Syllabus: A History of Poverty

December 18, 2018 JIE Updates

This is the syllabus for a course taught in 2017 at a maximum-security New York State prison. The course investigates the history of American poverty from the colonial period through the present day.

The History of Poverty
Chris Florio

In most societies, some are rich and many more are poor. So it has been through most recorded history – and so it remains in the United States. According to the Census Bureau’s 2015 estimates, the poverty rate in the U.S. is 13.5 percent, meaning that there are approximately 43 million Americans living in poverty as you read this. 

The project of this seminar will be to construct a history of America’s poor as vivid and precise as the histories that have long been written of the wealthy and the powerful.  Chronologically our emphasis will be on the last two centuries; geographically our focus will be on the United States, although we will reach out to the global worlds of poverty and welfare for the purposes of context and comparison.  We will look at the experiences of being poor and at changes in the processes of falling into and climbing out of poverty.  We will look at changes in the population of the poor, changes in the economic organization of cities and the countryside, and changes in the general distribution of wealth.  We will look at ideas of poverty and their impact on history.  And we will look, finally, at changes in the treatment of the poor: from charity to modern welfare policies.  At semester’s end, students will be able to interrogate the enduring presence of American poverty in light of its history and transformations.

WEEK ONE: Introducing American Poverty

  • Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), chap. 1
  • William Graham Sumner, “The Forgotten Man” (1883)

WEEK TWOEnglish Antecedents

  • Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost: England before the Industrial Age (1971), chap. 2
  • E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 50 (1971): 76-136
  • The English Poor law of 1601

WEEK THREE: The Industrial Revolution

  • Harold Perkin, The Origins of Modern English Society, 1780-1880 (1969), pp. 134-149
  • Robert Roberts, The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century (1971), chap. 5
  • Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (1986), chap. 3
  • George Fitzhugh, Cannibal All!  Or, Slaves Without Masters (1857), chap. 1

WEEK FOUR: Relieving the Poor

  • Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (2009), chap. 7
  • Michael Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (1986), chap. 2
  • Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), chap. 6

WEEK FIVE: Getting Ahead

  • Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York (1867)

WEEK SIX: The Working Poor

  • Alexander Keyssar, Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts (1986), chap. 3
  • Jacqueline Jones, The Dispossessed: America’s Underclass from the Civil War to the Present (1992), chap. 3
  • Tom E. Terrill and Jerrold Hirsch, eds., Such As Us: Southern Voices of the Thirties (1978), pp. 64-71, 86-93
  • Elizabeth Wang, “Leaves from the Life History of a Chinese Immigrant” in Judy Yung, Gordon Chang, and Him Mark Lai, eds., Chinese American Voices (2006), pp. 91-96
  • Marilyn P. Davis, ed., Mexican Voices/American Dreams: An Oral History of Mexican Immigration to the United States (1990), pp. 66-76

WEEK SEVENMaking an American Welfare State

  • James T. Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (2000), chaps. 4-5, 10-12
  • Linda Gordon, “Family Violence, Feminism, and Social Control,” Feminist Studies 12 (1986): 453-78
  • Lyndon B. Johnson, “State of the Union Address” (1964)

WEEK EIGHT: Living on the Margins

  • Mitchell Duneier, Sidewalk (1999), part 2: “New Uses of the Sidewalk”
  • Carl Husemoller Nightingale, On the Edge: A History of Poor Black Children and Their American Dreams (1993), chap. 5
  • Oscar Lewis, “The Culture of Poverty,” in Lewis, Anthropological Essays (1966)

WEEK NINERace and the Post-Industrial Economy

  • William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor (1997), chap. 5
  • Katherine S. Newman, No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City (2000), chaps. 4-5
  • Loïc Wacquant, “The Place of the Prison in the New Government of Poverty,” in After the War on Crime, ed. Marie Louise Frampton, Ián Haney López, and Jonathan Simon (2008)

WEEK TENPoverty Politics

  • James T. Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (2000), chaps. 14-16
  • Linda Gordon and Nancy Fraser, “A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State,” Signs 19 (1994): 309-336
  • Janet Poppendieck, Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement (1998), chap. 1


  • Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities of Our Time (2005), chap. 1
  • Pietra Rivoli, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy (2009), chaps. 5-6
  • James Ferguson, “Declarations of Dependence: Labour, Personhood, and Welfare in Southern Africa,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19 (2013): 223-242

WEEK TWELVEAmerican Poverty Presently

  • Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016), pp. 1-107

Featured image: Poverty, August 6, 2008. Photograph by Dr. Wendy Longo / Flickr