Harvard SUP205 Inequality and Social Policy

… one of the Specimen Courses in Socioeconomic and Political Context

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Click for syllabus

Course description

This course will explore the research on social inequality and its application in social policy. Emphasis will be placed on institutions that mediate the transmission and reproduction of inequality, including families, schools, neighborhoods, labor markets, the welfare system, and the criminal justice system. Following a series of introductory lectures, the first lecture of each week will present an overview of the topic, empirical trends, and relevant research. The second class of each week will feature “policy panels” in which students will present on relevant policy applications related to the topic under discussion. The final two weeks of the semester will be reserved for group presentations in which students will work together to design an original module related to the study of inequality and social policy.


Devah Pager (Spring 2014)


https://www.hks.harvard.edu/degrees/teaching-courses/course-listing/sup-205, downloaded 20 January 2014.

Syllabus link on Atlas


Alignment between class topics and Atlas core normed topics

NOTE: The core topics in this subject are still being refined. The final Atlas topics will likely align more closely with the class topics in this course.

SUP205 Class Topic
Closest Normed Topic (core*)
1 Introduction to the Study of Inequality and Social Policy The Study of the Socioeconomic Context for Politics and Policy*
2 Racial Inequality and Discrimination Race, Discrimination, and Inequality
3 Gender and Class Group Identity in Politics and Policy*
4 Families Family Structure, Employment, and Poverty*
5 Schools (K-12) Education and Labour Markets*
6 Higher Education Selectivity, Sorting, and Inequality in Higher Education
7 Neighborhoods Neighbourhoods and Inequality
8 Labor Markets Immigration and Labour Markets
9 Public Assistance and Welfare Public Assistance and Welfare
10 Penal Institutions Punishment and Inequality
11 Politics of Inequality Income Inequality*
12 Group Presentations The Study of the Socioeconomic Context for Politics and Policy*

Reaction Papers: Students will be responsible for writing six reaction papers on the week’s readings. Reaction papers should be 1 to 2 single-spaced pages and should offer (1) a concise summary of the major arguments in that week’s readings; (2) a critical evaluation of the readings, including a discussion of limitations in the research; (3) a short statement about policy implications. Reaction papers will be graded on a check, check-plus, check-minus standard. A check responds thoughtfully to the assignment; a check-plus shows unique/exemplary insight in its reflection and critique; a check-minus has one or more serious problems or shows little effort. Papers should be posted to the Course Pages site (specific location TBA) by noon Monday of the relevant week.

Policy Panels: Each student will sign up for one policy panel during the semester. Students will be expected to select, research, and present on a specific policy intervention related to the topic under study. For example, in the week on K-12 schooling, one might focus on policies related to improving teacher quality, reducing class size, or providing financial incentives to students to improve achievement. Any policy is fair game as long as there is sufficient documentation of its implementation and effects. Each student will have roughly 15 minutes to present on their selected policy intervention. Presentations should include discussion of: What was the goal of this policy? How was the intervention informed by the issues raised in the relevant research? How has this intervention been evaluated and what are strengths and weaknesses of the design? What are the effects of this policy intervention and what conclusions can be drawn? What political considerations are relevant to adopting this policy approach? What gaps in our knowledge remain in this area? Students are welcome to choose policy applications from U.S. or international contexts. Students are encouraged to choose policy interventions that have been subjected to rigorous evaluation. If the evaluation literature is weak, provide a critique of the existing studies and a proposal for a more rigorous evaluation. In addition to the 15 minute presentation, students are expected to submit a written version of their policy brief by noon on the Wednesday before their presentation. Briefs should be posted to the Course Page (specific location TBA). These briefs should be 2 to 4 single-spaced pages. They should concisely cover each of the points above. See the policy brief by Gordon Berlin and James Riccio, “Paying for Good Behavior,” as an example. At the end of each policy panel, audience members will be asked to vote on the allocation of $20 million dollars to reduce inequality in the area under study. Students can vote to allocate all resource for one policy intervention; to divide the policy dollars across several approaches; or to allocate the money to continued research on more effective approaches.

