Since the global financial crisis of 2008 and the Occupy Wall Street campaign that followed, the widening gap between the rich and poor has garnered attention as the defining challenge of our time. In the United States in 2012, the top 0.1% of families owned roughly the same share of wealth as the bottom 90% (Saez & Zucman, 2016). That same year in Canada, the 86 wealthiest residents held the same amount of wealth as the bottom 11.4 million Canadians combined (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2014).
From Robert Reich’s illuminating documentary, Inequality for All and Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, to Bernie Sanders’ Democratic primary run and President Obama’s call for equal opportunity in his State of the Union Addresses, economic inequality appears frequently in the media spotlight.
While disputes remain over why economic inequality has grown, and how to reverse this trend, it is clear that society benefits when citizens have a better understanding of issues related to economic justice. The Inequality Project seeks to ascertain what high school students in the United States and Canada are learning about economic inequality. Our research addresses three questions.
(1) What do high schools in Canada and the United States teach young people about economic inequality, its causes and consequences?
(2) How do lessons about economic inequality reflect prevalent cultural and political ideas about citizenship and the “good” society?
(3) Are there differences within and across Canada and the US that might inform our understanding of how schools can address economic inequality and strengthen civic and political participation?
The Inequality Project takes as its point of departure the insight that young people are not only objects of economic and social forces; they also are potential civic agents. As adults, they will be called on to make social policy choices about taxation and the distribution of public resources and to weigh in on a host of issues that shape and are shaped by economic inequality. Despite the clear significance of these issues, however, little attention has been focused on whether public schools in North America address economic inequality as a subject of study, let alone on how teachers can best address this topic. We believe that empirical research can inform policy and practice in this area. Such understanding is an important first step to ensuring that the generation of youth currently enrolled in North American schools will be able to grapple in an informed and nuanced manner with the debates that inevitably will unfold in the years ahead.
A complete description of our survey and follow-up interview methodology can be accessed here.
MacDonald, D. (2014). Outrageous fortune: Documenting Canada’s wealth gap. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Retrieved from https://www.policyalternatives.ca/