Teacher Schools Class On Privilege…With A Recycling Bin And Some Paper

A big hat tip to the guys over at Buzzfeed for sharing this simple but powerful lesson about privilege.

As Nathan W Pyle writes:

I once saw a high school teacher lead a simple, powerful exercise to teach his class about privilege and social mobility. He started by giving each student a scrap piece of paper and asked them to crumple it up.

Nathan W. Pyle / Via buzzfeed.com

The teacher concludes:
“Your job — as students who are receiving an education — is to be aware of your privilege. And use this particular privilege called “education” to do your best to achieve great things, all the while advocating for those in the rows behind you.”
What makes this lesson so powerful, is it simplifies a story made hopelessly complex by a media, corporate, and political class hell bent on retaining an iniquitous status quo.

US income inequality is at its greatest for nearly a century and is rising, as the income gap between the bottom 90% and top 1% of Americans reaches its largest since 1928.  When compared globally, the US is the second most economically unequal society (behind Chile).  But what does economic inequality mean for average Americans?

According to research by UC Berkeley, 1928 saw the top 1% of American’s receive 23.9% of all pre-tax income, and the bottom 90% get 50.7%.  By 1944, the impacts of redistributive efforts such as Roosevelt’s New Deal, saw this gap close dramatically; the share of the top 1% fell to 11.3% and the bottom 90% saw their share of income grow to 67.5%.  The gap continued to close until the late 1970’s, with the increasing gap since returning the US to 1928 levels this year.

So what changed?

Primarily, the ascendance of neoliberal economic policies put forward by the likes of US neoliberal economist Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, who considered redistributive policies, and other state interference in markets as a barrier to, not bringer of equality.  Friedman once wrote:

“A society that puts equality—in the sense of equality of outcome—ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom.… On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality.[1]

Friedman was wrong. Economic inequality matters, because inequality of income translates to inequality of outcome.  The kids at the back of the class have less chance of hitting their target.

In The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson (Professor of Epidemiology at Nottingham University, UK) charts data that proves societies that are more equal are healthier, happier societies. By comparing life expectancies, mortality rates and other health indicators, Wilkinson demonstrated a correlation between inequality of income and inequality of health outcomes.

Wilkinson’s paper, and a replication of his findings by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, characterized those outcomes as an inequality in life expectancy, rate of death and overall physical and mental health. Additional indicators of quality of life and social mobility, highlighted in both papers, were unequal outcomes in educational attainment, likelihood of conviction and incarceration for crimes, and an array of others, which might point to a causal link between income inequality and inequality of outcomes.

Proving such a causal link is notoriously fraught with complexities and uncertainties, however, several studies have sought to assess the independent impact of inequality on health and social problems. One such study (Lynch et al, 1998) suggested that loss of life as a direct result of the impacts of income inequality in the US during 1990 was equal to the combined loss of life due to lung cancer, diabetes, motor vehicle accidents, HIV-related causes, suicide and homicide.  

Economic inequality is also hereditary; a social inheritance passed from parent to child.  Research by Gregory Clark of the University of California, found data to suggest that in the same time period that neoliberal economic policies expanded the economic inequality gap, the rate of social mobility (increased incomes and outcomes by successive generations) declined for the first time in 1000 years.

For Americans, and citizens across the world, outside the economic elite, rising economic inequality means rising inequality of health and wellbeing; and their inherited disadvantage is proving a barrier to improving not only their circumstances, but those of generations to come.  If we’re going to change any of this, we first need to understand and acknowledge it.  So, hats off to this teacher.