Think Critically about Inequality

This activity has been designed to help young people think critically about the topic of inequality.


21st century societies are highly unequal and inequality is increasing. For example, in 2016, the richest 62 people on the planet owned as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity1 . You may ask why this matters. It would take only 1.5% of the combined wealth of all the world’s billionaires to fund the shortfall in the health and education services of the world’s poorest countries. There is a close connection between extreme inequality and the challenge of finally eliminating poverty.

Yet inequality remains a controversial issue which has divided economists. These activities ask young people to think critically about inequality and draw their own conclusions.

Learning Objectives
  • Identify inequality as a global phenomenon.
  • Evaluate the two opposing views about inequality.
  • Review Brazil’s success at reducing inequality and suggest how inequality might be tackled in the future.
Key Words

Inequality, equality, equity, government policy.

Teachers notes

1. Inequality across the world

Young people should compare these four photographs, taken in different countries between 2004 and 2014.

Kathmandu, Nepal: A man pushes his bicycle, loaded with melons, past a billboard advertisement for Oman Air’s first class service (2013)
Photo: Panos/GMB AKASH
Johannesburg, South Africa: brush seller Leonard Kufeketa, 39, stands in front of a Ferrari in the expensive suburb of Parkhurst (2014).
Photo: Zed Nelson/Oxfam
São Paulo, Brazil. The Paraisópolis (Paradise City) shanty town next to the wealthy district of Morumbi (2008)
Photo: Tuca Vieira
Mumbai, India. The shanty homes of fishing families and city immigrants on Back Bay, with the tower blocks of Nariman Point in the background (2004).
Photo: Paul Smith/Panos
  • Do these four photographs, taken in different countries at different times, have a theme in common? What is it and how do the photographs illustrate this theme?
  • Evidence suggests that inequality between countries is reducing but that inequality inside individual countries is increasing. Is there any evidence in the photographs to support this evidence?
  • If you were to take a photograph to illustrate inequality in your own community or country, what would it be?
2. Two opposing views about inequality

The ‘two opposing views about inequality’ (activity sheet) have been expressed in a simple and straightforward way. The debate is much more complicated. For example, few people would argue that any society should be entirely equal.

  • Ask young people to argue the issue of inequality.
  • Divide into sub-groups.
  • Review the evidence.
    • The Two Opposing Views of Poverty activity sheet (below).
    • The Even It Up video (3’00’’).
    • The photographs in Activity 1 (above).
    • Other available evidence (carry out an internet search).
  • Each sub-group should fold a large sheet of paper in two. On the top of the sheet they should write the Issue – ‘Inequality is harmful and we can reduce it’.
  • Each sub-group should then discuss as many arguments for the issue and arguments against the issue as they can think of. Arguments for the issue should be listed on the left of the sheet of paper and Arguments against the issue should be listed on the right.
  • After arguing the issue each sub group should agree and summarise their conclusions and write them at the bottom of the paper.
  • Sub-groups could feed back their conclusions to the group.
  • This activity is adapted from Get Global! (pg 97).
3. What should we do about inequality?

Some governments believe it is not their job to reduce inequality and have done little. Others have discovered that it is difficult to join together all the different policies required to reduce inequality, and their efforts have not totally succeeded.

For example the new government elected in Brazil in 2002 was committed to reducing inequality in one of the world’s most unequal countries. Between 2003 and 2009 the numbers of Brazilians living in poverty fell from 26% to 15% and there was a small fall in inequality.

  • Sub-groups should now examine the policies of the Brazilian government and their possible impact on inequality. These can be found on the ‘How to reduce inequality’ activity sheet.
  • Each sub-group records a comment about the degree to which they think each of the separate policies have reduced inequality.
  • After examining all of the policies, each sub-group reaches a final conclusion about how far the collective policies of the Brazilian government were successful in reducing inequality.
  • After reviewing their conclusion, each sub-group suggests five policies that they would introduce to reduce inequality in their country. They should also discuss how realistic they think their suggestions are. For example, are any of them already being advocated by mainstream political parties?

For more activities about Brazil see: Oxfam (2014) – The World Cup. A Fair Game?

Activity Sheet: Two Opposing views about Inequality
Inequality is natural and is good

Inequality is natural. Some people are brighter or more gifted than others. They deserve higher rewards because they have special talents or are prepared to take risks. This is natural. The best people are motivated by being rewarded more. Therefore inequality makes society work better.

The promise of large rewards encourages people and businesses to invest, innovate and take risks. This speeds up economic growth and is eventually good for everyone as wealth ‘trickles down’ to the poor. People should be allowed to earn as much as their talents permit and have choice about how to spend their incomes as they wish without paying too much tax.

The best thing to do is not to interfere too much in how much people are rewarded. If there are problems they usually sort themselves out over time. In economics this is called the ‘invisible hand’.  


Inequality is not natural and is harmful

There is nothing natural about poverty. People are rewarded as a result of the decisions made by powerful people in society. For example there is no natural reason why a footballer should earn more than a school dinner lady.

Rising inequality has a harmful impact on a country’s overall wealth and wellbeing. When people are left behind in poverty they have worse health, are less educated, become less productive and have less money to spend. This slows down economic growth and is harmful for most people. Making sure all people and businesses pay their fair share in tax is one way of giving the government enough money to tackle the effects of poverty.

Inequality is shaped by the decisions of powerful people. If we decide we want to we can take action to reduce inequality.

Activity Sheet: How to Reduce Inequality?
  Policy Comments
1 The government gave bank loans to ordinary people and local groups to set up community businesses and social enterprises. The commercial banks often didn’t lend money to small businesses.

However these loans often went to the big cities that already had strong economies.

2 The government provided all school children with a free school meal. They made sure that at least 30% of the food they purchased for school lunches came from small scale family farmers.  
3 The richest people in Brazil pay a smaller percentage of their earnings on tax than poor people, and many of the rich avoid paying tax altogether. This limited the amount of money the government raised through tax and therefore the amount spent on health and education.  
4 There were more health professionals living in the richer south, south east and urban areas of Brazil. Professional people often prefer to live in these areas because working conditions are better. However the greatest need for qualified health workers is in the poorer north of the country.  
5 The Brazilian government spent much more money and a greater share of its budget on the health service than previous governments had in the past.  

1 Oxfam Even it Up: