Creating awareness and understanding surrounding the depth of poverty and inequality is the goal when Nicholas Wright steps in front of his students. As an assistant professor of economics in the Lutgert College of Business at Florida Gulf Coast University, he has spent his doctoral studies exploring the dimensions of poverty and homelessness and identifying factors to drive policy change.
In the self-designed course, “The Economics of Poverty and Public Policy,” Wright demonstrates that poverty exists everywhere on many levels, including here in Southwest Florida. Oftentimes it’s not as apparent as we would think, with many working individuals still falling below the poverty line. Wright brings his research techniques to the class exploring patterns in education and public health, with an emphasis on higher-education policies and college financing. Since data shows that financial literacy is directly correlated to income, students making informed decisions about their financial future is key.
“I decided to focus on the educational aspect because of the role education played in my life,” Wright said. “My dad really had a love for education, he saw the value of learning, and he spared no expense in making sure to instill that appreciation in me.” With a close connection to the reality of growing up in a low-income family in Jamaica, Wright swiftly learned the perils of most who rely on funding aid for education. Hefty obligations and prohibitive barriers when applying for aid drove him to examine how the educational system inherently creates successes and failures and to map out potential solutions.
Implementing strategies learned while studying at Georgia State University, Wright takes the approach of equity in education and identifying key socio-economic factors that may impact the outcomes of loans and financial aid on future success.
According to Wright, education and early childhood interventions are the basis for establishing successful programs in communities. “Our cognitive attributes are the same when we are young, and over time the gaps start developing,” he said. “If we can identify and intervene, providing the needed tools — since skills beget skills — then it continues to be easier to learn.”
He describes the transition from growing up in Jamaica, to earning his Ph.D. at Georgia State and then becoming a professor at FCGU as providing a unique perspective to source, gather and present extensive data to support his findings. “My goal is to contribute to scientific knowledge and participate in a national dialogue, and this position at FGCU allows me to pursue my passion in an unrestricted way,” he said. “The questions that I was asking could not be answered without a Ph.D. and extensive data tracking.”
With the right connections, Wright tracked student loans and how they affect outcomes for students in Jamaica to reinforce his research. “I really looked into the long-term impact and access to funding and how it creates advantage and disadvantage in how a student learns and thrives,” he said. The evidence shows beginning a career in debt limits and prohibits student success and deters economic growth.
Continuing to conduct research and actively presenting his work at conferences, Wright is certain that writing about results and establishing patterns helps to build interest and gain recognition for the underrepresented topics that he focuses on. “I feel that it’s important to share research and findings in an area that does not include a large depth of study.”
With research grants from the National Academy of Education, Wright has published several articles in notable journals, such as “Perform better, or else: Academic probation, public praise and students’ decision making,” in Labour Economics and “Need-based financing policies, college decision making and labor market behavior: Evidence from Jamaica,” in the Journal of Development Economics.
In his third semester teaching the course on the economics of poverty, Wright adapted to online instruction during the pandemic. Engaging students and opening minds virtually proved to be challenging, but his approach remained the same – student-driven research, gathering empirical data to make informed decisions and debates over minimum-wage increases kept the topics intriguing. Since the course is designed to promote a greater understanding of how policy change can have a ripple effect and impact the success of a community, students that have completed the course reflect that in their pursuit of improving their own economic equity.
Wright also invites community leaders from local agencies to visit the class to share perspective on policies in Southwest Florida. The results — connecting students with potential employers with the goal of influencing the cycle of poverty — could lead to the outcome that the course intends.