Inequality and Poverty in the United States

Uncover the paradox of how inequality thrives in this so-called land of opportunity.


The U.S. is in the midst of an inequality explosion. The upper class has become wondrously rich. Abject poverty is on the rise. A de facto caste system – in which opportunities to get ahead depend on a birth lottery – is firmly in place and is now viewed as natural. The historic decline in gender inequality, which many had thought would continue on until full equality was achieved, has stalled out for many key outcomes. And extreme racial discrimination and racial animus remain at the center of the American story some 150 years after the end of the Civil War. All of this has happened in a so-called land of opportunity.

But how did it happen? And what can be done about it?  Is an anti-inequality revolution on the horizon?

The first half of this course will engage with the best available evidence – typically drawn from new troves of big data – on the sources and causes of recent changes in income inequality, residential segregation, poverty and homelessness, and racial and gender inequality. The second half of the course examines the possibility of countervailing inequality-reducing movements. Could a basic income movement change everything? Can we high-tech our way out of inequality? Could opportunity be “taken out of the market” by treating it as a fundamental right? Can we nudge our way to equality? For each of these inequality-reducing possibilities, we’ll explore how change might happen … either via top-down reform or a bottom-up movement.

The course work is as follows: (a) a weekly essay, (b) a research paper or opinion piece, and (c) participation in social service activities with agencies that take on homelessness, food insecurity, and other needs.

Meet the Instructor(s)

David Grusky

Barbara Kimball Browning Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research

David B. Grusky is Edward Ames Edmonds Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, Professor of Sociology, Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Faculty Fellow at the Center for Population Health Sciences, Director of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, coeditor of Pathways Magazine, and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His research addresses such topics as the future of extreme inequality in the United States, recent trends in social mobility, new approaches to reducing poverty and increasing mobility, and new ways to uncover “poverty crises” in the making before it’s too late.