The American dream and the game of Monopoly

Lowell Harp

The game of Monopoly illustrates a key fact about wealth and poverty. You’ll get richer with each round if you own Park Place and Boardwalk, and can afford to put houses on them. A player with less-valuable properties grows ever poorer as he’s again and again forced to pay rent that’s beyond his means.

Wealth, in other words, helps the well-off to become richer, while poverty itself tends to drag the poor down. Fiona Hill’s book, “There’s Nothing for You Here,” tells of her personal experience with that predicament. She overcame many obstacles in her struggle to escape her economically-depressed childhood hometown in England.

They included inferior schools, her social class, her accent and her gender. Her biggest millstone may have been her lack of exposure to the often-unspoken customs and rules of the academic and professional worlds. Ms. Hill nevertheless became an expert in Russian affairs and a White House official who testified at the House Jan. 6 Committee hearings.

Recently-elected Ohio Senator J.D. Vance grew up in America, and yet the story he tells in his book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” is similar. He grew up in a rust-belt Ohio community, in a family steadfastly loyal to their hillbilly roots in eastern Kentucky. He, like Ms. Hill, had to climb over many economic and social barriers on his way out of the poverty and social decay of his home-town.

Reading each book brought memories of my own childhood. My parents grew up in rural Kentucky, where my dad quit school and went to work before graduating from eighth grade. They moved to Illinois in 1950, when I was little more than a toddler.

We lived in a run-down farmhouse with no indoor plumbing and no phone until I was eight years old. Our move to a nearby village was a step up, but we continued to dwell at the margin between lower class and lower middle class. Our possessions were few, simple, and mostly second-hand.

My parents, like Ms. Hill’s and Mr. Vance’s, couldn’t provide any financial help for my education after high school. The chasm between their rural Kentucky childhood homes and the world of higher education also left them and me poorly prepared for decisions about college and professional careers. There were as a result setbacks and delays in putting myself and my family on a sound financial footing.

I and many others like me eventually overcame our mistakes and disadvantages. You could say we’re living the American Dream of reaching a higher standard of living than our parents had. We didn’t, however, do it on our own.

Mr. Vance and I both received a major assist from the GI Bill. In my case it helped put me through graduate school while my wife and I were raising three kids. Ms. Hill took advantage of support programs that are no longer available in her home country.

Later generations of Americans, growing up as they have in a time of retreat from social welfare programs, have been less fortunate. Advanced education has meanwhile become exorbitantly expensive for lower class and working-class students.

Ms. Hill’s, Mr. Vance’s and my families also offered some strengths for us to draw on. In my case, it was parents who were avid readers and who praised my reading and writing abilities. Many children from poor and working-class families don’t enjoy such supports.

They don’t see their parents reading and talking about the things they read. They miss out on the rich flow of language that’s part of the oxygen in middle class homes. They don’t start the school day with a nutritious breakfast. They live in chaotic homes warped by addictions.

The American ideal of equal opportunity for all is a worthy one, but it’s just that — an ideal. It’s no more of a reality in the everyday world than it is in the game of Monopoly. Last month’s column, which you can read at fb.me/lowellharp, indicates that there’s less of it in America than in almost any other developed country.

Ms. Hill places the blame for this state of affairs on conservatives. Mr. Vance blames clueless liberals and the poor themselves. Both of them probably own a piece of the truth.

As for me, two things seem certain: Government has always and will always play a role in this issue, one way or another. And merely expecting people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps won’t make us the land of opportunity again.

Lowell Harp is a retired school psychologist who served school districts in Ogle County. His column runs monthly in The Ogle County Life. For previous articles, you can follow him on Facebook at http://fb.me/lowellharp.

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