HI 526: Poverty and Democracy: Modern India and the United States in Comparative Perspective

Professor Benjamin Siegel
3:30-6:15 pm
Fall 2018

What is poverty? Can we identify and assess it most effectively through statistics or other metrics, or does a definition require the work of prose or poetry? Is the state of being “poor” merely a question of resources, or does it suggest other deprivations? And how do we explain the persistence of poverty in modern democracies, when political theorists contend that increased democratic freedoms invariably lead to increased wealth and well-being?

This seminar poses these questions in the context of the two largest democratic projects in history: the United States, and the Republic of India. Both share the lofty ideals of universal suffrage, electoral representation, and freedom of expression. Yet both countries’ democratic projects, in the late twentieth century, are marred by growing levels of inequality and pockets of abject poverty alike.

Over the course of a semester, we will read historical, empirical, and journalistic accounts of poverty in India and the United States. We will root ourselves in the careful analysis of qualitative (and occasionally quantitative) evidence, and pay particularly attention to the work of liberal, conservative, and contrarian journalists working to chronicle poverty, aware of the unique role that a free press plays in democracies. And in crafting and workshopping final projects – individual opinion pieces on poverty designed for publication – we will see if a better understanding of poverty might help us work towards its amelioration.