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Understanding Poverty and Income Distribution through Community Service

This page is authored by Andrea L. Ziegert, Denison University.
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This material was originally created for Starting Point: Teaching Economics
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


This course introduces students to topics of income distribution and poverty. Groups of two to four students volunteer at one of a number of community agencies that serve low-income households (homeless shelters, soup kitchens, food banks, after-school programs etc). Students visit their chosen site twice--at the beginning of the term and again at mid-term. They use their service experiences as a spring board for discussion of course material.

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Learning Goals

Because the service time is limited, the goals for this course are modest:

-Provide students with opportunities to interact with people who may be in a different socioeconomic class

-Provide a context or common experience as a backdrop for class discussion of course material.

Context for Use

This type of short-term service activity can be a way to introduce service-learning to either a lecture or seminar class. Given a sufficient number of service sites, it can accommodate both small (15-20) and large (50+) classes. It can be particularly powerful learning experience on upper-middle class campuses with limited socioeconomic diversity. This type of service-learning activity can be used in a wide variety of classes, first year seminars, introductory courses, upper level elective courses, etc.

Teaching Materials

After the initial volunteer experience at the beginning of the term, students should;

1. In a personal reflection journal, briefly describe the service experience. What stood out? What questions about income or poverty were raised? What would you like to know that you don't understand about the experience/

2. As a team (of 2 to 4 students) students from each service site describe their experiences to the larger class.

3. Together the entire class, based on their collective experiences, generate a list of questions about income and poverty they would like to answer over the course of the term.

After the mid-term service experience:

1. In a reflective essay, students reflect upon both service experiences by linking their experiences to themes and content discussed in the classroom.

2. In a class discussion, student share how their different experiences reflected course content. They make note and discuss questions from the beginning of the course that remain unanswered.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The advantage of this type of service activity is that it facilitates student discussion of poverty and income distribution, which without the experience, may have been more difficult.

Before sending students out to their volunteer experience, describe the community agencies where they will volunteer, their clientele, and other necessary information. Students can rank their top three choices and faculty then assign students according to student preferences and community constraints.

Having students serve in groups of two to four students is important. It facilitates students' processing of their service experience and it can be re-assuring for younger students.

While it may not be possible to answer all student-generated questions, having student identify questions they'd like answered early in the course increases student ownership of course material.


Students are individually graded on the following:

-Quality of questions generated from their initial service experience.

-Quality of the linkages drawn between volunteer experience and class content in reflective essay.

Based on the other determinants of a students grade, the service-learning component can be between 15-25 percent of course grade.

References and Resources


Economics, Sociology

Resource Type

Activities:Project:Service Learning, Activities

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14), Introductory Level, College Upper (15-16)