The Economics of Risk

In these activities, students will imagine themselves in the role of these women and weigh the risks and potential benefits of their actions. In the process, they will develop an understanding of undocumented workers that goes far deeper than the caricatures that are often part of the debate over policy.
Grade Level


Students will be able to:

  • Identify risks and potential benefits that women consider when deciding whether to come to the United States without legal documents, whether to stay and how to respond to difficult circumstances
  • Weigh risks and potential benefits and make educated decisions
  • Develop empathy for the circumstances of undocumented workers
  • Track the history of key labor laws in the United States
Essential Questions
  • What difficult choices must women make when deciding whether or not to come to the United States without legal documents?
  • How do people make difficult decisions?
  • How have labor laws developed over the course of U.S. history? What grassroots efforts have contributed to their development?


Early in 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center interviewed 150 immigrant women from Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin American nations. All of them thought they had realized their dreams—to come to the United States, where they could find work and support their families. They landed jobs in fields and factories, where food is harvested and processed before turning up on American dinner tables. But they also found themselves exploited in the workplace, making poverty-level wages and suffering from grim conditions and humiliating situations that were impossible to report because of their undocumented status. Their stories are featured in the SPLC report, Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women In the U.S. Food Industry.

Theme 2, The Economics of Risk, will help students understand that women who enter the United States illegally make a series of difficult decisions, each with potential opportunities and risks. Should they attempt to cross the border with or without their children? Should they complain about the boss’s unfair pay practices? Should they look the other way when they’re sexually harassed at work? Should they take a job that will help educate their children, but might permanently damage their health? 

Additionally, Teaching Tolerance offers a teacher's guide, available as a PDF.



benefit [beh-nuh-fiht] (noun) something that aids or promotes well-being

exploitation [eks-ploy-tay-shun] (noun) the act of using something in an unjust or cruel manner

harassment [huh-rass-mehnt] (noun) behavior meant to be disturbing or threatening

risk [rihsk] (noun) exposure to the chance of loss or damage


Weighing the Costs

1. This lesson is called “The Economics of Risk.” The word economics often refers to money and choices that involve money. But economics can also be used more broadly. In this lesson, we use it to refer to the choices that may not have anything to do with money directly, but that involve other kinds of costs. To warm up, break into small groups. With your group, consider the following scenarios. For each, answer the question: What might this decision cost you?

  • You decide to use the money you earned at your part-time job to buy a bicycle.
  • You decide to go to the mall for two hours after school before starting your homework.
  • You decide to sleep in on Monday morning and miss the school bus and your algebra test.
  • You decide to keep playing in the soccer game after you’ve sprained your ankle.

Look at the costs. What generalizations can you make about the “economics” of your decisions?

2. With different kinds of costs in mind, read Difficult Decisions. Using a colored marker, highlight the reasons that Elvira wanted to the come to the United States. Using a different color, highlight the risks she took and dangers she encountered. Use the first color to highlight any positive aspects Maria found at her job, and the second color to highlight the difficulties she endured. Which color do you see more of? What does that suggest to you about Elvira’s decisions? What questions would you want to ask her so that you could better understand them? 

3. Imagine that you are Elvira, trying to decide whether or not to leave her village in Mexico and enter the United States illegally. With your group, fill in the table on the handout called Elvira with what Elvira had to think about as she made her decision. Discuss with your group the information you have written down. What decision would you make if you were Elvira? In the space provided on the sheet, write what you would do and three reasons that you would do it.

4. Now imagine that you are Maria. Complete the handout called Maria.

5. Conclude with a class discussion that addresses these questions:

  • What do you know now that you didn’t know before about what goes into making the decision to come to the United States?
  • What do you know now that you didn’t know before about the situations that undocumented workers face in their jobs?
  • What do you think lawmakers should do to address the situations of people like Maria and Elvira?

6. Based on what you have learned, what are the three most important things you want to tell your congressional representatives about the situation of undocumented workers? List them. Then write one paragraph about each of the three topics. In the paragraph, provide information about the topic and your views about it. Turn your three paragraphs into an email letter to your congressional representatives. Send the emails. You may find the contact information for your state representatives at www.house.gov and www.senate.gov. 


In Their Own Words

Reread the stories of Elvira and Maria. Taking the point of view of one of these women, write three imaginary diary entries about your experiences, the decisions you make and the costs you pay for those decisions.


Past to Present

Ever since the Industrial Revolution began in the United States in the early 1800s, workers have struggled against exploitation. Over the past 200 years, the U.S. government has passed numerous laws to address worker exploitation. Break into six groups. Each group will research one of the following laws. Use the questions provided to guide your research. As you research, be sure to pay attention to child labor and farmworkers. Have each group put its law on a timeline and report its findings to the class.


The Labor Laws

  • Adamson Eight-Hour Act
  • National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act)
  • Fair Labor Standards Act
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act
  • Family and Medical Leave Act

You can start your research using the following Web sites:


Questions to Guide Your Research

  • When was the law enacted?
  • What does the law do?
  • What led to its being enacted?
  • To whom does the law apply? To whom does it not apply?
  • How does/doesn’t the law apply to Maria?
  • How would/wouldn’t the law apply to you—at your age—if you were working alongside Maria?
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