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What is poverty?
When David Reidy asks his students that, he's not looking for a number or a simple definition.
He's asking them to think about what poverty means -- and how it can mean vastly different things to different people.
Reidy, associate professor of philosophy and adjunct associate professor of political science, teaches courses that help students understand and evaluate political, social and legal issues. The discussion often looks at poverty and how it relates to trade, wealth distribution and government.
Such lessons are examples of how faculty across the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, campus are helping their students learn more about the issue of poverty this year. Ready for the World, the campus' international and intercultural initiative, is spending this year focusing on "Our World in Need" with a particular emphasis on poverty.
Reidy said he challenges his students to consider what it really means when people make claims like “In one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, no one should live in poverty” or “Unfair trading practices between nations -- in NAFTA, WTO or another trade regime -- are a primary cause of global poverty.”
“Before one can even venture whether either of these claims is true or false, one must understand them,” Reidy said. “And to understand them, one must have a good grasp of the concepts at work."
He also challenges his students to think outside the box.
"Most students are stunned to learn, for example, that the typical UT student enjoys a standard of living higher than 95 percent of the people on the planet," Reidy said. “A billion people still live without electricity and a mere 4 percent surtax on the world’s wealthiest 500 individuals would yield enough money to ensure that no person on the planet lived in poverty (using international poverty standards).”
After sharing facts like these, Reidy said he asks his students, “Is poverty, whether globally or nationally, an absolute or a relative notion? Is it purely a function of purchasing power, or are other quality of life factors relevant?
“These are all questions about values -- about the specific values we do or should hold in particular areas of our social, political and legal lives,” Reidy said. “I spend a good bit of time helping students to think these questions through in a structured and, I hope, rigorous and informed way, so that they can better assess the truth of evaluative claims.”
While Reidy teaches complex concepts, he hopes to get down to the root of how poverty can affect the population of different countries.
“It’s worth noting there is a great deal of evidence showing that the wealthiest countries in terms of per capita GDP (gross domestic product) do not have the happiest populations,” Reidy said. “It’s clear that the happiness of populations is a function of far more than national wealth as measured by per capita GDP.”
Winner of the 2009 American Philosophical Association’s Berger Prize, Reidy also won a 2008 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Faculty Fellowship to support his work on an intellectual biography of political philosopher John Rawls. He is spending the 2009-2010 academic year working as an NEH Fellow on the project.