The Common Good

One Nation, Underprivileged: Analyzing the Game Instead of the Players

If life were a game, it could be said that we like to analyze the players (the winners and the losers) of the game, rather than the game itself. In my mind, we would do well to dedicate equal attention and resources to both sides of this problem.

Mark Robert Rank utilizes a great metaphor while painting a picture of poverty in America in his book, One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All.

Rank sets the table for discussion with this image:

"Imagine three people beginning a game of Monopoly. Normally, each player is given $1500 at the start of the game. The playing field is in effect level, with each of the players' outcomes determined by the roll of the dice and by their own skills and judgments.

Now let us imagine a modified game of Monopoly, in which players start out with quite different advantages and disadvantages, much as they would in life. Player 1 begins with $5000 and several Monopoly properties on which houses have already been built. Player 2 starts out with the standard $1500 and no properties. Finally, player 3 begins the game with only $250.

Who will be the winners and losers in this modified game of Monopoly?

In this new game, luck and skill are still involved, but are de-emphasized because of the varied set of resources and assets that each player begins the game with. Of course, Player 1 could still lose and Player 3 could still win, but it would be much more difficult. Played out over hundreds of games, Player 1 would come out on top many more times than Player 3. More importantly, though, might be the way that these new rules impact how each player is forced to play the game. In this modified game, Player 1 can take more risks, while one wrong move could end the game for Player 3. And lastly, Player 1 can build more easily upon his or her assets, leading to a greater possibility of future income.

What's true about both this modified game of Monopoly and America is that we're not all beginning our lives at the same starting point. Your starting point has a powerful impact throughout your life. And where you start out in life has a lot to do with where your parents started out.

In 1994 the median white family held assets worth more than seven times those of the median nonwhite family. In order to understand a family's well being and the life chances of its children, we must also take into account that family's accumulated wealth (Conley 1999). If you are non-white, your parents were held back from accumulating the same levels of wealth that white families have been able to in the last 100 years in America.

And much of these disparities are due to the effects of unjust and unfair systems. From racist federal housing policies in the 1930s, to the planned destruction of the Federal Highway System in the 1950s and 1960s, to unequal educational systems and unfair banking practices, all have in some way contributed to the hindering of asset-building and wealth-creation for non-white families in this country.

So as we continue to address the issues of our current times -- looking at how systems failed us and plunged many more Americans into poverty -- I hope that we might also look at how the systems of our past failed millions of Americans by placing them in poverty and keeping them there.

portrait-neeraj-mehtaNeeraj Mehta has been working with others to uncover beauty and strength in North Minneapolis for the past 10 years. Previously he worked for Project for Pride in Living and most recently as program and strategic development director for the Sanctuary Community Development Corporation. Currently, he is working with the community-building intermediary Nexus Community Partners, partnering with others to create more engaged and powerful communities in the Twin Cities.

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