It’s Time We Teach Students About Economic Hardship
Partner Feature: Cascading Lives: Stories of Loss, Resilience & Resitance
With sky-high inflation and the cost of everything from rent to food going up, new data shows that over 40 percent of U.S. households are unable to afford basic necessities, forcing them to make impossible choices and risky trade-offs every day. While 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, the full picture is much more complicated. 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 can often make those who experience poverty and economic distress appear deserving of their situations and fundamentally different from everyone else.
Repeated over and over again, these blame-the-victim tropes contribute to a society that lacks the empathy needed to call for policies and institutional changes that could help individuals effectively overcome and prevent crises. To challenge the tropes, we need to educate our students and teachers by telling 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-long stories of individuals who face economic crises and the significance of social support in shaping who will overcome them 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 also teaches that the resources someone has available to them in times of crisis are 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 set off a cascade of smaller events like bounced checks, missed work shifts, that can turn 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 of teaching about economic inequality, we can also greatly improve our classroom environments by helping students understand their own family circumstances and those of their classmates. The goal is to reduce the shame and increase the empathy toward those who have faced these kinds of challenges. Cascading Lives’ digital toolkit provides teachers with a comprehensive set 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 additional perspective on status hierarchies that surround them and how they were created.
With so many families suffering due to social systems they don’t control, it’s essential that we help young people understand these processes so they can grow into the empathetic leaders we need to create a more equitable and inclusive country.