Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Poverty games

I've been meaning to post something on poverty for months, so here goes. I have taught a course called Poverty and Human Capability just once, so I'm no expert, and even that course was team-taught with an economist friend of mine, so I really only taught half of it. Our original plan was for me to teach the first half of the course, looking at questions of definition and giving an introduction to distributive justice. Colleagues at Washington & Lee University with more experience, though, suggested that the political philosophy part would go better if we first taught students about the causes of poverty. They would then be less likely to blame the poor (for alleged laziness or whatever) and to take seriously the idea that others might have a responsibility to do something to help. So we split the course into four quarters: definitions of poverty, causes of poverty, distributive justice, and possible solutions to poverty. It went well, but I think now that maybe causes of poverty should come first. That might sound odd, but the most interesting definition of poverty is based on the capabilities approach developed by Amartya Sen and defended in Martha Nussbaum's Creating Capabilities. And that book is best read after you have read some Rawls and some utilitarian philosophy. So actually the best order seems to be: causes of poverty, ideas about distributive justice, definitions of poverty, solutions to poverty. Between the last two parts I intend next semester also to include a look at how the USA is doing in terms of the development of capability, based on The Measure of America.

That site has some nice tools, including a well-o-meter, which lets you measure your own level of human development (I scored about 8.5 out of 10). There is something questionable about poverty-based games (the apparently defunct Chickens in choppers had a post once making a somewhat similar point, as I recall), but perhaps they have educational value. Here are some more that I have found: -- a game designed to educate people about what it is like to be poor in the USA$FILE/teachphil_2011_0034_0001_0021_0036.pdf -- an article about using Second Life to teach social justice and Rawls -- compares your income with that of other people around the world -- provides a quiz on how much of a bubble you live in (is aimed primarily at white Americans) -- giving-to-charity games -- a rich and interactive website making the case that you should give to help the poor in other countries


  1. Thanks for the links to the quizzes. This gave me something besides grading to do! (I enjoyed doing the bubble quiz, particularly the Jimmie Johnson question--clever what they were doing with that.)

    The point about doing causes of poverty before political philosophy makes sense. One thing I see, teaching in/near a very impoverished region, is that students know people who they see as cheaters of the system. And so even amongst people from a poor background, there's still considerable overgeneralizing of responsibility for poverty. But this makes some sense, too, because the students may not want to think of themselves as "victims"...

  2. Good point about victims. The belief that we each control our own destiny is powerful. Maybe even true in some ways to some extent. But it's not the whole story. And the rest is harder to see. People, including students, tend to focus on "this one person I know (or heard about)" rather than more general truths, but it's hard to fight that. Focusing on examples that support your prejudices seems to be part of human nature. Things like the bubble quiz might help some students see that their own experience is a very limited guide to reality. I hope so anyway.

  3. I was not in a position to comment on this immediately back in October, but I was suddenly re-reminded of it now by your new post on paternalism. So here goes.

    "The belief that we each control our own destiny is powerful. Maybe even true in some ways to some extent. But it's not the whole story."

    The thing is that, even within Western culture, there is wide international variation in both the popularity and the strength of the belief that we each control our own destiny. For instance, the 1996 round of the very comprehensive World Values Survey, the world's largest social scientific research project on people's values and beliefs, included (so far for the only time) a question on whether the poor are poor more "because of laziness and lack of willpower" or "because of an unfair society". In Finland and in Sweden, the responses were 22–23 % laziness and 77–78 % unfairness, while in the United States, they were 61.2 % laziness and 38.8 % unfairness. Similarly, there was a question on whether "what the government is doing for people in poverty in this country is about the right amount, too much, or too little". It's not surprising in view of the above that in the United States, 33.3 % answered "too much", while in Sweden and Finland respectively, just 2.7 % and 3.5 % did. A difference of an entire order of magnitude!

    And it struck me that what is missing from all the educational tools detailed above, valuable as they are, is education about the mere existence of this intercultural variation itself, intended to burst that particular bubble. There's no telling what the success rate would be, but I expect it would make it psychologically at least somewhat harder to see one's own beliefs about personal responsibility as the natural ones if one learns about cultures which are otherwise similar to one's own but where the predominant belief, held by the overwhelming majority of ordinary people (and indeed taken by the ordinary people themselves as a reassuring sign of their ordinariness), is quite different. And where the actualy poverty rate also happens to be much lower, in all likelihood partly because of this difference.

  4. That's a good point, thanks. My guess is that people in the US who think that the poor are lazy would dismiss Finnish and Swedish views that differed from their own as naive, and then, if necessary, fall back on the claim that the US is different and that it's easier to get rich here if you try hard enough. This is not true, but there is a lot of resistance to facts like that.

    I've bookmarked the article on the World Values Survey. I think that could have all sorts of uses.


    This resistance that you mention is in fact what reminded me of this old post. Because the upshot of your post on paternalism yesterday was: "I'd say we let people know the truth so they can steer their lives accordingly." To which my instant reaction was: this mere letting-people-know-the-truth is already such an uphill task as to be almost completely disheartening – regardless of whether the people would steer their lives wisely or not.

    But you can still counter the resistance by countering what are known in social psychology as framing effects. If you ask people in the United States whether the United States has a more just income distribution than Sweden, they will say yes. But if you give them the actual income distributions of United States and Sweden without telling them which is which, then the vast majority will prefer Sweden's!

  6. Very true. Yes, it's hard work getting people to know the truth, harder with some than with others. You have good ideas about how to do it, but I wonder how successful even the cleverest presentation would be. The resistance, as you say, is disheartening. Still, it can't hurt to keep trying.

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