Poverty and Unemployment: Exploring the Connections

This lesson explores the connections between poverty and unemployment. Discovering that there are not enough living-wage jobs available for everyone who wants one, students begin to see how poverty is caused by systemic factors, not individual shortcomings.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • recognize the factors that result in more people seeking living-wage jobs than there are living-wage jobs available
  • understand that unemployment and poverty have disproportionately affected members of diverse racial and ethnic communities, both before and during the current recession
  • begin to explore the reasons that unemployment and poverty disproportionately affect members of diverse racial and ethnic communities
Essential Questions

Essential Questions: 

  • What is cyclic unemployment? How is unemployment during a recession different from persistent unemployment? 
  • How are poverty and unemployment connected?
  • How are poverty and discrimination connected?
  • What groups are most likely to experience unemployment and poverty in the United States? Why?

This lesson begins by helping students understand the connections between poverty and unemployment. Students participate in a game of musical chairs that simulates the job market, helping them see that one reason for poverty is that there are not enough jobs for everyone who wants one. Then they explore other factors that also contribute to poverty—education and geography, for example—that are part of the legacy of discrimination in this country. They find that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be unemployed, and more likely to live in poverty, than white or Asian Americans. In subsequent lessons, students explore more deeply the ways that poverty affects people, and how it perpetuates inequality in the United States.  


poverty [pov-er-tee]
(noun) the condition of lacking sufficient money or goods to meet basic human needs such as food, shelter, clothing

Introduction: Many factors contribute to poverty. Most, if not all, of them—such as low-quality education, lack of adequate food and healthcare, and geographic location—can be traced to the legacy of discrimination that plagues people of color in the United States. Among the factors that often contribute to poverty are unemployment and underemployment. Put simply, many people live in poverty because they are unable to find a job that pays a living wage—or to find a job at all. To be sure, not everyone who is unemployed lives in poverty, but in this lesson you will look at how unemployment and underemployment often contribute to poverty. 

Poverty and unemployment do not affect everyone equally. People of color suffer from both unemployment and poverty disproportionately. In this lesson you will begin to question why—and in subsequent lessons you will delve more deeply into that question.

1. To begin your exploration of unemployment in the United States, you’re going to play a game of musical chairs. (Note: Have students set up chairs in a circle. Make sure that there are two fewer chairs than there are people. Bring music to play for the game.) In case you don’t remember how to play, here’s a reminder: When the music starts, walk around the outside of the circle. As long as the music is playing, keep walking. When the music stops, sit down as quickly as you can. (Note: Play the music; after a period of time, stop the music. When all the chairs are filled, leaving two students standing, continue to the next step.)

2. Return the chairs to their usual position, sit down and debrief the activity by having a class discussion based on these questions: 

  • Why couldn’t everyone sit down when the music stopped? 
  • Think of the game as representing the job market in the United States. If the chairs symbolize jobs and the players symbolize job seekers, what can you say about the job market in the United States?

3. Musical chairs is a game, so some people win and some people lose. But in the job market, why do some people lose? With a partner or small team, complete the performance task: A Few Facts About Jobs.

4. Now that you have a better understanding about why unemployment exists, think about which people are most affected by it. Unemployment doesn’t affect everyone equally. Some people have a harder time getting work than others. Think back to your game of musical chairs. Imagine that some of the players started the game in the far corner of the room, quite a distance away from the chairs, and that they had their shoelaces tied together. What would have happened to those people when the music stopped? 

Let’s go back to musical chairs as an analogy for the job market. With a partner, discuss who you think the people with their shoelaces tied together represent. In other words, which job seekers do you think have the most trouble finding a job? Why do you think they have such a hard time? Have pairs share their ideas, and make a class list of your hypotheses.

5. Study Table 1, Unemployment Rates by Race and Ethnicity, and answer the questions so that you’re sure you have read the data correctly. When you look at unemployment among different race and ethnic groups, what do you notice? Among which groups of people is the unemployment rate highest? How does this compare to your class’s hypotheses? Then study Table 2, and answer the questions. How do poverty rates compare to unemployment rates? Which groups are most affected by poverty?

6. Unemployment and poverty disproportionately affect members of nondominant groups—that is, groups that have historically been oppressed. But it’s important to know that although you may often hear myths that people who live in poverty are lazy, individuals are rarely responsible for their own unemployment and poverty. Think about the student with the shoelaces tied together. Think about the shoelaces as representing obstacles that make it difficult for some people to get jobs. What are some of the obstacles that the shoelaces represent? What are the factors that prevent some people from getting better jobs? And why don’t people simply untie the laces?

The reasons that higher percentages of people in nondominant groups suffer from unemployment and poverty are social and political—not individual. Think about what that means. With a partner, write down a social or political cause of poverty. Share your “cause” with other pairs of students, making your way around the classroom. Then, as a class, make a list of questions you still have about why poverty is not an individual problem, but a social and political problem. 

(Note: In subsequent lessons, students will explore some of those sources, as well as the ways in which poverty and unemployment contribute to perpetuating inequality.)


Additional Resources

Common Core Standards: College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards

CCSS: R.1, R.7, SL.1, SL.2, SL.4, L.1