Group Projects: Any one course cannot possibly cover all the relevant topics one might want to learn about. The final group project gives students an opportunity to delve into a relevant topic that has not been directly covered in class. Examples of appropriate topics include: Inequality in Health and Healthcare; Inequality and the Great Recession; Immigration and Inequality; International Perspectives on Inequality. Students will work together in small groups to design a course module that should include: (1) a clear statement of the topic to be investigated; (2) a synthetic overview of key research; and (3) a discussion of one or more policy interventions related to this issue, with attention to the quality of evidence for any policy impact. The module will be presented in the form of a 10 page (single-spaced) written report and a 20 minute oral presentation. Students should sign up for groups no later than Monday, March 3rd and should have chosen a topic no later than Monday, March 10th.


Course grades will be based on the following components:

Reaction papers: 25%

Policy brief: 30% (half oral, half written)

Group project 30% (half oral, half written)

Class participation 15%

Class participation will be judged by a combination of quantity and quality. Credit for quantity will max out at 7.5% of the overall course grade, after which improvements (the remaining 7.5%) can only be based on quality of contributions.

Class topics and readings

Week 1: Introduction to the Study of Inequality and Social Policy

This week’s lectures and readings consider a number of dilemmas in the study of inequality: Why has inequality grown? How does inequality in the U.S. compare to other wealthy nations? Should we be concerned about rising inequality? What dimensions of inequality matter and why? January 28: What do we know about inequality? January 30: Is Inequality a problem?

The White House. 2013. “Remarks by the President on Economic Mobility.”

Jencks, Christopher. 2002. “Does Inequality Matter?” Daedalus 131: 49-65.

Sen, Amartya. 2008. “From Income Inequality to Economic Inequality.” In Grusky, David, Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective.

Smeeding, T. 2006. “Poor people in rich nations: The United States in comparative perspective.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 20:69–90.

Week 2: Racial Inequality and Discrimination

This week’s lectures and readings consider trends in racial and ethnic inequality. We will consider a range of historical, structural, and cultural explanations for persistent racial inequality. A second lecture will focus on the particular role of discrimination in shaping contemporary patterns of racial inequality. February 4: Racial Inequality February 6: Discrimination

Wilson, William Julius. 1978. The Declining Significance of Race, ch.7.

Pager, Devah, Bruce Western, and Bart Bonikowski. 2009. “Discrimination in a Low Wage Labor Market: A Field Experiment.” American Sociological Review.

Sunstein, Cass. 1991. “Why Markets Don’t Stop Discrimination.” Social Philosophy and Policy.

Steinberg, Stephen. 1981. “Ethnic Heroes and Racial Villains in American Social Science” Pp.263-302 in The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America. New York: Atheneum.

Portes, Alejandro, and Min Zhou. 1993. “The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and its Variants Among Post-1965 Immigrant Youth.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 530:74-96.

Week 3: Gender and Class

This week’s lectures and readings will consider the role of gender and class in shaping inequality. Together, race, gender, and class represent key axes of inequality, though each with its own trajectory and significance. We will consider gender inequality in households and labor markets. We will consider class inequality as it is shaped across generations. February 11: Gender inequality; February 13: Class and mobility.

Correll. 2004. “Constraints into preferences: Gender, status and emerging career aspirations.” American Sociological Review: 69: 93-113.

Kelly, Erin, Phyllis Moen, and Eric Tranby. 2011. “Changing Workplaces to Reduce Work-Family Conflict: Schedule Control in a White-Collar Organization.” American Sociological Review 76:265.

Brines, Julie. 1994. “Economic Dependency, Gender, and the Division of Labor at Home.” American Journal of Sociology 100(3): 652-689.

Lareau. 2002. “Invisible Inequality: Social Class and Parenting in White and Black Families.” American Sociological Review

Massey, Douglas S. 1996. “The Age of Extremes: Concentrated Affluence and Poverty in the Twenty-First Century.” Demography 33(4):395-412

Week 4: Families

This week will focus on the role of the family in producing and reproducing inequalities. Families shape children’s life chances in multiple ways throughout the life course, providing important social, cognitive, and material resources for child development. We will discuss recent trends in family structure and their implications for rising inequality. February 18: Inequality in American Families; February 20: Policy Panel.

