The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Since the end of the Great Recession, the U.S. economy has experienced tremendous growth. However, as the economy has grown, so has economic inequality, increasing dramatically across the country.

The average income of the nation’s top 10 percent of earners is now more than nine times higher than the average income of the bottom 90 percent. The pandemic is exacerbating the trend: Over the past two years, billionaires’ wealth increased more than ever before, a report by Oxfam International found. And an estimated 160 million people were pushed into poverty.

This growing economic inequality is also widening educational achievement gaps and causing many young people to have a lack of empathy and understanding for those outside their socioeconomic peer groups.

Here’s how the wealth gap is fostering an empathy gap — and what schools can do about it.

In the last few decades, our society has organized itself into economically homogeneous neighborhoods and schools, meaning that our day-to-day interactions have become segregated by our socioeconomic status.

As a result, many of our kids are getting little exposure to experiences unlike their own and diminished opportunities to develop empathy for those different from themselves. And we run the risk of locking in a political system that leaves people in financial crisis without adequate supports. Inevitably, this harms our nation’s growth.

However, if we do a better job teaching our students about economic inequality, we can equip them — our future leaders — with the tools to develop the empathy and the will needed to change the trajectory of the lives of people in crisis.

Growing economic inequality is widening educational achievement gaps and causing many young people to have a lack of empathy and understanding for those outside their socioeconomic peer groups.

Today, most portrayals of economic distress and poverty offer only a snapshot of a particular moment in time: a lost job, an unexpected health care expense. Yet people’s lives are not just one-time events; they are complex trajectories. Stories that focus on single crisis events without attention to the larger picture of people’s lives often make those who experience poverty and economic distress seem deserving of their situations and fundamentally different from everyone else.

Repeated over and over again, these blame-the-victim tropes create generations who lack the empathy needed to support policies and institutional changes that could help individuals effectively overcome and prevent crises. To challenge the tropes, we need to tell our students real-life stories that go beyond a moment in time.

That is why we created the Cascading Lives project for teachers and students. The project takes a look at the life trajectories of individuals in crisis and the significance of social supports in shaping who will climb out of the crises and who will not. The project aims to help teachers educate students about the structures of economic inequality and its human dimensions and foster greater understanding and empathy. (The project’s supporters include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Related: When students research the inequality in their own schools

The project also teaches that the richness of a person’s social supports is shaped by many things, including their family’s socioeconomic background, kinship networks and neighborhood. With a focus on diverse life histories, the project shows how one crisis can cascade into another, morphing into a constellation of social, interpersonal, aspirational and financial losses.

For example, Ricardo, a Latino man in his early 50s, is a bartender at a restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2017, Ricardo lost his job due to the devastations of Hurricane Maria. After moving to get a new job, he was more susceptible to the volatility that the Covid-19 pandemic created in the restaurant industry.

By doing a better job teaching about economic inequality, we can also greatly improve our classroom environments by making students more aware of how unequal access to sports, clothing and colleges is directly related to socioeconomic differences.

Cascading Lives’ digital toolkit provides teachers with a comprehensive list of teaching materials to bring these conversations about economic inequality and mobility into the high school classroom. By including real-life examples, it gives students an additional perspective on the status hierarchies that they grow up with and often help create.

When schools and teachers address these issues, we foster students’ empathy and the political will for change that will enable people to face and overcome crises, instead of plunging downward.

It’s beyond time for our nation to reverse the trends on economic inequality and polarization. Educating our students about economic inequality will help us take a step in that direction.

Karen V. Hansen is a professor of sociology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University; Nazli Kibria, is a professor of sociology at Boston University.

This story about economic inequality education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published.