Inequality and (Missed) Opportunity

December 8, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

It was supposed to be about the distribution of income. It turned out to be about something else, and I keep thinking I let another teachable moment slip away.

The general topic was inequality. The strategy – not original with me, but I have no idea who came up with it – is to use something students can grasp, something familiar in their experience, to convey the idea of inequality. Here’s the drill
  1. Ask students how much they would need per person to have a really nice evening out.

  2. When they come up with a number, multiply it by the number of students. Then divide the class into five groups, and say something like, “I could just give each group the same amount. But I’d like to reward the students who have done well and contributed to the class. I don’t think that they should get the same amount as the absolute slackers. So if we have five groups ranked from most deserving to least deserving, how much should each group get?”

  3. Show the distribution. If possible, use Excel and make a pie chart. It will almost certainly be more equal than the distribution of income in the US.

  4. Then show a pie chart of the distribution of income in the US. If the amount for nice evening was $100 apiece, it would mean that the couples in the top fifth would have $500 for the evening (as, “What could you do with $500 for the evening?”). The least deserving couples would share $34.

  5. Students will be appalled by the disparity.
Here’s what really happened. The students got into just about the liveliest discussion we’ve had all semester. But it wasn’t about the distribution of income. In fact, we got stuck on step #1 – what they would need for the evening out. What kind of restaurant, what movie or show or club. How much to spend on pre-gaming. One girl said that she’d have to get a new outfit – she always got a new outfit; it’s so much easier than deciding what to pull out of your closet. Someone else brought up the cost of parking in New York, which would raise the nut considerably.

Eventually, I had to call a halt. It’s just an analogy, I said loudly and moved on to steps 1-4. But surely there was some lesson here, some sociological point to be made about their concern and about the specific things they thought should or shouldn’t be included. After all, the general topic was stratification and inequality. Maybe the package of goods you deemed necessary for a nice evening – specific things themselves, not just the total cost– carried some message about social class.

Alas, I didn’t think of that at the time, and besides, I’m not sure what that message was.


Dan said...

Interesting exercise although I see a definite problem with associating those who are receiving the least as "slackers". It perpetuates the myth of meritocracy and ignores the apartheid system this country was built on and which perpetuates today which is clearly evident when you consider facts such as black families having much less net worth than white families from similar economic backgrounds thanks to racially restrictive policies such as the FHA and VA loans of the mid-twentieth century, blacks are paid less for the same work as equally qualified whites in the same positions, etc.

I understand the point you were trying to make with the exercise but as a professor of sociology, don't you think it's important to also instruct and inform about some of the reasons these inequalities and economic disparities exist in the first place?

Jay Livingston said...

Dan, Thanks for your comment and concern. In fact, I did not say slackers. And I didn't really put them into groups. I just used the geography of the classroom -- the fifth of the class sitting over by the windows was arbitrarily my top fifth, and so on across the room. None of the students took it personally; nobody thought I was referring to his or her specific abilities or performance in the course.

Bob S. said...


Aren't you also forgetting the fact that the efforts of the individuals should determine how much they have to spend?

The bottom limit is set only by the effort of the individual, right?

You artificially created a zero sum game that doesn't exist.

Experiences like this is what got me in so much trouble in school. I don't play along with the fundamental mindset inherent.

Jay Livingston said...

Hey Bob. Come for the guns, stay for the socialism. It's hard to find a 10-minute exercise that accurately models the US economy. The trouble is that if you just show a pie chart of the income distribution, students might not have a sense of what that means. The exercise puts it in terms that are closer to home. How the income gets generated and the mechanisms by which it really gets distributed are outside the scope of this little demo.