Thursday, November 17, 2016

Flipping Out about Social Class

Today we played a coin flipping game that is a metaphor for social class in the United States.

This game both resembles and departs from real life.

The way it resembles real life:

1. It gives the impression that everyone has an equal chance and that the system is fair.  The coin flip metaphor seems like everyone has a 50-50 chance to succeed.  This is true for U.S. society too.  From Jen Hochschild's book, Facing Up to the American Dream,  Americans believe in the "American dream;" success is attainable for anyone.  
2. However, just like real life, the coin game takes a little luck.  If you are lucky enough to be born in wealth, it is an advantage just like being lucky to win early in the game.

3.  Once you have wealth, it gives you the advantage of having multiple chances to come back.  If you have 12 coins and you are up against someone with 3, you have multiple opportunities to come back.  This is true in real life too.  One example is the President-elect who has declared bankruptcy 4 times!

4.  Even though the game has the appearance of being an equal 50-50 chance, the rules favor a channeling of wealth to the top.  Everytime we play this, the outcome is similar: most money at the top and most people at the bottom with very little money.  This is true in real life as well as the metaphor.  Here is a graph showing wealth distribution in the U.S.:
Compare this graph to a graph of the coin distribution at the end of the game.
Some of the specific similarities include:
How difficult it is to define the middle class.
The huge disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom.
The large number of Americans who have no wealth/no coins.

Because Americans hate the idea of a class system, most Americans prefer to think of themselves as middle class.
However, rather than being a society of equality or a society of people in the middle, American has the highest rate of poverty among the 17 leading industrial nations.  Most wealth is at the top in the hands of very few people and most people are at the bottom with very little.  The rules of our society help create this outcome, but Americans do not notice or acknowledge the rules.  For example, 43% Americans cite “lack of effort” as a reason for poverty.
The United States is considered an "open system" in that technically anyone is allowed to move between the different social classes.  This is in contrast to closed systems such as Britain’s nobility or India’s caste system.  However,  the rules in an open system are unofficial and so harder to see.

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