American Sociological Association

Section on Inequality, Poverty, and Mobility

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
November 2016
Volume 
44
Issue 
7

America’s Poverty and Inequality Course

Stephanie Garlow and David B. Grusky, Stanford University

How much does the average person in the U.S. know about domestic poverty and inequality? The best evidence is … not much. When asked, for example, to characterize the amount of wealth inequality in the U.S., most people vastly underestimate how much inequality there is.

It’s not only that the average level of knowledge is low. It’s also that access to information about poverty and inequality is unequal. For a college student who wants to learn more, it’s a matter of taking a course, as almost every college has one. With about six percent of Americans in college, what about everyone else? How can they learn about the takeoff in income inequality, the stalling-out of long-term declines in gender inequality, the rise of concentrated poverty, and all manner of other basic facts about poverty, inequality, and their causes?

In response to these information problems, the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality developed a comprehensive online course, which tackles key questions about domestic poverty and inequality: What types of inequality are increasing? What types are declining? What accounts for these changes? And what types of institutional changes, interventions, or policies might affect the amount of poverty and inequality?

What Is an Online Course?

The typical online course is a video of a professor delivering a lecture. Rather than relying on the traditional lecture format, we traveled all over the country with a roving production team, visiting the country’s top scholars and asking them to present their own research in self-contained micro-lectures (about five minutes long). We asked the scholars to describe the question that motivated their research, how they set out to address that question, and the key findings and the implications of those findings.

The course instructors, David Grusky and Lindsay Owens, introduce each of the eight topical areas with a video that addresses theoretical and empirical issues, the ways in which those issues have been approached, and how the upcoming contributions fit into the larger scientific literature. For students who want to learn more, the videos are paired with suggested readings. In addition, reactions and ideas can also be shared in the discussion forum or via the class wiki.

In addition, we will be releasing the videos as stand-alones that can be embedded in a course lecture. Instead of summarizing the work of Kathy Edin, Matt Desmond, Bill Wilson, or Devah Pager, why not embed a 5-minute presentation by the scholars themselves? This approach breaks up the lecture, helps convey the excitement of the process of discovery, and exposes students to the diversity of the field’s leading scholars.

The course debuted on October 11 and runs through December 15 on the Stanford Online course platform (thepovertycourse.lagunita.stanford.edu). It was developed with support from the American Sociological Association, the Stanford University Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation), and the Elfenworks Foundation.

Why Create This Course?

By offering a course that is both free and open to the public, we have broadened the possible audience beyond the traditional college student, opening it up to anyone who wants to learn more. We hope to reach a wide audience of high-school students, non-traditional students, employees in the social services sector, professionals who address issues of poverty and inequality in their work, and the public more widely.

We have tried to satisfy the differing aims of our broad audience. For example, undergraduates seeking a credential to list on their resume can complete the entire course and earn a certificate, while journalists, industry professionals, policymakers, and scholars can tune in to the videos that cover topics they find most relevant. 

What’s Different about This Course?

If there’s a unifying theme to our approach, it’s that we view the course as a native video product, more akin to a Vice video or New York Times documentary than a traditional classroom lecture. Available research on online videos shows that most students stop watching at about the seven-minute mark. Despite such evidence, most online course videos last between 20 and 45 minutes, as they are typically produced by filming an existing brick-and-mortar class and turning it into an online course.

We have also attempted to build an online course that is stylistically and visually appealing. We developed the graphics in-house and hired a top producer, Ashley Tindall, to take the lead in filming, editing, and producing our videos. This approach resulted in high production quality videos that catch—and hold—your attention.

To learn more, check out the course website (thepovertycourse.lagunita.stanford.edu). The course is offered annually and the videos are also available on our website (inequality.stanford.edu/publications/media/video).


The course’s 50 videos fall into eight topical modules covering income inequality, the experience and causes of poverty, educational access and outcomes, social mobility, and gender, racial, and ethnic inequality. Below are examples of some of the videos:

“The Takeoff in Income Inequality.” Emmanuel Saez

“Deunionization,” Bruce Western

“Living in Poverty,” Kathryn Edin

“Poor Neighborhoods,” Robert Sampson

“Unequal Childhoods,” Annette Lareau

“Unstable Housing,” Matt Desmond

“Early Childhood Intervention,” James Heckman

“The Rise in the Income Achievement Gap.” Sean Reardon

“The Slowdown in Higher Education,” Michael Hout

“Current Trends in Social Mobility,” Raj Chetty

“Gender Discrimination in the Labor Market,” Cecilia Rouse

“Joblessness and Poor Neighborhoods,” William J. Wilson

“Race, Employment and a Criminal Record.” Devah Pager