COOL CLASSES: “Inequality and Public Policy”

This interdisciplinary course, which is cross-listed in economics and political science, explores the relationship between policy and economic outcomes— to understand “who gets what”— in the United States.

Class name: “Inequality and Public Policy”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Matthew Incantalupo


Here’s what Incantalupo had to say about the class:

“Inequality and Public Policy” is an exploration of the relationship between policy and economic outcomes in the United States. At a glance, it’s about “who gets what,” but more specifically it’s about how feedback loops, including political and economic forces, shape access to income, wealth, education, health, and political representation. We take a look at the current state of inequality and policymaking in the United States, the political causes and consequences of economic and social stratification, and the roles that inequality plays in voting and elections. We then pivot to a discussion of representation as we examine the extent to which government represents the interests of Americans across the income distribution. In the second half of the course, we survey seven policy areas that are influenced by economic inequality and serve to structure socioeconomic outcomes themselves. We assess the levels of inequality across various dimensions (e.g.: healthcare, criminal justice), and analyze policies that serve to ameliorate or exacerbate inequality.

I hope that students take away the idea that economic outcomes are not just shaped by economic forces like markets, but also are the byproduct of politics. By the end of the class, students should have a real sense of how public policy helps structure “who gets what.” One goal of this class is to break down departmental boundaries and challenge students to be interdisciplinary. It was really important to me that this course be cross-listed in the economics and political science departments. I want conversations between students with different strengths who’ve received different training to take place. If that’s uncomfortable or difficult at times, so be it. By the end of the semester, we’re all speaking a common language and we’re a lot smarter for it.

I also want students to develop the tools and skills that are required to study these phenomena systematically. We spend a lot of time on measurement, economic modeling, statistics, research design, and experiments in order to figure out what’s really going on and what works. To me, these are essential skills for social scientists, and becoming proficient in them makes our smart students truly formidable, both in this setting and in their other courses. This class only works if the students take the ideas and material that we’ve discussed and run with them. I’ll consider myself a successful teacher if my students are using these ideas and tools in their other classes or for their senior theses.

This is the first course that I’ve created from scratch, and it remains the course of which I’m the proudest. In this course, I’m trying to replicate a fantastic intellectual experience that I had in grad school. I was in a small program that brought together economists, political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists to give their disciplines’ perspectives on inequality and social policy. Learning from all of these different people was like having my brain shot out of a cannon, and you can still see the fingerprints of that program on my syllabus for “Inequality and Public Policy.” I want to create a space within the Haverford community in which students can bring their departmental expertise to an ongoing conversation about economic inequality and public policy. This is the third time I’ve taught this course, and the enrollment is higher than ever. Students here are hungry for interdisciplinary experiences, and I’m happy to provide one that reflects my interests. Plus, it lets me stealthily teach statistics and experimental research to a group of students who may not otherwise be exposed to those topics.

Regardless of your political beliefs, inequality matters. Equality and access to the good stuff in life make up some of our core democratic values, and Americans prize social mobility, the idea that subsequent generations can do a bit better than their parents did. If inequality undermines those things – and a lot of what we discuss in this class indicates that’s true – then we should all be concerned. Understanding how we ended up so unequal is essential if we want to undo or scale back economic inequality. In “Inequality and Public Policy,” we learn how we got here, and what works if we want to change the status quo.


See what other courses the Department of Political Science is offering this semester.

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.

Photo by Holden Blanco ’17.