Cherlin, 2005. “American Marriage in the Early Twenty First Century.” Future of Children 15 (2).

Oppenheimer, Kalmijn & Lim, 1997. “Men’s Career Development and Marriage Timing During a Period of Rising Inequality.” Demography 34, 311-330

Akerloff, Yellen & Katz 1996. “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 277-317.

Anna Gassman-Pines & Hirokazu Yoshikawa. 2006. “Five-Year Effects of an Anti-Poverty Program on Marriage among Never-Married Mothers.” JAPPAM 25, 11–30.

McLanahan, Amato, & Furstenberg 2007 “Should Government Promote Marriage?” JAPPAM, 26, 4: 951-964.

Week 5: Schools (K-12)

This week will focus on the role of schools in reducing or reproducing inequalities. We will consider how race, class, and gender shape schooling trajectories and how educational policy may be targeted to mitigate key disparities. February 25: Educational inequality; February 27: Policy Panel.

Reardon. 2012 “The Widening Academic-Achievement Gap between the Rich and the Poor.” In Murnane & Duncan (eds.) Whither Opportunity. Russell Sage Foundation

Alexander, Entwisle & Olson. 2007. “Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap.” American Sociological Review. 72:167-180.

DiPrete, Thomas and Jennifer Jennings. 2012. “Social and Behavioral Skills and the Gender Gap in Early Educational Achievement.” Social Science Research.

Heckman, “Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children.” Science.

Curot, Vilsa E. Roland Fryer, and Meghan L. Howard. 2012. “It May Not Take a Village: Increasing Achievement among the Poor.” Ch.23 in Murnane & Duncan (eds.) Whither Opportunity. Russell Sage Foundation

Week 6: Higher Education

This week will consider the unique role that colleges and universities play in the transmission of inequality. How does higher education mediate inequality by race, gender, and class? How might we rethink social policy in ways that could better address the problems of rising inequality in access to college? March 4: Inequality in Higher Education; March 6: Policy Panel

Hout, Michael. Rationing Opportunities: How America’s Colleges and Universities are Failing. Ch1&2.

Haveman, Robert and Timothy Smeeding. 2006. “The Role of Higher Education in Social Mobility.” The Future of Children.

Alon & Tienda. 2007. “Diversity, Opportunity and the Shifting Meritocracy in Higher Education.” American Sociological Review, 72(4): 487-511.

Espenshade & Chung. 2005. “The Opportunity Cost of Admission Preferences at Elite Universities.” Social Science Quarterly.

Perry, Marc. 2013. “A Star MOOC Professor Defects – at Least for Now.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Week 7: Neighborhoods

This week will focus on the role of neighborhoods in producing and reproducing inequalities. In his book The Truly Disadvantaged, William Julius Wilson argued that changes in neighborhood conditions during the 1970s and 1980s led to increases in social disorganization and reductions in children’s life chances. This book stimulated several theoretical critiques as well as large body of empirical research aimed at identifying neighborhoods conditions that mattered, and, more recently, whether neighborhoods have a causal effect on life chances. March 11: Neighborhood Inequality; March 13: Policy Panel

Wilson, William Julius. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged. Pp. 20-62.

Sharkey, P. (2010). “The Acute Effect of Local Homicides on Children’s Cognitive Performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(26), 11733-11738.

Clampet-Lundquist & Massey. 2008. “Neighborhood Effects: A Reconsideration.” American Journal of Sociology.

Ludwig et al. 2008. “What Can We Learn about Neighborhood Effects from the MTO Experiment?” American Journal of Sociology.

