This past weekend, the community participated in the “game of life”. This activity assigns each person attributes which birth largely or fully dictates: wealth, sex, race, LGBT orientation.
Author Barbara Enright, most notably the author of Nickled and Dimed: On (not) Getting by in America writes that “In poverty, as in certain propositions in physics, starting conditions are everything.” This is something that runs at a right angle to the myths that underlay much of the American identity. We believe that our starting conditions matter, but that those conditions are effectively an ‘equality of opportunity,’ that those conditions are leveled through education, welfare, and charities. The prevalent myth is that an individual or community can ‘pull themselves up by his/her (their) bootstraps’ and overcome starting conditions. This is certainly true in some rare exceptions, the stories we as Americans love to hear and cherish. But they are not the norm. They aren’t even the normal exception.
This simulation works on this assumption first and foremost: that starting conditions really do matter in our society. And while it is maybe exaggerated, the model works — the society breaks down eventually, with robbery, shotgun weddings, and bribes all forming quickly. These things arise in the poor first because the normal ways of ‘pulling on the bootstraps’ — education, employment — fail.
And these starting conditions really do matter — take for an example race, which many people argue became a non-issue after the civil rights struggle. But just looking at a map of Omaha by race (see original here) shows a quick correlation with race and wealth — a correlation that maybe is internalized and not even mentioned.
omaha by race: red is Caucasian, yellow is Hispanic, blue is African American, green is Asian.
Nonetheless, it seems a starting condition — where someone is born and what the look like — dictates in part where people live. And where people live can dictate a lot — what food, work, and healthcare is available, police and fire department coverage, schools — much of the day to day life. Race seems to dictate where people live in the case of our city.
This is one of many examples. It does not bear to mention more here: the point is this — in poverty (and wealth) starting conditions matter. And those starting conditions dictate a lot more than we sometimes care to admit.