Ten Chairs of Inequality

A Classroom Simulation on the Distribution of Wealth

By Polly Kellogg

Inequalities of wealth are becoming more extreme in the United States. While billionaires double their wealth every 3-5 years, we have by far the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world. No industrialized country has a more skewed distribution of wealth. Students need information about this concentration of wealth — and the power that accompanies it — in order to become critical thinkers and aware citizens. A Boston-based group, United for a Fair Economy, has developed a simulation activity to dramatize the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth. I describe here how my college human relations classes respond to the exercise. It can easily be adapted for younger students.

To begin the simulation, I ask 10 students to volunteer to line up at the front of the room, seated in their chairs and facing the rest of the class. I explain that each chair represents 10% of the wealth in the United States and each occupant represents 10% of the population; thus when each chair is occupied by one student, the wealth is evenly distributed. I explain that wealth is what you own: your stereo, the part of your house and car that are paid off, savings like stocks and bonds, vacation homes, any companies you own, your yachts, villas on the Riviera, private jet airplanes, etc. Then I ask students to estimate how much wealth each family would have if the wealth were equally distributed. Students usually guess about $50,000 and are surprised to hear that the answer is $250,000.

I ask them what it would feel like if every family could have a $100,000 home, a $10,000 car paid for and $140,000 in savings. Some make comments like, “It’d be wonderful. I wouldn’t have to work two jobs and take out a loan to go to college.” But many can’t imagine such a society. Others express concern that the incentive to work would be taken away. “It sounds like socialism.”

I tell those worried about socialism, that they have nothing to fear. We have nowhere near an equal distribution of wealth in this country. The poorest 20% of the population are in debt, and the next 30% average only $5,000 in wealth (primarily in home equity).

I ask students at either end of the lineup which one of them wants to represent the richest 10% and experience being rich. Some students volunteer happily and others express distaste at the idea. When asked about their motives, they say “I’ll never be rich, so I’d like to see what it feels like.” “I don’t want to oppress other people, and rich people exploit their workers.” Sometimes a student, often female, will say, “I don’t like to be above other people.”

I invite the class to speculate how many chairs belong to the richest student, whom I will call Sue. Students are dismayed to hear that in 1976, the richest 10% of the population had five chairs, or 50% of the wealth. I tell the four students sitting nearest to Sue to give up their chairs to her and move to the poorer end of the lineup.

Then I say, “But with tax breaks and a skyrocketing stock market, Sue is getting richer. By l996 she increased her share of the wealth from 50% to 70%, so the next two students in the lineup have to give up their chairs to her.” If students have not yet begun to get upset, I provoke them by telling them that the standing students can sit on the laps of the three students seated at the end, and I invite Sue to sit in the middle of her seven chairs, to stretch out, relax, or even lie down across the chairs.

Four Chairs, One Arm

I then announce that Sue’s arm represents the wealthiest 1% of families and that her arm’s share of the wealth doubled from 2 chairs (22% of the wealth) to 4 chairs (42%) during the years from l979 to l992. I solicitously help Sue find a comfortable position with one arm stretched over four chairs. To engage Sue in clowning and playing up her role, I offer her food or drink.

I ask the other nine students crowded around three chairs what life is like at their end of the line. “We’re pissed and tired of working all the time,” is a typical comment. Another is, “I want a revolution.” I ask students if, in real life, they or people they know are crowded into the bottom one or two chairs, and what that’s like. Working-class students tell stories of financial stress they have experienced, such as, “My mother had to work two jobs to support us.” “My family was really poor when my dad was laid off. We lived on macaroni and cheese.” Often one student, usually a white male, says he has hopes that he can work hard and join Sue.

Students’ knowledge of how inequality is rationalized erupts when I ask, “What do those in power tell us about how to justify this dramatic inequality?” Typical student answers are: “They work harder than we do.” “They create jobs.” “The U.S. stands for equality and justice for all.” “It’s our fault if we don’t make it.” If students do not mention scapegoating, I bring it up. I may select one student to represent the poorest 10% and ask, “Wouldn’t there be more money for the rest of you if he or she weren’t ripping off the system for welfare?” I also ask, “Who might Sue want you to blame for your tough economic conditions?” Answers range from welfare mothers and immigrants to gays and lesbians, or bad schools.

When I ask the nine students grouped around the three chairs why they don’t get organized to force a redistribution of the wealth, they offer a variety of answers. “We’re too busy working to organize.” “We are told we can’t change things.” “We don’t get along with each other.” “They’d call out the army to stop us.”

At some point I ask the class to describe the “super rich” — the 1%, Sue’s arm. College students share examples from their experiences. A junior high coach described a local billionaire who offered to write the coach’s school a check of any amount in order to get his child on the baseball team. Another student worked as a waiter in an elite club where “you had to be elected to be able to have lunch there.” The club was all white and only recently began allowing women on the premises; some of the older men refused to let her serve them because they resented her presence. Another student described doing carpentry in a mansion of the Duponts, “The faucet in the kid’s bathroom cost $3,000. “

The athletes and entertainers whose salaries are hyped in the media and newly rich entrepreneurs like Donald Trump and Bill Gates are always mentioned. I point out that these are the upwardly mobile people, who moved from the three chairs up to Sue’s chair. How often does this happen? Why do we hear so much about them? I want students to understand that the exaggerated publicity about these rags-to-riches icons perpetuates the myth that anyone who tries can make it.

Most texts and teachers stop after they have taught about the unequal distribution of wealth, but that is only a piece of the picture. We need to go on to ask why wealth is so unequally distributed. Where does wealth come from? Why does our system concentrate wealth in the hands of so few? And what can ordinary people do to effect change? The simulation creates a foundation for these later lessons.

Polly Kellogg is an assistant professor in the Human Relations and Multicultural Education Department at St. Cloud State Universty, St. Cloud, MN.

More teaching resources are available from United for a Fair Economy, 37 Temple Place, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02111. 617-423-2148. Fax: 617-423-0191. E-mail: STW@stw.org. Web site: http://www.stw.org.