Beckley aims to push poverty studies beyond research



When Harlan Beckley realized many of the students and faculty around him didn’t know much about poverty — despite its pervasiveness in the United States — he was inspired to create a program of studies dedicated to it.

Although there is a tremendous amount of work done in poverty research at universities, there was a near-vacuum of poverty studies in undergraduate and professional education, Beckley said.

Beckley, founder and executive director of the Shepherd Higher Education Poverty Consortium, will give a special lecture at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.

“It’s about the magnitude of poverty in the United States, which is far greater than most people recognize, and about the reality that undergraduate and professional education in the United States has done very little to respond to this social problem that’s huge in our nation,” he said.

The lecture, titled “Rethinking Poverty and Inequality: Changing Higher Education,” will approach the issue of poverty in multiple ways. Beckley, 70, will address the family as an important support for opportunities for children, education and schools — both in- and after-school programs — health care, the labor market and low-income jobs and legal problems such as mass incarceration and lack of legal services.

Beckley will also assert that the U.S. is among the poorest — if not the poorest — of the developed nations.

The consortium Beckley founded, of which 22 colleges and universities are now part, provides an interdisciplinary education, with both classroom and firsthand experiences. Students spend time volunteering, in areas that often coincide with their professional career goals.

“Direct service, of course, has the benefit of doing good things for people and agencies and communities,” Beckley said. “They really can’t understand poverty in the United States unless they’ve had some direct service.”

Beckley, who taught religion for 23 years, said his interest in poverty studies is rooted in religious ethics and his understandings of social justice were primarily gained from social religious ethicists.

Poverty studies isn’t a major because the program is meant for students to see how they can work to mitigate poverty in myriad ways from a variety of professional roles, Beckley said. They are not necessarily trying to create poverty researchers or social workers, but rather trying to prepare students in health care, law, education, business, community development and ministry.

“The greatest takeaway is that if we can expand these programs in undergraduate education in the United States, that we will be graduating thousands of students each year who have an interest in and are informed about and have a commitment to doing something about diminishing poverty,” he said.