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Musical Chairs (Wealth Distribution)


Source: Zoric, T. (2005). Challenging Class Bias. Toronto: TDSB. Adapted and reprinted from pp.66-79 of The Activist Cookbook: Creative Actions for a Fair Economy, by Andrew Boyd, United For a Fair Economy, 1997. Debriefing questions adapted from p.241 Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and Pat Griffin, 1997.

Time: 60 minutes

Rationale
This lesson focuses on the unequal distribution of wealth in Canada and Ontario and the exacerbation of this inequality over time. Students recognize the unequal distribution of wealth in Canada in a historical and contemporary context. Students think critically about wealth distribution and class inequalities in Canada.

Materials
10 straight-backed chairs without armrests

Background Information:
Up-to-date statistics on the distribution of individual wealth in Canada are very hard to obtain because the federal government specifically cut Statistics Canada’s ability to gather such data. However, a survey on some aspects of wealth distribution by family unit called “Survey of Financial Security” was released by Statistics Canada in 2005.

Teaching/ Learning Strategies
1. Ask for 10 student volunteers to stand in front of 10 chairs (without armrests).
2. Announce that each person represents one-tenth of the adult Canadian population and each chair represents one tenth of the private wealth owned by Canadians.
3. Have students maintain the order in which they are standing, from left to right.

Step A – 1970
1. Tell the class that you are going to start by looking at wealth distribution in Canada in 1970. Say: “In 1970 the top (wealthiest) 10% of adults owned 53% of all private wealth and the next 10% owned 17.5% of the private wealth in Canada. The third wealthiest 10% owned 12% of the private wealth.”
2. Ask the student representing the wealthiest 10% (who is standing farthest to the left in the line) to lie across 5 and 1/3 chairs.
3. Ask the second student (to the right) representing the next 10% to use a little more than 1 and 1/5 chairs.
4. Ask the student representing the third wealthiest 10% to sit in a little more than 1 chair.
5. That leaves 7 students who are to fit themselves into the remaining 2 chairs. Encourage them to try to sit.
6. Allow students to get up and (briefly) get comfortable.

Step B – 1980
1. Tell students that the next exercise will use wealth distribution figures from 1980. Ask them to speculate about how things might have changed in those 10 years. After hearing a few guesses, say: “In 1980 the top 10% of adults owned 57% of all private wealth and the next 10% owned 16% of it.
2. That means that the student representing the wealthiest 10% can lie across 5 and 7/10 chairs.
3. A second student representing the next 10% can use a little less than 2 chairs.
4. Tell the 8 remaining students to try to squeeze into the remaining 3 chairs. Encourage them to sit. Say: “Don’t fall through the cracks!!!”
5. Also explain to the class: “If the person representing the wealthiest 10% could be divided up, his/her top 10% (this is the wealthiest one percent of the population) would have almost 2 chairs (18.8%).”

Step C –– Ontario in 1989
1. Announce to the students that the class will look next at wealth in Ontario in 1989. Say: “In 1989 the wealthiest 10% of adults owned more than 60% of all private wealth. The next 10% owned about 15%.”
2. Ask the student representing the top 10% to lie across 6 chairs. A second student representing the next 10% can use 1 and 1/2 chairs.
3. Again, 8 students are to try to fit into the remaining 3 chairs. Encourage them to sit.
4. Also note: “If the person representing the top 10% could be divided up, his/her top 10% (the wealthiest 1% of the population) would have more than 2 chairs, almost a quarter of all the privately-held wealth (23%).”

Step D – Ontario in 1999
1. Announce to students that the class will now look at wealth in Ontario in 1999. Ask students to guess if things have gotten worse or better since 1989. Tell students that the following wealth distribution figures for 1999 look at the wealth of families instead of individuals. If we were to continue to look at individuals these statistics would be more exaggerated.
2. Inform students that in 1999 the poorest 10% of families in Ontario now had negative wealth -$10,665 and don’t even get a tiny corner of a chair. This figure is a decline of 28% since 1970 when the poorest 10% at least had wealth of $8031.
3. The next 5 people representing the second poorest 10% of Ontario families all the way to the person representing the sixth poorest 10% of Ontario families collectively own one chair or 12% of the wealth in the province.
4. The remaining 9 chairs are owned by the remaining 4 people representing the wealthiest 40% of Ontario families. In Ontario in 1999 the richest five groups owned 93.8% of Ontario’s wealth compared to 6.2% owned by the poorest 5 groups. (seventh person – 8.5%, eighth person – 12.2%, ninth person – 18.3%, richest person 49%). The top 10% of families in Ontario have increased their wealth by 122% since 1970 and own 49% of the wealth in the province. Again remind students that if we were to look at the wealth by individuals instead of families the percentages would be even more unequal.

Debriefing:
Discuss the following questions with the student volunteers and the rest of the class:
1. How did you feel as part of the bottom 80%?
2. How did you feel as part of the middle 10%?
3. How did you feel as part of the top 10%?
4. How did you feel observing the activity?

Post-Activity
1. If you were to move someone off the chairs to make more room, who would it be? Why?
2. Where does the power lie in our society? Explain. (Here it would be interesting if students acknowledge that more people are at the bottom and that there should be power in numbers. What happens in our society to keep the majority in their place and allow the few continue to control the wealth?)
3. From what you’ve heard on TV, the radio, and elsewhere, where are decision-makers looking to make room?
4. Which people are most likely to need or value public wealth, such as public schools, public libraries and public hospitals?
5. Why is it that our governments have allowed this inequity to increase?

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