Ronald Reagan infamously said, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”
The implication of that statement, according to Dr. Harlan Beckley, executive director of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty, is that “poverty is stubbornly intractable, at least unresponsive to public policy initiatives.” Dr. Beckley cautions, however, that while poverty may be persistent, it “should not be confused with intractable and unchanging,” and he points out that many programs have had a genuine impact on poverty rates and positively affected many who live in poverty.
On Nov. 16, Niagara University students and employees gathered in the St. Vincent’s Hall amphitheater to attend Dr. Beckley’s presentation, titled “Rethinking Poverty and Inequality: A Call to Action for Higher Education.” This discussion, presented by the Levesque Institute, in conjunction with the department of social work and the university mission committee, began with a discussion of statistics on poverty in our country.
Dr. Beckley stated that the nation’s official poverty rate in 2014 was 14.8 percent, which means that there are about 46.7 million people in poverty. Neither the poverty rate nor the number of people in poverty has changed much from 2009 estimates, suggesting that the issue of poverty has remained rather stagnant over that period of time, which coincides with the Great Recession in 2008.
The main topic of Dr. Beckley’s presentation regarded the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty, the foundation of which grew from his earlier work at Washington & Lee University, where he established the first undergraduate poverty studies minor. Dr. Beckley is also the first executive director of the consortium. SHECP consists of nearly two dozen institutions, including founding member Niagara University, which integrates a rigorous undergraduate classroom study of poverty with tailored summer internships and co-curricular activities during the academic year.
The intent of the program is to prepare students for a lifetime of professional, civic and political activity that will work to eliminate poverty through a diversity of perspectives and initiatives. As Dr. Beckley noted, “I offer no formula for ending poverty, but thousands of emphatic, informed and thoughtful graduates will offer a myriad of plausible and promising remedies.”
In addition to giving his talk, Dr. Beckley was visiting Niagara to discuss expanding the university’s participation in the consortium and also to explore Niagara Falls as a host site for SHECP summer interns.
“As a Vincentian university, we want to be right at the forefront of national conversations about poverty and inequality,” said Dr. Kevin Blair, professor and chair of the social work department. “We also want to be a strong proponent for making undergraduate poverty education a part of all higher education in the United States.”
Dr. Beckley received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Illinois and a doctorate in Christian theological ethics from Vanderbilt University. He is currently the Fletcher Otey Thomas Professor of Religion, Emeritus, at Washington and Lee University.
For more information about the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty please visit http://shepherdconsortium.org. Students interested in serving as summer interns should contact Dr. Kevin Blair at ude.aragain@dkrialb.