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Unit VI Social Inequality

Instructor's Manual

IM for Teaching Income Inequality ("Brownies" Exercise)

Theme: The Centrality of Inequality

DescriptionAn exercise that makes income inequality in the U.S. very concrete.

Learning GoalsTo sensitize students to the degree of inequality that exists in the United States in the distribution of resources.Back to top


Materials NeededIndex cards, string, a calculator, and a pan of brownies or sheet cake.Back to top

Estimated TimeAbout 30 minutes. Can be done in one class period with time for discussion.Back to top

Procedures
Before class, I count out enough index cards so that everyone in the class will receive one if the class has perfect attendance. I then take the stack of index cards and divide them into three piles: the first pile has 15% of the index cards, the second pile has 70% of the index cards, the third pile has 15% of the cards. The piles represent different socioeconomic strata in the United States: one pile of 15% represents poverty, the other pile of 15% represents millionaires or richer, the 70% pile represents the “middle class.” On the respective cards, I write the average annual income for that “class”: $1 million for the wealthiest group, $36,959 for the middle class, and $10,725 for poverty.
On the day of class I adjust the number of cards per “class” according to attendance. For example in a class of 20 students, 15% (3 students) would receive poverty cards, 70% (14 students) middle class cards, 15% (3 students) millionaire cards. Then I distribute the cards randomly throughout the class (this is normally accomplished with shouts of glee of those who receive the millionaire cards!). On the board, I write the number of students who are in each class and multiply that number by the average annual income. I add the average annual incomes of the class together and divide it by the total income to generate a wealth chart which is amazingly close to the real distribution of wealth. Again, in a class of 20, the chart would be:
3 x 1,000,000 = 3,000,000
14x 36,959 = 517,426
3 x 10,725 = 32,175
3,549,6013,000,000/3,549,601 = 85%
517,426/3,549,601 = 14%
32,175/3,549,601 = 1%After doing the calculations, I explain that the class is going to divide up ALL the resources in the room according to the percentages of each group. Resources include: floor space, desk and chairs (if movable), food, etc. Assigned tasks include roping off the room, cutting up the brownies, and moving the furniture. The only stipulation I put on the division of resources is that the largest portion of the room must include the doors from which to exit and the smallest portion of the room must include the wastebaskets. The students enjoy this part very much.
After the resources have been divided, I tell the students to get into their respective spaces (small for poverty, medium for middle class, and large for millionaires) and I will distribute the brownies accordingly. This is when the exercise has an impact. There are few students with great amounts of space and a large portion of brownies, the majority of students with some room and some brownies, and a few students with practically no room and brownie crumbs.
After much laughing and joking, the questions start. Invariably, one of the “millionaires” will offer to share a portion of their brownie: a perfect illustration of philanthropy. The poor and middle class will jokingly ask what I’d do if they climbed out of their space into that of the wealthy. Living in a warm climate, I turn it around and ask “What would happen if you climb over your fence to go swimming in their pool?”
I have been fortunate to have windows in the classrooms where I conduct this exercise. Typically the windows are opposite the exit, so the middle class and poverty students are lined up against them. The windows become a helpful tool after the questions have been answered. At that time, I tell the students that class is dismissed. Those students in the middle class and poverty start to climb over the string to head out the door of the classroom. I stop and ask them what they are doing…this space belongs to the wealthy. The responses are what you would expect: But I have to get to my next class, practice, etc. I remind them that this space belongs to the wealthy and that they have other options for “getting where they want to go,” namely the windows. One of the points of the exercise really hits home when I tell them that they can get where they are going if they just exert a bit more effort, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, try a bit harder, etc. This typically generates more questions, comments, and insights into the plight of the less fortunate.

More InformationThis exercise works better with smaller classes. I have done it with as many as 60, but it is necessary to have something to do to keep all students busy while the resources in the room are being divided. In addition, a pan of brownies or a sheet cake works the best with respect to food. One time, I used small cookies instead. It took too long to count them out and the visual impact wasn’t quite as dramatic.
Instructors might want to update income numbers with more current data. 

Creator/SourceOriginally used by Nancy Fischer, Department of Sociology, Anderson University. Modified by Jacqueline Simpson, McMurry University, Abilene, Texas for James Sikora and Teodora O. Amoloza (eds.) 2000. Introductory Sociology Resource Manual, Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: American Sociological Association Teaching Resources Center, pp. 204205.
