Interpreting Wealth Disparities

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.
Grade Level

  • Students will understand how tables and graphs represent patterns.
  • Working in groups, students will reinterpret the data in artistic form.
  • One printed copy of the tables handout (PDF) (one table is provided for each small group of 4-6 students)
  • Various art and craft supplies


In 1998, hundreds of people from around the country went to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress about the wage gap — the disparity in wages between workers and corporate executives. While there, to raise public awareness about the issue, they descended on the Washington Monument — which stands 555 feet tall. The Monument, they told onlookers, represented CEO pay.

Organizers then placed a much, much smaller replica of the Washington Monument next to the real thing. The replica represented worker pay. In 2003, it would have stood just 16 inches tall, a ratio of 419 to one; the typical CEO's annual income was equivalent to the incomes of 419 people who worked for him or her.

Income, however, represents only a slice of the picture when it comes to poverty and economic inequality in the United States. To gain a true image, one must also look at other factors like debt, savings and assets.

In this activity, students will look at graphic representations of data related to savings, assets and debt, as well as income. And, like those who organized the "Washington Monument" display, reinterpret data in public (or classroom) art.


Suggested Procedures

Introduce the activity objectives to students and then divide the class into five diverse small groups.

Give each group one of the tables or charts from the handout. Ask each small group to review its chart, create a simple statement about the chart's meaning and then explain it to the whole class.

Share the "Washington Monument" story with students. (See the Framework, above.) And ask each small group to come up with one or more creative ways the data on their charts could be presented creatively — juxtaposed against specific locations at school or in the community.

Students in New York, for example, might select the Brooklyn Bridge, which is 6,972 feet long. If the Bridge represented stock ownership, the poorest 1% of Americans would own just 69.72 feet of it.

Allow time for students to conduct necessary research and create their replicas. Display students art projects in the classroom, school library or elsewhere, and hold a forum where students explain the meanings of their artwork to others. The New York students above, for example, might share: "Stocks are supposed to be a road to asset-building. If we think of that road as stock-ownership itself, we'd find that there's a great traffic jam leading into Manhattan, a bottleneck where the wealthiest among us own the last 2,998 feet of the Brooklyn Bridge."

Encourage students to ask clarifying questions and provide one another with feedback.

The Washington Monument story included in this activity is drawn from Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality in the U.S., Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel with United for a Fair Economy and Class Action (The New Press, 2005.)

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