Exploring Economic Inequality with The Change Agent

AEFL Week LogoExtreme inequality in terms of wealth and income is barely news anymore. CEO pay has skyrocketed over the past 30 years while workers’ incomes have stagnated or decreased. A report from last April states that the world’s “richest 64 individuals control as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people combined.” Five years ago, the occupy movement exploded onto the scene, and now “the 1%” vs. the “99%” are commonly accepted ways of talking about the extremely wealthy and the rest of us.

Most students will not be too shocked by the first three articles in the lesson packet titled “Making Sense of Extreme Inequality.” (Click here and scroll down to Lesson Packet #9.) The first, written by a learner from Hartford, CT, talks about growing up on cornflakes and rotten meat. She ate more when she got a job at McDonald’s, but then she gained 40 pounds. The second article, “Redecorating in a Recession,” shares a list of the pricey items a CEO used to decorate his office at a time when the economy was tanking and his company was laying off workers. The third article by a learner in Methuen, Massachusetts, talks about how hard it is to stay mentally and physically healthy when you’re struggling to pay the bills.

These highly accessible articles provide the scaffolding to a more complex piece, which many people may indeed find surprising, as it busts some of the fondest myths that help prop up extreme inequality in the U.S. Andy Nash’s article, “Nobody Makes It on their Own,” is a more challenging read, but students will be primed to take it on because it puts the stories they just read in context and provides some explanation for how the rich keep getting richer.

Why teach about extreme inequality? Isn’t it just depressing? Yes and no. Yes, for obvious reasons. And no because this catastrophic imbalance is not written in stone. It came about due to policies, and it can be changed in a similar fashion. (What are some ways it can it be changed? Check out a lesson packet titled “Taking Action at Work.” Click here and scroll down to Lesson Packet #10.)

Students in adult education programs have everything to gain from understanding that poverty and inequality are not handed down from on-high. Education can boost individuals’ chances. Addressing macro-economic policies — including more progressive taxation and less corporate control over public decisions — boosts everyone’s chances.


Published by

Cynthia Peters

Cynthia Peters

Cynthia is the editor of The Change Agent, a magazine that provides socially relevant content, powerful student writing that inspires discussion, and ready-to-use, CCRS-aligned lesson plans – all oriented toward a multi-level audience. She presents at national and state adult education conferences on a variety of topics, including persistence, civic participation, math, digital literacy, and using socially relevant materials that are aligned with the College and Career Readiness Standards. Since 2002 has taught a wide range of adult education classes, including ABE, ESOL, GED, Bridge to College, and the Adult Diploma Program. In her spare time, she volunteers with City Life/Vida Urbana, a housing justice organization, and practices Aikido.