A Historical Primer On Economic (In)Equality

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Classroom experiences that critically investigate the causes and meaning of poverty in our own nation offer students tools for change, and new ways to interpret the world around them.

This primer (download the PDF) centralizes poverty and economic (in)equality as part of our nation's historical narrative. It can be used as a reading assignment for students in grades 7 and up, or as an organizer to help teachers integrate explorations of poverty and economic policy in standard U.S. history curricula. Included writing prompts offer a language arts connection.

Discussion and Writing Prompts
Use the following questions to drive classroom discussion, or as writing prompts:

  • Throughout U.S. history, a tension has existed between workers and the businesses and corporations for which they work. Why is this? What roles have unions played in navigating this tension?
  • A tension also has existed between "individual responsibility" and the government's potential role for lifting people out of poverty. When did these ideas first emerge? Why? Which do you find more compelling, or would you advocate for a balance? Why?
  • As a result of the New Deal's programs, the federal government provided millions of Americans with jobs. How did this undermine fundamental principles of a free market economy?
  • How did World War II help restore the American economy?
  • Who was left out of the post-War gains? Why? How might this still be relevant today?
  • Society's expectations of women have changed dramatically. Describe these changes.
  • There were two names for the federal economic policy introduced by President Reagan. Why do you think some advocates might have preferred "trickle down" economics over "supply side" economics?
  • Do supply side economics relate to the industrialist philosophies like social Darwinism and free market capitalism? Why?
  • How did the "welfare queen" stereotype skew the nature and scope of poverty in the U.S.?
  • How did the "Contract with America" affect federal welfare policy?
  • What is globalization? How is it relevant to the ongoing battle against domestic poverty?
  • Do any of the statistics at the end of the primer surprise you? Why?

"What's Missing?" Research Topics
As a primer, this concise history necessarily glosses over many key issues related to economic inequality in the U.S. Ideas for student research projects include:

  • Effects of the federal government's policies of forced removal on Native America's economic health
  • The feminization of poverty
  • Immigrant labor in the 21st-century American economy
  • The decline of labor unions
  • The rise of multinational corporations' dominance in the U.S. and global economies
  • The affect of social policy changes on people with disabilities
  • The influence of big business on American electoral politics