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Carrying On: GU should prioritize poverty studies
In 1919, Georgetown recognized the United States’s rapidly expanding role in global affairs and established the School of Foreign Service to train young diplomats. Predating the establishment of the U.S. Foreign Service by six years, the SFS has arguably become Georgetown’s most prestigious institution, and its alumni have unquestionably affected the course of history.
As the challenges of the 21st century arise, Georgetown has an excellent opportunity to repeat its innovative and spectacular success in training generations of American and international leaders. However, polished diplomats won’t be the people addressing the most pressing issue the United States and the world will face in the foreseeable future: poverty.
In 2009, according to census data released last week, over 43 million Americans lived in poverty—approximately one in every seven residents. Among children 18 or younger, the rate is one in five. Upward mobility has been on the decline since the 1950s as the boundaries between income groups have intensified. For the last two decades, the probability of a person moving from the bottom 40 percent of income to the top 40 percent has fluctuated between two and four percent. These facts hint at the systemic problems behind the recent credit crisis, housing market collapse, and unemployment explosion. They also raise questions about the long-term viability of the American economy.
Beyond our borders, poverty is far worse. Over three billion people live on less than $2 a day. Although the number of people living in poverty has declined in the past two decades, most of the improvements have been concentrated in one country: China. In South Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa, almost one billion people live on less than $1.25 per day, which is what the World Bank terms “extreme poverty.” Beyond the immediate byproducts of poverty, such as hunger, disease, lack of basic education, and violence, poverty-stricken societies must deal with the tremendous stress on their fractured economies, their changing cultures, and their political institutions, which are often corrupt. If the gap between the so-called “third world” and developed countries persists over the course of the 21st century, the global community will face critical questions of both policy and of philosophy.
If we at Georgetown want to be on the forefront of addressing these questions, we can commit to massively expanding the international development certificate program, which is woefully underfunded. According to Professor Maria Wagner, the director of the International Development Certificate Program, the budget for the program has been cut more than any other SFS program. The International Development Certificate is the only specialized study of global poverty available at the undergraduate level, despite tremendous student interest in this topic. Eighty seniors are currently enrolled in the International Development Certificate Program, making the program the most popular certificate in the SFS by far. Unfortunately, the administration has not made international development an institutional priority.
Georgetown’s students and faculty clearly have the capacity and desire to tackle this pressing issue. It is time for these programs to receive the institutional and promotional support necessary to prepare them to lead in a field that will help to define the 21st century. Students have already demonstrated their enthusiasm for altruism. The level of dedication to organizations like UNICEF-Georgetown, the D.C. Schools Project, Students Taking Action Now Darfur, and a host of other groups confronting the roots and effects of poverty makes our commitment clear. The academic foundation to expand Georgetown’s focus on poverty already exists in the SFS and the Public Policy Institute, as well as in the departments of American Studies, Economics, Government, History, Justice and Peace Studies, Philosophy, and Theology. The University has the capacity to attempt this groundbreaking venture, but we do not know if it has the will.
Georgetown has an opportunity to define for a new century and for new generations what it means to be a woman or man for others. The Jesuit values upon which Georgetown was founded compel us to focus our energies on the gravest of human problems. As Pope John Paul II said in 2001, “Our world is entering the new millennium burdened by the contradictions of an economic, cultural, and technological progress which offers immense possibilities to a fortunate few, while leaving millions of others not only on the margins of progress but in living conditions far below the minimum demanded by human dignity.”
We succeed as a university and as a society when we do not avoid challenges, but rise to them. Over the last 90 years, Georgetown has transformed itself from a relatively standard liberal arts college into an internationally-renowned university in many fields of study. Just as Georgetown recognized the need for a skilled diplomatic corps in the 20th century, the University must now take on the greatest challenge facing the world in the 21st. With this great challenge comes even greater opportunity.