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Lesson Plans

How the Deck is Stacked: Income Inequality in the U.S. - Lesson Plan

June 11, 2016

Full Lesson


According to studies by the Pew Research Center, the American middle class is shrinking and the gap between high-income and low-income households is growing. As a result, income inequality in the United States, which dwarfs that of other developed countries, is at a peak. The disappearing middle class has been a major point of discussion during the 2016 presidential election. This lesson plan, using the Frontline/Marketplace/PBS NewsHour series ‘How the Deck is Stacked,’ will introduce students to the reality of income inequality in America.


Social studies, history, government, economics

Estimated Time

One to two 50-minute classes

Grade Level



As a warm-up, take this PBS NewsHour survey: ‘How Does the U.S. Slice the Pie?’ Which pie chart do you believe depicts the wealth distribution of the United States? Why? Click the link at the bottom of the page to check your answers. Were you surprised by your results? Explain.

  • Watch this PBS NewsHour video story ‘Land of the Free, Home of the Poor’ to see  other Americans participate in the survey you completed for a warm-up. Why do you think participants underestimated income inequality in the U.S. to such a significant degree? Why did the low-income workers have a more realistic sense of income inequality? Is it a problem that Americans do not know how much income inequality exists in the U.S.? Discuss.

    • Watch this ‘How the Deck is Stacked’ video. Why do you believe the middle class is shrinking? How will this affect the United States economy in the future? Kai Ryssdal stated that the U.S. has an “aspirational economy.” Do you believe that’s still true today? Discuss.

  • Watch the How the Deck is Stacked video, ‘In today’s economy, even two-income families struggle to make ends meet’Middle-class parents Aaron and Mary Murray say gymnastics for their daughter is a “non-negotiable” expense. Think about the expenses of your extracurricular activities. Do your parents consider them non-negotiable? Why or why not? Watch the story with your family and discuss.

Economic principles: The Gini Coefficient

  • The Gini coefficient is a metric that economists use to determine the income equality in a country. It ranges from 0 (absolute equality) to 1 (absolute inequality.) Click here for international Gini coefficient data from the Pew Research Center. How does the Gini coefficient of the United States compare to other countries before taxes and redistributive programs such as Social Security? After? How effective is the U.S. at lowering its Gini coefficient compared to other countries? Discuss.
  • Some economists argue that a certain degree of income inequality incentivizes innovation and entrepreneurship, promoting economic growth. Others argue that a large and robust middle class grows the economy by purchasing large quantities of consumer goods. Which argument aligns most closely with your views? Explain.

Extension Activity:

  • Discuss with your parents whether or not you live in a middle-class household. Next, take this PBS NewsHour quiz entitled ‘Are you in America’s shrinking middle class?’ Were the results of the quiz what you expected? Why or why not?

Amanda Wilcox is a graduating senior at T.C. Williams High School and AP Economics student of Andrew Orzel. She will be attending Wake Forest University in the fall and is considering majoring in economics.