Sampson. 2008. “Moving to Inequality: Neighborhood effects and experiments meet social structure.” American Journal of Sociology

Week 8: Labor Markets

This week will focus on labor market structures and how they affect inequality. The readings this week investigate (1) structural shifts in the labor markets and their consequences for employment inequality; and (2) distortions in labor market outcomes produced by social relations (e.g., networks) and social divisions (e.g., race/ethnicity). March 25: Labor Market Inequality; March 27: Policy Panel

Morris, Martina & Bruce Western. 1999. “Inequality in Earnings at the Close of the Twentieth Century.” Annual Review of Sociology.

DiPrete, Thomas, Gregory M. Eirich, Matthew Pittinsky. 2010. “Compensation, Benchmarking, Leapfrogs, and the Surge in Executive Pay.” American Journal of Sociology.

Waldinger, Roger and Michael Lichter. 2003. How the Other Half Works. Chapters 6 & 9.

Kalev, Alexandra, Frank Dobbin, & Erin Kelly. 2006. “Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies.” American Sociological Review.

Week 9: Public Assistance and Welfare

This week considers dilemmas in the provision of public assistance. Does welfare foster dependency or does it support independence? How has public assistance changed since welfare reform in the 1990s? How might we structure public assistance in ways that promote economic self-sufficiency while providing a meaningful safety net? April 1: Welfare and Inequality; April 3: Policy Panel

Ellwood, David. 1988. “Values and the Helping Conundrum.” Pp14-44 in Ellwood, David. Poor Support: Poverty in the American Family.

Soss, Joe, Richard Fording, and Sanford F. Schram. 2011. “Race and the Local Politics of Punishment in the New World of Welfare.” American Journal of Sociology. 116(5): 1610-57.

Edin, Kathryn and Laura Lein. 1997. “The Choice Between Welfare and Work.” Pp. 218-235 in Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

H. Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin. 2013. “Extreme Poverty in the United States, 1996 to 2011.” Michigan National Poverty Center Policy Brief #28.

Berlin, Gordon. 2007. “Rewarding the work of Individuals: A Counterintuitive Approach to Reducing Poverty and Strengthening Families.” Future of Children.

Week 10: Penal Institutions

This week will focus on how the criminal justice system affects inequality. The rate of incarceration has increased more than five-fold over the past three decades, with more than 2 million people currently behind bars and more than 700,000 being released from prison each year. Readings for this week focus on the consequences of incarceration for labor market outcomes, political participation, and family and community stability. April 8: Punishment and Inequality; April 10: Policy Panel

Western & Beckett. 1999. “How Unregulated is the U.S. Labor Market? The Penal System as a Labor Market Institution.” American Journal of Sociology 104(4): 1030-60

Uggen and Manza. 2002. “Democratic Contradiction? The Political Consequences of Felon Disfranchisement in the United States.” American Sociological Review 67(6): 777-803.

Goffman. 2009. “On the Run: Perspectives on the Social Situation of Wanted Black Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto.” American Sociological Review.

Harris, Evans, & Beckett. 2010. “Drawing Blood from Stones: Legal Debt and Social Inequality in the Contemporary United States.” American Sociological Review 115(6): 1753-99.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2008. “The Effects of Parental Incarceration on Children.” Ch.4 in Incarceration and the Family: A Review of Research and Promising Approaches for Serving Fathers and Families.

Week 11: Politics of Inequality

This week will focus on the relationship between inequality and politics. How does social inequality affect representation in the political process? And, in turn, how does political representation affect processes of inequality? To what extent does partisanship affect the extent and nature of inequality? These questions and more will form the basis of our discussion this week. April 15: Politics and Inequality; April 17: Policy Panel.

Bartels, Larry. 2008. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Guilded Age. Ch.2.

Gilens, Martin. 2005. “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness.” Public Opinion Quarterly 69(5):778-896.

Carnes, Nick. 2012. “Does the Numerical Underrepresentation of the Working Class in Congress Matter?” Legislative Studies Quarterly 37(1):5-34.

Butler, Daniel and David Broockman. 2009. “Who Helps DeShawn Register to Vote? A Field Experiment on State Legislators.” Working Paper.

Beaman, Lori et al. 2012. “Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India.” Science 335(6068):582-586.

Week 12: Group Presentations

Week 13: Group Presentations

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 10 June 2016.