There is an endless supply of game metaphors for daily life. If we aren’t happy with our circumstances, we may be told that we all have to “play with the cards we’re dealt.” When something unexpected happens, we’ve been “thrown a curve ball.” Senator Cory Booker once cautioned against acting “…like you hit a triple when you were born on third base” to remind us that factors beyond our individual effort often play a role in our success. Despite our tendency to frame games as a simulation of daily life, the metaphors don’t all hold up. While many focus on strategies to secure resources necessary for survival and eventually abundance, the parallel ends there. The extent to which strategies and resources are equally accessible to all “players” are, by design, drastically different in these two realms. Monopoly players start with $1,500 and video game characters come pre-programmed with relevant attributes and tools. In the U.S, people do not begin with the same resources at birth or upon entering adulthood (e.g., guaranteed basic income). Unlike the world of games and gaming, what we start with is quite variable, depending on where we’re born and to whom.
When the stakes are low and the consequences of “losing” don’t influence our long-term livelihoods, it is relatively easy to agree on “fairness.” The high stakes game of living life, on the other hand, is more complicated. If we want to ensure that people have the opportunity to thrive and contribute in our society and remain actively engaged in the “game,” it is imperative that we do the hard work required to make the game board—our systems and society—more equitable.
Game Equity by Design
Both video and board games are increasingly popular. A recent Pew Research poll shows that about 50 percent of both men and women report that they play video games and many believe they are useful beyond entertainment value. Sixty-four percent agree that video games help develop good problem solving skills and 47 percent agree that they promote teamwork and communication. Given their growing popularity it’s no surprise that game designers go to great lengths to ensure that games are fun, which includes creating the proper balance of difficulty, complexity, fair competition, and enjoyment. They recognize that we are more likely to play (and purchase) games when we have a fair shot at winning or if our wins can be attributed to one’s own skill and ingenuity rather than some other external advantage. This balancing process involves constantly reworking game mechanisms that are too weak, too powerful, or too complex. It can take months, or even years to get this right and comes at significant cost in time and money to game designers. These mechanisms are scrutinized in the online gaming world, often invoking loud critiques by players; you may see claims that some element of the game is “OP” (overpowered) or “imba” (imbalanced) if it far outweighs the benefits awarded by other elements. It is also common to see cries that some feature has been “nerfed” (weakened) or needs to be “buffed” (strengthened).
If you think of our social systems as the board game, the design flaws are glaring. The long history of slavery, segregation, and stalled mobility in the South make the stakes especially high for low-income families and people of color. Securing high quality, reliable sources of food, housing, family-sustaining work, and healthcare while navigating the complex system of rules that dictate the distribution of those resources is difficult. The rules are always changing and those with the fewest resources often have the least say in how the game is played. Black WWII veterans, for example, were awarded the GI Bill alongside their white counterparts and promised low-cost loans and funding for education and housing. However, opportunity-inhibiting policies and other government-sanctioned barriers to success at the time, including the lack of schools admitting black students and the redlining that constricted their ability to purchase homes with higher property values, prevented many black veterans from reaping the benefits of their effort.
Life is (not) all Fun and Games
Many American households devote a significant amount of time to games as a form of entertainment; it reveals both our intense desire for fairness (and competition) and the ways in which these feelings drive our motivations and behaviors. We’ve all played games with sore losers and, while it is unpleasant, most of us accept milder forms of this type of reaction as an unfortunate, but common, part of the game.
However, we expect better “sportsmanship” in daily life when the stakes are higher, the chances more uneven, and the rules more complicated. When communities with the fewest resources play by the rules and lose, many are surprised when they challenge the rules of the game. Even when it is done peacefully, the efforts of these groups are met with a narrative that largely calls them “poor sports” or sees this as evidence of their lack of patriotism or work ethic. This is where an understanding and empathetic approach is more productive. The ability to step back and give credence to an experience different from our own can go a long way in identifying cracks in our system. Implicit bias can influence who we see as “sore losers” in our system. If the dominant group has a different set of OP or imba advantages, it may seem that “nerfed” complaints from others are unjustified; if we return to the rule book, we might see something different.
Game designers have a vested interest in all of the players; given the degree to which daily life is more complex than gaming, we should expect that it would take at least as much time (and surely much more!), effort, money, and collaboration to ensure fairness and balance. Our institutions should be designed in a way that makes the rules of the game explicitly and publicly stated, starting places shouldn’t determine final scores, and systems should be regularly re-evaluated to ensure that we all have a fair shot at success. It’s difficult to play by the rules when there is not a level playing field. Without this presumption of balance in the game of life, people will walk away from the game and we all lose—because our systems are at their best when everyone has a seat at the table.
