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New course explores inequality in America

The general education course discusses the complexity and interconnectedness of inequality.

Why is the United States, long idealized as the land of opportunity and the champion of democracy, home to some of the world’s most unequal distributions of income and wealth? And what can we do about it? Juliet Carlisle, associate professor of political science, and Thomas Maloney, professor of economics, try to answer those questions in a new course, The United States of Inequality: Political and Economic Challenges and Remedies, being offered in fall 2021.

In the course, which fulfills an Intellectual Exploration general education credit, Carlisle, Maloney and their colleagues in political science and economics present the many facets of social inequality to develop students’ understanding.

“There’s a lot of heated rhetoric around these topics,” Maloney says. “We’d like to help students approach these issues in an informed and analytical way.”

Carlisle and Maloney developed the course in response to an initiative by the Office of Undergraduate Studies to explore important social challenges with an interdisciplinary approach.

“We saw this as an opportunity to pull together a number of faculty in Political Science and Economics who study social inequality in a variety of dimensions, and draw on this great wealth of expertise,” says Maloney. “We thought it would be useful to help students understand how social scientists measure types of inequality and how they try to analyze their causes and consequences.”

The course is intended for students from any major since inequality is a wide-reaching issue.

“Not one person is immune to the effects of inequality,” Carlisle says. “It touches all of us and in many cases, there are folks who face many overlapping and compounded dimensions of inequality. Being a functioning and engaged citizen means being able to understand the dimensions of inequality, its roots and its consequences and to think about the core question: How much inequality are we willing to accept in our democracy?”

“We plan to look at connections to immigration, health care, environmental degradation and student debt, for instance,” Maloney says. “We will also look at ethical dimensions of these questions.”

Students will complete a core project, which is an exercise in developing policy proposals to deal with an aspect of inequality. “However, the primary purpose of their core project is for them is to understand and appreciate the complexity of policy problems and the policy solutions,” Carlisle says.

The course is listed as ECON 2500/POLS 2500, taught Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:25-1:45 p.m. (IVC). The course fulfills one Intellectual Exploration (IE) course requirement.

To learn more, contact Carlisle at or Maloney at

Topics covered in the course, featuring various faculty from the departments of economics and political science, include the following: 

  • Inequality and the economy
  • Inequality and political representation
  • Inequality and the law
  • Ethics, justice and inequality
  • Racial inequality in the long run
  • Gender inequality
  • Immigration and inequality
  • Inequality and health care access
  • Disparities in environmental quality
  • Education as a force for equality and inequality