Tax day, Monopoly and the American nightmare

Steven Barkan, University of Maine.

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on April 12, 2016.

Because tax day is coming up, it’s a good time to consider the distribution of wealth in the United States. Let’s do so by thinking about the familiar game of Monopoly.

Much like life itself, winning or losing Monopoly is the result of luck and skill. But there is a significant way in which Monopoly is not like real life. In Monopoly, each player starts with $1,500. In real life, individuals start with huge differences in wealth: money, property, investments and so forth. If Monopoly were more like real life, here’s what would happen.

Let’s assume there are five players, and instead of each player receiving $1,500 at the start, the $7,500 they share to begin the game is instead allocated according to the distribution of wealth among Americans. In this scenario, the wealthiest player, Player A, would begin with about $6,668, because the top fifth of Americans hold about 89 percent of the nation’s wealth. Based on the proportion of wealth held by the next fifth of Americans, Player B would begin with $705. Meanwhile, Player C, representing the middle fifth of Americans, would begin with $195, while Player D would begin with $15. Finally, Player E, representing the bottom fifth of Americans, would begin the game $90 in debt.

Who will win this game? Who will lose? No matter how skilled and even a little lucky Players D and E are, will they have a chance of winning? Won’t Player A win almost every game, even if this player is not very skilled and/or not very lucky?

As this fanciful game demonstrates, Americans do not start out in life with equal wealth the way Monopoly players do. In the real game of life, they instead start out with incredibly different amounts of wealth and everything that goes along with these different degrees of wealth: the neighborhoods in which their families can afford to live, the quality of the schools that children attend and so many other aspects of a household’s existence. To paraphrase an old saying, wealthy Americans are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. In contrast, many other Americans are born with one or two strikes against them, facing obstacles that would be difficult for wealthy Americans to even imagine.

Mounting scientific evidence points to the importance of one of these obstacles: toxic stress. This term refers to the chronic stress that many low-income children experience since infancy because of repeated traumatic events called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. ACEs include exposure to neighborhood violence and noise; a family’s economic hardship that makes it difficult to pay bills and put food on the table; and physical or mental health problems of one or more family members. The toxic stress produced by ACEs impairs children’s cognitive and neurological development and worsens their own physical and mental health. In part because of toxic stress, low-income children do worse in school, are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior and are more likely to have enduring health problems. All these difficulties help ensure these children will remain in the lower fifth of the nation’s wealth distribution when they become adults.

Many low-income people turn out just fine, of course, despite the obstacles they face. But biologists, economists, psychologists and sociologists are increasingly finding that these obstacles often do help prevent many Americans from realizing the American dream. The United States has long been seen as a land of opportunity, but for too many Americans it is best regarded as a land with lack of opportunity. Please do not believe those who claim that many and even most poor people simply don’t work hard enough. To the contrary, most low-income Americans of working age actually work quite hard, thank you, and were not able for reasons beyond their control to get the college education that today’s economy virtually demands for a good income.

And so, as tax day approaches, let us remember the United States is sorely divided by wealth and that real life is not like Monopoly and other board games where everyone starts out the same. For far too many people and families, the American dream remains only a dream and may even be a nightmare.

Steven E. Barkan is professor of sociology at the University of Maine. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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