To the Teacher:
The coronavirus crisis has thrown our nation’s economic disparities into stark relief. In this activity, students use a set of interactive charts to investigate the current state of economic inequality in the U.S.—and make their own charts showing how they would like to see that data change.
The lesson can be used in a remote learning classroom. It includes a short introductory activity with a homework assignment, followed by a session in which students share their analyses and opinions. The activity is based on an April 10, 2020, New York Times article by David Leonhardt and Yaryna Serkez entitled “America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why.”
Note: Through July 6, 2020, the New York Times will provide free digital access for high school students and teachers. But before students can gain access, teachers or school administrators must register with the Times. Click here for instructions.
Class Session 1: Introduction
Invite students to take a few deep breaths.
It’s important to remind ourselves, especially in stressful times like these, to slow down our breathing and to breathe more deeply. When we are stressed, our breathing tends to get more rapid and shallow – it’s part of our natural “fight or flight” response. But this kind of breathing can actually make us feel even more stressed out.
So let’s take a few deep breaths together, using the big muscle in the belly called the diaphragm. Breathe into your belly, feeling it expand, and breathe back out again, as your belly falls. Do this a few times over.
Show of Hands
Tell students that we’ll be exploring some current information about economic inequality in our country – an issue that has come to the fore during the coronavirus crisis.
We’ll start with some true or false questions. Answer by a show of hands.
- America’s economy has almost doubled in size over the last four decades. True or false? TRUE
- The wealthiest top 0.1% of Americans have seen their after-tax income go up by over 200 percent since 1980. True or false? FALSE: It has risen by 420 percent.
- Over the same 40 years, the after-tax income of the bottom half of earners has risen only 20 percent. True or false? TRUE.
- On average, CEOs make 180 times more than their workers do. True or false? FALSE: They now make 278 times more than their workers. (Quick math calculation: If the average wage for workers at a company is $40,000, how much might the CEO make, based on this average?)
- The median wealth of white households is ten times higher than that of Black households. True or false? TRUE: In 1992, the ratio was seven to one. You might explain that wealth is different from income – it’s the total assets of a household minus the debts. Median means that half of people are above that mark, and half are below.
- People making over $40,000 a year are more than twice as likely to have health insurance than people making under that amount. TRUE: About 22 percent of people who make under $40,000 are uninsured, while nine percent of people making over $40,000 are uninsured.
- Inequality made the coronavirus crisis worse. True or false? TRUE
- What signs have you seen that inequality is affecting our experience with the coronavirus?
- How is the impact different for low-income people than for wealthier people?
- What differences have we seen in the impact on Black and brown people versus white people?
This pandemic is pointing up many of our nation’ systemic inequities. In the past few years, many young people have been organizing to press for greater economic justice. But the crisis is causing even more people to think about what we can do, as we rebuild after this crisis, to address economic and racial injustice.
Homework Assignment: Charting Inequality
As homework, ask students to read and study the charts in the New York Times article “America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why,” by David Leonhardt and Yaryna Serkez, published on April 10, 2020.
Explain that the article includes about 20 charts that document inequality. For each chart, consider these questions:
- What is this chart showing?
- How has the trend or reality shown in this chart affected you, your family, or community?
- How does that make you feel?
Decide which chart strikes you most and that you feel most strongly about. Focusing on that chart, write three paragraphs:
- What does this chart show?
- Why did you choose this chart?
- Have the realities in that chart affected you, your family, or community? Explain how.
Now, make a new chart showing the reality that you would prefer. You’ll share this chart with the class. Write two paragraphs in response to these questions:
- What does YOUR chart show? How is it different from the chart in the article?
- Why did you change it this way?
Class Session 2: Discussion
When class reconvenes, ask students to share first which chart they chose to focus on.
- Are there similarities or patterns in what charts students chose? If so, what are they? If not, why do students think that is?
- What areas, if any, do we as a class seem to be more concerned about?
Next, have students share the new chart they created themselves. Once students have shared, discuss:
- What do we as a class think needs to be changed related to these charts?
- Are there similarities or patterns in what we want to change? If so, what are they? If not, why do students think that is?
- Do we know of any actions that young people have taken that can inspire us to make the changes we would like to see?
Ask students to share:
- What is one wish you have for how things will change once this crisis finally ends?
- How do you see yourself contributing to that?