon.  Drawing on the cases of Spain, Ireland, and Northern Ireland, the project considers why similar political actors facing similar waves of migration respond in such different ways, and argues that understanding how societies managed demands for greater civic inclusion from its own minority groups in the past can help us explain civic outreach to immigrants in the present.

    Michael Jones-Correa (Professor of Government, Cornell) and Rahsaan Maxwell (Associate Professor of Political Science, UNC-Chapel Hill) will comment on Dobbs' manuscript.

  • Friday, April 17, 2015 - 12:00pm - 1:30pm

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    Co-sponsored by the Penn-Temple European Studies Colloquium

    POVERTY IN EUROPEAN MEDITERRANEAN COUNTRIES has long been widespread, and policies to combat it scarce. Given its embeddedness in family and community, however, it has also been less marginalized and stigmatized than in many other societies, making it what French sociologist Serge Paugam has termed “integrated poverty.” In this talk, Professor Saraceno argues that changing social and cultural conditions in Mediterranean Europe have transformed the experience of poverty. While it is still widespread, family-centered, and geographically concentrated, cultural reference groups and aspirations have become more de-localized, strengthening the perception of  injustice and misfortune, while family solidarity is increasingly under stress.  At the same time, income support measures have been implemented so that, in order to receive support, the poor must increasingly give up their rights as citizens and adults, agreeing to be told what their needs are and how they should behave. So, while Mediterranean poverty remains distinctive, it increasingly involves the experiences of marginality and denigration typical of other areas.

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