Inequality occurs when there is a disproportionate distribution of resources, wealth, or legal status in a society. When our access to resources or wealth are insufficient to meet our needs we enter a state called poverty, a lack of material wealth. Without wealth we also lack access to justice because we can’t afford to hire legal representation when we need it. The widespread existence of inequality, poverty, and injustice in our society disproves the American constitution, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Even if we were to change the language to “all persons are created equal” we still have to acknowledge that America is far from equal.
This month we celebrate the signing of the US Constitution on September 17, 1787. ” Only thirty-nine of the fifty-five delegates to the convention actually signed the new document, with many of those who refused to sign objecting to the lack of a bill of rights. At least one delegate refused to sign because the Constitution codified and protected slavery and the slave trade.” Two hundred and thirty three years ago a majority of our founding fathers signed a document that would become the guide for our union, laying out ideals of how they believed we should live together. Yet today we see protests and riots by citizens who are angry with the systemic injustice and inequality that still exists within our country. We are witnessing how a pandemic has reduced many families to poverty. Where do we go from here? How do we address systemic inequality that has led to poverty and injustice?
“History doesn’t repeat itself,’’ Mark Twain supposedly observed, “but it often rhymes.” That may explain why the period that Twain dubbed “the Gilded Age” seems so familiar today. That period (roughly 1870-1900) shares much with our present time: economic inequality and technological innovation; conspicuous consumption and philanthropy; monopolistic power and populist rebellion; two presidential elections in which the popular vote loser won (Hayes in 1876 and Harrison in 1888); and change — constant, exhilarating, frightening.”
Most of us have played the popular game Monopoly, where players compete to gain control of all the money and property. Each player starts with the same amount of money from which to buy property and build homes or hotels. Players move around a game board by the a roll of the dice. Thus, there is an element of skill (players must choose when to buy or trade property, when to build houses or hotels) and an element of chance (the roll of the dice). The game ends when one player has successfully ‘monopolized’ (owns) all the money and property.
In the game of Monopoly the playing field is equal, every player starts the game with the same amount of money. Every player has the same opportunity to roll the dice and advance (unless they go to jail). Every player follows the same set of rules. Imagine instead if one person started the game with a hundred times more money than the other players? What if one player was allowed to roll the dice twice in every turn? What if one player always had a get out of jail free card? If the rules were rigged for one player it would be impossible for any other player to win the game. We probably wouldn’t want to play! Strangely many Americans don’t think about the unfair advantage that wealth gives, making it easier for a few to win at the expense of everyone else. We don’t think of income inequality or access to opportunity for advancement as unfair.
In life we do not all start with same amount of money, nor do we all have the same chance to ‘roll the dice’ and advance. CEO compensation has grown 940% since 1978 yet the typical worker compensation has risen only 12% during that time. Access to wealth and education are not distributed equally, they are concentrated in the hands of an ever smaller percentage of our population. If you are born into a poor family it is unlikely you will become rich (professional athletes are one of the few exceptions to this). If you are born into a wealthy family it is more likely you will stay wealthy and even continue to build wealth because money and investments can work for you.
A wealthy family can provide many privileges that a poor family cannot; better food and housing, better health care, cleaner neighborhoods, economic stability, and less exposure to crime. Opportunities for advancement, such as going to college or finding a high paying job, are similar to a roll of the dice in Monopoly. Yes, we need to work hard in college and do well once we find a good job, but if you are poor these opportunities are out of your reach. And ‘justice for all’ is meaningless when people cannot afford an attorney and the one provided you free of charge is more interested in plea deals than justice (which means jail time).