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Courses : Syllabi : 596

Geography 596 Geographies of Poverty


Pascale Joassart Marcelli

Course Description

According to the Census Bureau, 37 million individuals officially lived in poverty in the United States in 2006. Other measures of poverty, which include costs of living variations, estimate this population as high as 64 million more than one out of every five persons, with ethnic and racial minorities, women, and children disproportionately affected.

This course is designed to help us understand U.S. poverty from a geographic perspective. We will approach poverty as a socio-spatial phenomenon that is constituted through multiple scales (i.e., global, national, regional, local, household, and body) and needs to be situated in specific places.

In the first section of the course, we will focus on definitions of poverty. We will critically evaluate the implications of various types of definitions, including absolute, relative, behavioral, as well as more recent approaches that focus on social environment and capabilities. We will pay particular attention to representations of poverty in the media, popular culture, and literature.

In the second section, we will analyze the spatial distribution of poverty in the US, focusing on regions, states, rural vs. urban areas, and intra-metropolitan patterns. Spatial indicators of poverty segregation and concentration will be discussed.

In the third section, we will focus on the socio-spatial processes that constitute poverty, emphasizing the role of class, race, ethnicity, and gender.

In the fourth section, we will analyze the various spaces where poverty is re/produced. We will discuss work spaces and the rise of working poverty, access to health care, poverty-related environmental health risks, the educational gap, housing and homelessness. Through our exploration of these various spaces, we will investigate and challenge different theories regarding the causes of poverty.

In the fifth section, we will focus on anti-poverty policies and discuss the tension between individual- and place-based policies. We will review the history of anti-poverty policy in the US and discuss the effects of contemporary neoliberal policies including federal devolution, and more recently welfare reform. We will conclude this section by studying locally-based alternative policy responses and survival strategies, including informal work, anti-sweatshop campaigns, living wage initiatives, and responses from nonprofits and community-based organizations.


Geography 101 or 102 recommended


Your grade in this course will be based on the following elements:

You are required to read the material listed in the printed class schedule before each class. This is extremely important because it will enhance your learning experience and promote better informed and more challenging class discussions. There is no textbook that needs to be purchased for this course. All reading materials are posted on Blackboard.

You will be asked to write three research essays in which you will react to the reading material discussed in class or apply it to a specific issue. The best two essays will count towards your final grade. For undergraduate students, essays should be 4 to 5 page long, with a minimum of three references to peer-reviewed articles or books. For graduate students, essays should be 8 to 10 page long and include a more substantive review of the literature (at least ten references). The essays are due on the dates listed on the syllabus. You may substitute a research paper for the essays. This may be a particularly useful option for graduate students working on a thesis or dissertation. Please, discuss this with me at the beginning of the semester and I will provide guidelines.

You will be asked to read one novel or auto-biographical piece that provides a unique representation of poverty. You will write a 3 to 4 page book review that identifies the way the author conceptualizes poverty and critically evaluate its implications regarding the causes of poverty and potential “ways out of poverty”. Particular attention should be given to the role of place and time in shaping the experience of poverty represented in the book. Book reviews will be due on week 10.

Participation is graded based on attendance and contribution to class activities. Regular and punctual attendance is required. In addition to general class discussion, you will be asked to present parts of your essays or book review to the class.

Books and Materials

All readings available on Blackboard.

Weekly Topics

Week Topic
Week One
Part One
Intro to class
Poverty: Census Definition and Alternatives
Week Two Behavioral Perspectives: The Underclass Debate
Capabilities Approach
Week Three
Part Two
Representations of Poverty
Regions and States
Week Four
Part Two
Rural Poverty
Urban Poverty
Essay One Due
Week Five
Part Three
Income Inequality and Class
Week Six Ethnicity and Immigration
Week Seven
Part Four
Work I: Globalization and Economic Restructuring
Work II: Working Poverty and the Spatial Mismatch
Week Eight Work III: Informal Labor
Education: The Educational Gap
Essay Two Due
Week Nine Health I: Access to Health care
Health II: Health Risks and Environmental Justice
Week Ten Housing I: Subsidized Housing
Housing II: Home Ownership and Sub-prime Lending
Week Eleven
Part Five
Brief History of US Social Policy
Week Twelve State Restructuring
The Neoliberal State: Punitive Policies
Week Thirteen Individual vs. Place-Based Policies
Week Fourteen Service Provision and Poverty Management
Survival Strategies: Informal Economic Activities and Local Exchange and Trading Schemes (LETs)
Week Fifteen Union Organizing in a Global Era: Living Wage Campaigns and Anti-sweatshop Movement
The Third Way: Nonprofits and Community Organizations
Essay Three or Research Paper Due

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