Economic Inequality

Is increasing economic inequality undermining our democracy?

Course Description

America has long been heralded as the “land of opportunity,” but consider the following:

  • The average student loan debt for the class of 2012 was $29,400, which doesn’t account for any debt accrued in graduate school.
  • Between 1947 and 1972, the average hourly wage, adjusted for inflation, rose 76 percent. Since 1972, by contrast, the average hourly wage has risen only 4 percent.
  • In 2011 the poverty rate for female-headed families with children was 40.9 percent.
  • In 2009, CEOs of major U.S. corporations averaged 263 times the average compensation of American workers.
  • Between 1979 and 2007, wages for the top 1 percent rose almost 10 times as fast as those for the bottom 90 percent: 156.2 percent versus 16.7 percent.
  • “The two years in the last hundred that mark the apogees of inequality—when the richest one percent received a record 23.5 percent of total income—were 1928 and 2007” (Robert Reich, Aftershock [2013], p. 5).
  • An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study found that almost 884,000 excess deaths per year in the United States could be attributed to high levels of income inequality.

Some degree of economic inequality occurs naturally in a free and open society, but a vibrant democracy experiencing these dramatic trends ought to be asking tough questions:

  • How did the extreme inequality we find today happen?
  • What are the implications of such dramatic economic inequality?
  • How much inequality is too much?
  • If these trends undermine the integrity of our democracy, then what can we do?

Our democracy deserves answers to these questions.

Rising economic inequality profoundly impacts our society, our economy, and how citizens interact with each other and with government. Through experiential learning, this course explores these transformations and their impact on our democracy at the national, state, and local levels, while supporting students as they develop to become informed and engaged citizens.

Key Learning Outcomes:

  • Communication: Students will demonstrate competency in communication skills related to the production and presentation of messages in multiple formats.
  • Civic Engagement: Students will develop the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to be able to make a difference in the civic life of their communities.*
  • Critical Thinking: “Students will develop a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.”*
  • Quantitative Literacy: Students will develop competency and comfort in working with numerical data. Students will gain the ability to reason and solve quantitative problems from a wide array of authentic contexts and everyday life situations. They will understand and create sophisticated arguments supported by quantitative evidence and clearly communicate those arguments in a variety of formats.*
Activity 1
How are views of the American Dream interpreted and impacted by political ideology?
How are views of the American Dream interpreted and impacted by political ideology?
Prosperity, legacy, patriotism and equality are hallmarks of the "American Dream." Individual definitions and the responsibilities we each have to others in making the "Dream" a reality are impacted by political ideology. This module weaves concepts of the "American Dream" together with an exploration of political ideologies.