Political Science Professor’s Research Analyzes Poverty, Economic Inequality
Ready for the World: Our World in Need
KNOXVILLE — Nathan Kelly is not telling you to vote Democrat or Republican. But he can tell you what will happen economically either way.
Your decision, he said, will have a significant impact on poverty and economic inequality.
Kelly is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
To him, poverty focuses on those who are poor and inequality has to do with the gap between the rich and the poor. Also, inequality examines the well-being of the poor relative to the rich. He says fighting poverty directly combats inequality, although fighting inequality does not always lead to reductions in poverty.
“In reality, poverty and inequality are often intertwined,” Kelly said. “Usually, when there are many people living in poverty, the gap between the rich and the poor is also large.
“The core of my research examines the causes and consequences of economic inequality.”
Kelly’s work fits well into Ready for the World, the campus’ international and intercultural initiative, which this year is focusing on “Our World in Need” with an emphasis on poverty.
“Many economists argue that inequality is essentially an inevitable result of a market-driven system,” Kelly said, “and government action is impotent to influence inequality. My research fundamentally contradicts this assessment.”
Kelly’s research shows that differences in economic equality depend on whether a Republican or Democrat is in office.
“When Democrats control the White House and liberal policies are enacted, inequality declines,” Kelly said. “The evidence on this point is quite solid and consistent. To be completely clear, electing Republicans and pursuing conservative policies generally increases inequality, while electing Democrats and pursuing liberal policies decreases inequality.
“I hope that this message makes it out to both liberals and conservatives, in the hopes that some common ground might be found by learning about the empirical realities of American politics.”
Kelly, in his research, also analyzes the distribution of wealth and the government’s involvement.
Teaching a First Year Studies course for freshmen, Kelly said he and his students can explore how politics, poverty and inequality are interconnected. The course involves a lot of discussion and challenges students to confront any biased perceptions of poverty and economic inequality.
“So many of my students have absolutely no idea what it would be like to be poor,” Kelly said. “I’m not sure I even fully understand. It is important for students to see and understand poverty, in part to understand how privileged they are, but also to see the poor as fully human. Sometimes, it’s too easy to … dehumanize the poor. Having direct interactions with economically diverse populations makes it harder to view the poor only as an ‘other’ and perhaps even another that is not deserving of full respect.”
Kelly hopes to make his students not only more conscious of poverty and economic inequality, but also make them more politically aware.
“Individuals matter, but so does government,” Kelly said, “and I hope that I can convince students that governments at least have the potential to be a very powerful actor for the good in this context. Governments also can act very badly. If I can show students that our government somehow represents the values of our society, I hope they will get involved to push government to represent our best values rather than our worst.”
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