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Margo Chavez-Charles,


The United States is wealthiest country in the world, yet we have tremendous poverty, and enormous disparities in wealth. Here are some headlines, and some statistics: “America is the richest, and most unequal, country.”  (Fortune, September 2015). “The richest 1 percent now owns more of the country’s wealth than any time in the past 50 years.” (Washington Post, December 2017).

From the same articles, we learn that: “The wealthiest 1 percent of American households own 40 percent of the country’s wealth, according to a new paper by economist Edward N. Wolff.” “Among rich nations, the United States stands out for the extent of its wealth inequality.” “The top 1% in the U.S. own a much larger share of the country’s wealth than the 1 percent elsewhere.” These facts point to an uncomfortable reality that calls into question the health of our democracy. Despite the fact that a 2011 study found that US citizens across the political spectrum would prefer a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth, the same citizens also dramatically underestimate the current US wealth inequality. 

In the late 1880’s Leo Tolstoy began to investigate the Moscow slums, both in an effort to understand the deep poverty there, different from the rural poverty that he knew, and also to come to some understanding of what his responsibility might be. His research led to his book, What Then Must We Do?

This class takes off from that starting point: to investigate the issues of wealth inequality in the United States, looking at causes and impacts. The repercussions of this issue reverberate in so many areas of our public and private lives: well-being of children; disparities in education; power in the political system; and crime. Of course, we need to look at issues of race. We take an historical perspective, reading some classic international and American works related to poverty.  In the end, it’s about human beings and their stories, so we also look those stories through memoir, and film. And in the end, we also face the question that Tolstoy faced…what then must we do?


What Then Must We Do?, Leo Tolstoy
The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell
All Over But the Shoutin’, Rick Braggs
Martin and Meditations on the South Valley, Jimmy Santiago Baca
A Course Reader to be purchased from the Honors office

Other texts to be chosen from among the following
The Working Poor: Invisible in America, David K. Shipler
The Other America: Poverty in the United States, Michael Harrington
Wealth and Poverty in America: A Reader, Dalton Conley
The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, Sasha Abramsky
The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, David S. Landes
Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for our Time, Jeffrey D. Sachs
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich
Famine, Affluence and Morality, Peter Singer 


Excerpts from films and You Tube segments will be used that illustrate wealth inequality, as well as conditions of wealth and poverty in the US and other countries.


Course Fee of $10. Guest speakers are invited and several of them live in Santa Fe. The course fee is used to offer an honorarium that will at least cover their gas expenses.


• Regular attendance and active participation in class discussions
• Regular observation papers
• One 5-page paper
• Group and individual presentations
• Final Research Paper


Margo Chávez-Charles holds a B.A. in English from New Mexico State University, an M.A. from the School for International Training in Vermont, and an M.A. in Liberal Education from St. John’s College in Santa Fe. Her special interests include literature, history, social justice, interdisciplinary and intercultural communication, and the history of ideas. She has taught courses in Honors that blend history, political science and literature: Dissent and Democracy, Hidden Histories: Untold Stories, and War Cry.