Designed for a Depression/New Deal unit, but also good for a sociology or current issues class, this 2-3 day exercise spurs conversation about how much we value social services; free enterprise; low taxes; equality; education; and the prevention of hunger, homelessness, and disease.
The lesson engages students in debate about what a just society looks like and then offers them an opportunity to draw a random "identity" within that society. When a young Social Darwinist finds himself to be a Hispanic female whose parents earn less than $10,000/year, the cognitive dissonance blooms. When a teenage social democrat confronts classmates who value individual enterprise more than collective responsibility, the cognitive sparks fly.
Detailed teacher instructions are included in the folder of materials, but here is the outline of the lesson:
1) Generate student interest with a brief exploration of their place in a very rich and powerful country
2) Explain John Rawls’ concept of the Veil of Ignorance: If free and equal citizens – behind a veil of ignorance that deprived them of “all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances” – set out to create a society, they would establish a social order that “secures for all a guaranteed minimum of the all-purpose means (including income and wealth) that individuals need to pursue their interests and to maintain their self-respect as free and equal persons.” Explain that students are going to create a society in a small group today to test Rawls’ theory.
3) Explain that on day two, after groups have created their society and we have discussed their choices, they will each will draw a random identity card that will establish their “personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances;” they might be a Hispanic male from a family earning $80,000 a year who gets cancer or a white female from a family earning $10,000 who has a car accident . . . .
4) Students have a chance to predict/guess what percentage of Americans today belong to various ethnic groups, subsist at different income levels, and experience medical challenges like cancer. Then the class will look at the actual Census Bureau statistics applied to a class of thirty students (e.g., 17 members of the class of 30 will be white, and 8 members of the class will come from a family earning less than $25,000 per year). This is a good chance to discuss how your school's community is different from the national averages and how living there skews your students' perspective of America.
5) Students examine a 28-box grid of options with a variety of choices about how high to tax incomes in order to provide various levels of health care coverage, affordable housing, food support, and free education. Each group comes up with a taxation level and accompanying support system for health, education, food and housing.
6) On day two one panelist from each group will explain their decisions from day one and respond to challenging questions.
7) Finally, students will randomly draw their position in the new society: their parents' income, their race, sex, health, language, and traffic accident history and then will discuss how likely it will be that they will be able to afford college, hospitalization, food and housing.
8) If desired, students can be assigned to read articles about Americans in poverty today and write about the likelihood that a person with their randomly drawn circumstances will have similar or different experiences. Those articles are not included in the materials, but several links will be included and you can quickly google new ones.