Speak Truth: The Morality of Wealth

By Kaneia Crumlin
December 17, 2020

On the evening of December 17th, Center for Inspired Teaching, in partnership with Ford’s Theater, hosted a special gathering of Speak Truth, a student-led discussion for students and by students on contemporary social issues, attended by DC-area high school students and educators. Students discussed modern-day wealth inequalities through the lens of Ford’s Theater’s radio play, A Christmas Carol.

Are we Obligated to Share our Wealth?

Dylan, one of the co-facilitators and a junior at Washington Latin PCS, opened the evening’s discussion with a recap of Charles Dickens’ A Chrismas Carol, followed by an audio clip of the radio play adaptation: The excerpt centered around Scrooge’s solicitation by a local charity to which he refuses: “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make lazy people merry.” Scrooge says. “That is not my affair. My business is. It occupies me constantly.”

“Is it morally wrong for Scrooge to refuse? Are wealthy people morally obligated to give?” probes Kayla, co-facilitator and an 11th grader at Washington Latin PCS.

A student raises the point that the decision might hinge on where the funds go. She says she used to give $1-2 when prompted by a store cashier for whatever charity they’re collecting to support but now she has her reasons for refusing. “I’m pretty certain my donation will be swallowed up in administrative costs and never reach the persons for whom it was intended.”

Pascal, a ninth-grader at West Potomac High School says, “it is morally wrong for Scrooge not to donate because he has the money… like corporations, especially during COVID, that fire their workers while their CEOs swim in a surplus of money, further exasperating the wage-gap.” 

A student named Lawrence respectfully disagrees. “Charity is good but if you’ve worked your butt off then you’ve earned it. If you want the money the manager is making, work harder but don’t expect to get manager money with cashier skills.”

“But most rich people are born into generational wealth” Duane, a 12th grader from Thurgood Marshall Academy notes “this is where you get into privilege. Who is getting these opportunities and why?”

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, “most Americans agree there is too much economic inequality in the U.S., but fewer than half see it as a priority,” Still, the report asserts, “economic inequality, whether measured through the gaps in income or wealth between richer and poorer households, continues to widen.”

“It’s a waste of energy to hold others to our personal morals,” Kya, an 11th grader at Elizabeth Seton High School warns. “If we get into a battle of morals, we’re going to lose. Instead, we need to think about how we can change the narrative like buying our Christmas gifts from local businesses instead of Amazon for starters.” 

Anacostia High School 11th grader Traci suggests a slight shift in focus, “Is it really the rich person’s responsibility or the government’s?”

“These are not rich people’s problems,” DeMatha High School 12th grader Saddique affirms. “Our government needs to create institutions that work for everyone.”

Duane adds, “For example, how is the exploitation of the poor a sustainable way to build and expand wealth and solve our inequality issue?”

Luca, an 11th grader at Washington Latin High School, agrees that the vilification of private citizens isn’t productive, but rethinking governmental regulations around such institutions as taxing is. ”We have structures for the rich to avoid taxes rather than pay them.”

Toward An Inclusive Economy

Eventually, the conversation landed here: America’s wealth inequalities are complicated–potentially fixable through a rigorous reimagining of current governmental structures and perhaps some personal responsibility. So, how to create a more inclusive economy?

“This discussion is important because the wealth gap isn’t about rich and poor–it’s about race too,” Pascal notes. “I don’t support everyone for themselves. I support everyone for the greater good–a society where everyone is helped.”

There is a brief back and forth on the virtues of socialism versus capitalism.

Duane shares this observation: “The original intent of capitalism was to bring people out of poverty, not to fling them into riches. As far as socialism is concerned, it may be able to work if it’s tempered.”

More spirited exchanges. 

Then Kayla asks the group: “Thoughts on universal basic income, to every citizen every month?”

“It’s a good idea,“ says Sofia, a 9th grader at West Potomac High School, “but you have to think about those people who may not use it in a productive way.”

Sophia’s comment inspires a flash debate around the merits of universal income and programs like it.

“Since you can’t monitor what someone does with it,” Kya muses, “maybe structure it in a way so as to ensure it’s used for the intended purposes.”

“It’s wrong to assume certain people are going to use it for certain things,” Pascal contends.

“Universal Income. Bad idea,” says Saddique. “It takes away the complete merits of our system. There would be no reason for anyone to get a job. Do I believe we should fund our social programs better? Yes! But it’s not just about funding welfare but increasing and improving the programs around welfare to put folks back into our economy.”

“If we made universal health care and universal education available,” Elizabeth Seton High School 12th grader Camara notes, “we wouldn’t need universal income.”

Wealth: A Problem or A Solution?

All this talk about the problem with wealth prompts Lawrence to ask, “Is money going to solve all our issues around wealth inequalities?”

There is a measured pause.

“Funding is the key to most of our social services,” Pascal observed, “to have more inclusive education, housing, food or healthcare programs you need funding.”

Lawrence probes, “But how can money be the solution and the problem? Can we solve this problem without money?”

“I’ll entertain that idea and play devil’s advocate,” Duane takes on the challenge. “If money isn’t the only thing that can help us, what’s the alternative?”

Another discernible pause.

Camara proffers a more personal lens, “The root of our problem isn’t money but a lack of collaboration and human decency. If we were a more compassionate society, then people wouldn’t suppress other people’s votes because of self-interest or greed.”

An Awakening

Kayla offers the final question: “In A Christmas Carol Scrooge has an awakening that money isn’t everything. Do you think America needs an awakening?”

“Money isn’t the end,” Duane acknowledges “but it is a lot of things. Without money, what can you get?”

“I think it’s more so how you use your money–not that you have money,” Bella, a 9th grader at West Potomac High School, contends, “because at the end, Scrooge started to use his money more productively.”

Kya’s idea of an awakening starts with us. “Stop romanticising a certain [wealthy] lifestyle. Stop putting certain people on platforms and start upholding other things like service and doing work that is fulfilling.”

Camara suggests an awakening would require a massive cultural shift. She points to the happiness scale on which countries are graded based on the self-reporting of their citizens. “These countries practice moderation. Stability brings happiness and the time to do other things like pray, meditate, volunteer–the intangibles.”

For an hour and fifteen minutes, the conversation was animated and poignant. In a comment on the survey that participants took at the close, one student wrote, “I go to school with very like-minded people due to the diverse area we grew up in. We all usually share morals and can agree, but in tonight’s discussion, I found myself disagreeing with people. However, my disagreements also made me question my own perspective on the issue we discussed and the world as a whole. It was just a really good discussion where people disagreed and they were allowed to disagree. It was a safe space which allowed opposite viewpoints to be seen and that was incredible.”

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