We’re in a special season here at MDC: it’s the time of year when we select our new Autry Fellow, a recent college graduate who will spend one year learning from and contributing to MDC’s programs that help bring people and places closer to opportunity and success. As MDC staff members review applications each year, we keep in mind that an ideal Fellow brings to MDC a spirit of both reflection and hope: they critically examine systems that produce inequitable outcomes, but also firmly believe in the potential and strength of leaders and communities to make those systems better. Indeed, this determined mix of examination and encouragement is a crucial asset in any community working towards change. My colleagues and I saw this spirit first-hand when we discussed economic mobility with leaders in Fayetteville last month.
Our discussion with a cross-section of leaders in Fayetteville was the last in a series of community work sessions that MDC and the John M. Belk Endowment held throughout the state in 2016 to disseminate the report, North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity. In these sessions, representatives from MDC, the Endowment, and various sectors in each locality examined data related to economic mobility in North Carolina and discussed strategies for changing the odds for success, rather than merely helping individuals beating the odds.
In mid-December, we traveled to Fayetteville: a mid-sized city in the Sandhills of North Carolina with strong higher education institutions and a notable military population, thanks to the presence of Fort Bragg. As we learned from session participants, some of Fayetteville’s greatest strengths lie in community leaders’ ability to come together and speak honestly and reflect about community challenges. But, participants told us, all too often, a thorough examination of the issues leads to exhaustion and discouragement, distracting from the great work—often of national recognition—done by dedicated leaders in education, government, philanthropy, public service, and more.
But the leaders gathered at Fayetteville Technical Community College’s Horticulture Education Center that Tuesday afternoon collectively refuted the persistent whisper of discouragement. “There’s a lot to be proud of, and we need to tell our story more effectively,” Dr. Larry Keen, President of FTCC, told the group. Keen and others acknowledged the barriers that can keep people in Fayetteville stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder: competition for limited resources, a cradle-to-career continuum with room for increased collaboration, and difficulty getting new perspectives involved in planning and design. But they also acknowledged that they had significant work to build on and resources to tap, including what they shared during our afternoon session: a group of knowledgeable leaders, their honesty and self-reflection, and their determined belief in the potential of Fayetteville’s residents and institutions. And they were ready to put these strengths into action: “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Keen said. “We have an obligation and a responsibility to step in.”
Thank you, Fayetteville, for showing us at MDC what it looks like to have difficult conversations with compassion and integrity, without becoming discouraged or apathetic. Economic mobility requires having high expectations for what can be achieved—and those expectations are too often stolen by the hopelessness of poverty. With continued courageous conversations like this one, Fayetteville can begin changing the odds in their community.
A big thank-you to all the communities and leaders who spoke frankly with us this past year about the economic mobility opportunities and challenges in their communities. You can read here on the State of the South blog about our time in Western N.C., in the North Central Prosperity Zone, in Monroe, N.C. and Wilkes County, and in the Northeast and Southeast region.
What do you call a recent college graduate who can go from conducting policy research on early childhood education to facilitating a presentation on employment trends for community representatives, to guiding focus groups with community college students in one day?
The Autry Fellow!
The Autry Fellowship is a year-long, paid fellowship that provides recent college graduates with the opportunity to expand their learning in an organization that is going on 50 years of advancing equity and opportunity in the South.
Autrys are anything but typical…
There is no set curriculum or track for Autry Fellows. The fellowship is intended to be a unique learning experience for each Fellow that incorporates their skills and interests in what they choose to pursue. Anna Shelton-Ormond, 2015 Autry, was born and raised in North Carolina. Her interest in gender equity, Southern culture, and reproduction of wealth inequality culminated in her honors thesis “Bloodlines, Ball Gowns, Trashed in the Hotel Room: Hegemonic Processes of Debutantes as Southern Social Royalty.” This lens on gender equality significantly shaped her work at MDC. During her Autry year Anna devoted much of her time to a report that studied, addressed, and proposed solutions for the low mobility rate of too many North Carolinians, “North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity.” Anna is continuing her work at MDC as a Program Associate and is part of the team conducting follow-up work with the N.C. communities featured in the report she contributed to during her Autry year.
I, on the other hand, came into my Autry year with two years of teaching experience with Teach for America. My own background as a Latinx and working with immigrant children and families had led me to focus on the advancement of education with a lens for Hispanic populations. As such, I have focused much of my time on Great Expectations, an early childhood initiative that seeks to have all children in Forsyth County, N.C., ages birth to six—particularly those who are living in financially disadvantaged families—meet age-appropriate developmental milestones in their first five years, enter kindergarten ready for the grand adventure of schooling, and leave kindergarten fully ready for learning and life success. I have been able to use my background in parent engagement and Hispanic culture to inform our policy research in the hopes of establishing a parent leadership team.
