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The Economy as a Game of Monopoly

As a sociology professor in community college, I have my students play Monopoly. Only, I give them a special, rigged version.

There are five players. The wealthiest begins with $5,500, all of the railroads, and the two most valuable properties (Boardwalk and Park Place). The least wealthy begins with about $200 and no property. The remaining three are in between.

Each time the players pass Go, the wealthiest player gets $500. The poorest gets $30.

It doesn’t take long before the poorest two players run out of money entirely. It’s an unfair, boring game.

This is the game all Americans are playing.

The wealthiest player’s starting assets are proportional to the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans. The poorest player’s starting assets are proportional to the poorest fifth of the U.S. population. The remaining three are proportional to the remaining three fifths of the country.

Likewise, the money they receive as they pass Go is linked to the income of each fifth of the U.S. population.

For the richest players in the game, it’s probably the best Monopoly game of their lives. For the rest, especially the two poorest, it’s a nightmare.
I’m sick of playing this game in real life.

Where I live, in California, about one fifth of the population lives in poverty, and another fifth lives just above the poverty line. And the official poverty line doesn’t even consider the cost of living.

Since I moved here, nearly 12 years ago, the cost of rent has doubled. Areas that used to be affordable no longer are. You could once find a way to make it work by living far from the beach in an un-trendy neighborhood or suburb. Now you can’t.

Some speculate that Airbnb is driving up rental costs, and everyone speaks of an “affordable housing crisis.” But nobody’s doing anything about it.

For the wealthy, life here is great. We’ve got beaches, mountains, desert, and year-round good weather. For the people who serve them their food, clean their homes, or landscape their lawns, the cost of rent alone is strangling.

In the U.S. overall, wages haven’t kept up with either inflation or productivity over the years. Since 1973, productivity has increased by 77 percent while wages increased by only 12.4 percent. Taking inflation into consideration, wages have remained stagnant since the 1960s, while most of the gains go to the wealthiest.

Average pay keeps up with cost of living better in some parts of the U.S. than others. California isn’t even the worst.

I watch my students try to complete a college education while struggling to make ends meet.

The middle class vision of parents paying for their children’s college education and their living expenses isn’t a reality for many students. For some families it’s the opposite — the child works to put him or herself through school while contributing to the family budget.

Attending school and working at the same time is difficult, and sometimes impossible. Some students attempt it while raising children or caring for sick or elderly family members. In the end, most community college students never get a four-year degree.

We need to make our country fairer than my rigged Monopoly game. In a game, it’s just a bummer when the poorest players go broke first. In life, the costs are in human misery.

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