Wealth Inequality in America

This activity uses a 6-minute video about wealth inequality that has gone viral on the internet with small-group activities to help students explore what they think U.S. wealth distribution currently is, what they think it should be, what it actually is, and what they might do about it.  (For a non-video lesson addressing the same data, see our lesson Wealth & Taxes: What's Fair?)

To the teacher: 

This activity has your class divide up into groups of five or six.  Each of these groups will need:

1) Five sheets of paper, each a different color, ideally dark blue, light blue/light green, dark green, yellow, and red.  
2) 100 small objects that will represent wealth. These might be paper clips, skittles, plastic chips, coins, monopoly money, or whatever else you have available.

You will will need a way to view a video. For a version of this lesson that does not use video, our lesson Wealth & Taxes: What's Fair?

Timing for the lesson assumes a 45-minute class period.

How is wealth distributed in the US?  

(10 minutes)

Break students into small groups of five or six. Give each group five sheets of colored paper, and your 100 "wealth objects."

Tell students that each paper represents one quintile (fifth) of the US population.  Ask them to write the following headings at the top of the sheets:

  • Dark blue paper heading: Lowest (bottom) 20% of wealth in the US
  • Light blue paper heading: Second lowest 20% of wealth in the US
  • Green paper heading: Middle 20% of wealth in the US
  • Yellow paper heading: Second highest 20% of wealth in the US
  • Red paper heading: Highest (top) 20% of wealth in the US

Explain that in their groups, students will now distribute their 100 units of wealth according to how they think wealth is currently distributed in the US, dividing the population into the five percentiles represented by the five different colors of paper they were given. 

Ask students to lay the papers down on desks in order (from lowest wealth to highest wealth). Then have each group place the wealth units on top of each sheet to represent how they think wealth is currently distributed. How many units of wealth does the top 20% of the country own? How many units of wealth does the bottom 20% of the country own? And how much do the three categories in between own?

When students are done, ask them to walk around the room to see how other groups distributed their wealth.  (Alternatively, ask each group to report their numbers and record them on the board.) Then ask students to return to their groups.

Ask students these questions:

  • Did you mostly agree in your group about how wealth is actually distributed?
  • How much did the other groups differ in how they allocated wealth?

How should wealth be distributed in the US? 

(15 minutes)

Next, repeat the process. But this time ask students to distribute the wealth units according to what they think the distribution of income in the US should be.  

How much should the top 20% have? How much should the bottom 20% have?  Give students a little more time than before to try to agree to the best distribution of wealth.  

Then have students walk around the room to see how other groups thought wealth should be distributed.  (Alternatively, ask each group to report their decisions and record them on the board.)

Now bring the whole group back together.  Ask students:

  • Was it hard to come to an agreement on how wealth should be distributed in the US?
  • What kinds of issues came up in your group? What were arguments for making the distribution more equal? Less equal?
  • What did they notice about how other groups chose to distribute wealth? Were their similarities/differences?

Wealth Inequality in America

(7 minutes for video, 10 minutes for discussion) 

Now have students view the following 6.24-minute video, entitled "Wealth Inequality in America."  (For sources, see the bottom of the lesson.) 

The video is available on:

After the video, ask students:

  • How did the actual distribution of wealth in the U.S. match your group's approximation?
  • Were you surprised by the way wealth is actually distributed? Why or why not?
  • How did your group's ideas about how wealth should be distributed compare to what most Americans thought?  
  • What do you think about the wealth distribution in this country?
  • Can you think of examples of times in history when the distribution of income in the US changed dramatically?  Why did it change?  (You may want to assign students to research this question for homework or in small groups.)
  • What do you think we can do to make the reality of wealth distribution match what we think it should be?  What would need to change? 

If the class is concerned about wealth inequality, work with them to come up with one immediate action step they can take to address this problem or to call attention to it. Consider a class project aimed at researching this issue and/or raising awareness about it. 

SOURCES for both the activity and video include: 

Building a Better America—One Wealth Quintile at a Time, by Michael I. Norton, Harvard Business School, Boston, MA, and Dan Ariely, Department of Psychology, Duke University, Durham, NC

It's the Inequality, Stupid: Eleven charts that explain what's wrong with America, by Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot, Mother Jones magazine, March/April 2011 issue