Mark Thoma points to Daniel Little, who asks what role the study of poverty should play in economics as large. First, he depicts the contrasting sides of the debate. On one side:
Among the contemporary economists who have given the greatest attention to poverty and deprivation, Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze are particularly outstanding. Their research on well-being, quality of life, and hunger set a standard for the point of view that says that life quality and deprivation need to be at the top of the list of economic research goals.
On the other:
The economists of the Chicago School put primary emphasis on the beneficent effects of untrammeled market behavior, and they give little attention to the “market imperfections” that poverty and deprivation represent. […] Poverty seems to be viewed as a normal and fair result of the workings of market institutions: some people make large contributions and earn high income, and others make small or zero contributions and earn low income.
It is apparent that the ills of poverty are debilitating to the families who experience it; their quality of life is dramatically lower than it needs to be in an affluent society. So that is one reason for economists to give higher priority to the study of the mechanisms and structures that reproduce poverty in the United States. But there is a more systemic reason as well: if 15% of all Americans live in poverty (46 million people), and if 22% of children live in poor households (16 million children), this implies a huge drain on the productive capacity of the American economy. Education, health, and inclusion are important components of economic growth; and each of these is harmed by the persistence of poverty. So economists ought to be in the lead when it comes to placing a priority on poverty research.