Grappling with Extreme Inequality

The world's richest 85 people have as much wealth as half the people on earth. Students develop graphics or concepts to demonstrate this extreme inequality, express their thoughts and feelings about it, consider four ways people are working to address the problem, and discuss how they might take action themselves.

Learning Objectives

Students will

  • distinguish between income inequality and wealth inequality
  • develop a graphic or concept that helps clarify the global disparity in wealth
  • articulate their thoughts and feelings about wealth inequality
  • explore different responses to wealth inequality and take action to support one of them


"Income inequality" and "wealth inequality" have become familiar phrases in the past few years. But just how extreme the inequality has become is shocking, even to people familiar with the subject. A study by Oxfam, an international organization, reports that the wealthiest 85 people in the world own as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people. When you realize that there are about 7 billion people in the world, you could say it this way: The richest 85 people in the world have as much wealth as half the people on earth.

Part 1: What Does it Mean?

1. Defining the Terms.

Point out to students that before they can begin thinking about what to do about wealth inequality, they need to understand it. Write on the board "Income Inequality" and "Wealth Inequality." Ask students if they know what the terms mean, particularly how the definitions of the terms differ from each other. If they don’t know, have them find definitions, or explain to them that income refers to the money that a person brings in on a regular basis. For most people, income is what they earn at a job. But it also includes other sources of money, such as money taken in as rent on a property. Wealth, however, refers to the worth of everything a person earns and owns. This 4 ½ minute video explains the difference between income and wealth.

2.  Understanding the Numbers.

Write on the board: The wealth owned by the wealthiest 85 people in the world = the wealth owned by the 3.5 billion poorest people in the world. Explain that inequality as extreme as this is difficult to comprehend. Present students with this example: Say that you wanted to compare the two numbers—85 and 3.5 billion—in a graphic. This isn’t easy.  If you tried to show these two figures side by side on a bar chart, for example, the bar for 3.5 billion would probably extend way beyond the sheet of paper, while the 85 would be a speck.

Provide students with this non-graphic attempt to explain just how wealthy the richest people on earth are:  If Bill Gates (the founder of Microsoft) spent $1 million every single day, he wouldn’t use up all his money for 218 years.

Tell students that they’ll now work in small groups to see if they can come up with a way to make visible and understandable the wealth disparity reported in Oxfam’s study.  If they need some help starting to think about it, ask them how much space 3.5 billion pennies would take up compared to 85 pennies. They can figure this out by counting out 85 pennies and seeing what kind of container the pennies would fit in (a small teacup?). How many teacups, each with 85 pennies, would 3.5 billion pennies fill? Would those teacups fill a stadium? If you stood them side by side, would they form a line long enough to circle the globe? Another way to think about it would be to use grains of rice rather than pennies. 85 grains of rice might fill a large spoon. What would 3.5 billion grains of rice fill?

Give groups time to work on this. Then have them report to the class what they’ve figured out.

Part 2: How do you feel about it?

Once students have shared their models of wealth inequality, ask them to reflect what they’ve just shown. Give students two minutes to write their reactions to the extreme economic inequality they’ve been examining. Reactions might be analytical—thoughts about the causes of inequality—and/or emotional—how students feel about the unfairness of the situation. Give students an opportunity to share their reactions if they’d like.

Part 3: What can you do about extreme wealth inequality?

That’s the $64,000 question (so to speak). Explain to students that people have found many ways to address economic inequality, including protests to mobilize people against it and proposals to undo it. Ask students what they know about any of the following:

  • proposals to raise taxes on wealthy people
  • the Occupy movement
  • the movement to increase the minimum wage
  • strikes by fast-food workers

If time permits, assign individuals or small groups one of these proposed ways of addressing inequality. Have them research it and report to the class on what they learn. If you are short on time, offer students the following explanations:

Raising Taxes on the Wealthy

One method for reducing wealth inequality is to tax those with high levels of wealth. One way to tax wealth (as opposed to income) is through an estate tax—that is, a tax on what wealthy people leave to their heirs.  Such taxes limit the amount of wealth that people can accumulate through inheritance.

The Occupy Movement

The Occupy movement criticizes the accumulation of wealth by a very small number of people while the vast majority of people divide what’s left. Occupy Wall Street coined the phrase "We are the 99 percent," which refers to the fact that in 2009, the top 1 percent of the U.S. population owned 35.6 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 80 percent owned just 12.8 percent. Occupy Wall Street protests spread around the United States and the world, although the protesters did not offer specific solutions to wealth inequality.

Increase the Minimum Wage

The minimum wage in the United States has been $7.25 per hour since 2009. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible for a person to provide for his or her basic needs while earning the minimum wage, even working 40 hours a week. The federal government has not taken action to raise the minimum wage, but many states and cities have. Seattle, for example, will raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour starting in 2017. 

Strikes by Fast Food Workers

Around the country, workers at fast-food chains have gone on strike several times since 2012. They want $15 per hour; they argue that working full time, a person should make enough money to live. By striking, they aim to public pressure on fast-food companies, build public support for their cause, and raising awareness about the plight of low-wage workers in general.


Divide the class into groups or have a whole-class discussion in which students discuss these four possible solutions. Note that students may support more than one of these solutions, all of them, or none. But ask each student  to share with the group the solution that resonates the most with them and  why they feel this way. Encourage students to question each other, raising possible problems with proposed solutions.

Once students have settled on their preferred solution, ask students who most support a wealth tax to gather in one part of the room; those who support the Occupy movement in another, etc.  Ask each group to come up with a plan for acting on their view, either as a group or individually. For instance, students might agree to support a fast-food workers’ strike in your community, organize to bring a speaker to the school to discuss the wealth tax, or contact elected officials to urge them to support a rise in the minimum wage.

Part 4: Conclusions

Ask students: What is the most important thing you learned in this activity? Why do you think it is important?