… But here is a typical day
My daily activities and responsibilities vary based on the projects I am working on. On a typical day I will start in the morning by monitoring our social media accounts and posting updates. Next I will check my email and plan my day around any meetings I may have. For example, the day I wrote this post, I met with an interested applicant at 1 p.m. and with the lead on Great Expectations at 3 p.m. to complete work on a training webinar we are hosting. In between, I informally met with many of my wonderful colleagues to discuss current projects they are working on and my role in them. Once I wrapped up this blog post, I moved on to processing all of your wonderful Autry applications we’d already received. After lunch I drafted some interview questions for all past 16 fellows for a project I am working on in celebration of MDC’s 50th anniversary. I also continued my research on the growing Hispanic population in North Carolina to blog about in the coming weeks. As a fun, personal side project I planned a holiday party for the office that included a photo booth and costume contest. All of these activities lead toward goals I set for myself in the beginning of the year: to develop my research and writing skills, represent the importance of the Hispanic population in the South, and have a fun/authentic Autry experience.
So what will you accomplish your Autry year? As you can see from their profiles, Fellows come from a variety of backgrounds and go on to pursue diverse paths in their journeys to pursue to equity and opportunity. Applications for MDC’s 2017-2018 Autry Fellowship application are now being accepted until Jan. 9. (That’s today!) Top candidates will be invited to interview in mid-February.
These Monroe community work session participants say #NCMobilityMatters because connection = success!
Earlier this year, MDC and the John M. Belk Endowment released a report examining economic mobility across North Carolina and how communities are responding to recent Equality of Opportunity research showing that intergenerational poverty is particularly dire in the South compared to other U.S. regions. We’ve documented several community work sessions discussing the findings from that report here on the blog. As we crossed all of North Carolina’s prosperity zones, we saw unique challenges facing rural and metro areas, but we also witnessed similarities.
Take the community work sessions that were held in Monroe and Wilkesboro. Monroe is a growing city, part of Union County (which has a significant rural population), on the edge of the Charlotte metropolis. Wilkes County is a rural county on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its population spread across 757 square miles. But in both places, we were hosted by a North Carolina community college and the local Chamber of Commerce served as a key partner. One place is trying to find a way to restore or reimagine a manufacturing economy; the other is looking for ways to encourage participation in the advanced manufacturing opportunities that exist. Both are grappling with limited public transportation systems and affordable housing options that would ease the burden on families trying to make ends meet and get ahead.
In each community work session, we’ve asked people to share their mobility stories. We ask them to think about how their starting point affected where they ended up, and to consider what people or policies or simple serendipity cleared a path or propelled them to their current situation. The same elements showed up in Wilkes County and in Monroe (and nearly every other work session):
- Adults—often educators—who “believed in me”
- Personal drive
- Military service and the GI bill
- Education (and related scholarships, including athletic opportunities)
- Public policies (like war bonds) that allowed people to save and transfer wealth
The headwinds faced were also similar, including public policies that were not available because of discriminatory practices. These shared experiences are a great example of how systems and aspirations intersect. In order to make the elements of an infrastructure of opportunity pervasive and available to more people across North Carolina, communities must find ways to cultivate aspirations and institutions that are launching pads for the enormous potential that exists in our residents. It may seem a daunting challenge, but as Jeff Cox, president of Wilkes Community College, said “we’re not afraid of a fight and we’re ready to move forward, ready to tackle the problems we have. We’re ready to get about the business of solving those problems. We need to look forward.”
Conceptions of the American Dream often frame upward mobility as an ideal best accomplished through individual effort and perseverance. However, persistent racial disparities despite similar inputs demand a reconsideration of the story we tell ourselves about the degree to which success is available to everyone. A recent report using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances shows that, in 1983, white households held, on average, 5.3 times greater wealth than black households and 6.1 times greater wealth than Latino households. By 2013, those rates had increased to 7.7 and 6.7 times greater, respectively. This is a growth of 85 percent for white households, but only 27 percent for black households, and 69 percent for Latino households.
What is more striking, however, is that even if the wealth of black and Latino households had grown at the same rate as white households or even as drastically as those on the Forbes 400 list (a 736 percent increase in wealth between 1983 and 2013), their wealth would still not match the wealth held by white households. Black households would fall short by $181,000 and Latino households would fall short by $270,000. The report concludes that:
“If average Black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades, it would take Black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth White families have today. That’s just 17 years shorter than the 245-year span of slavery in this country.”
Catching Up: The Racial Wealth Gap is Unlikely to Narrow
In order to catch up to white families, black and Latino families would need to find a way to increase their wealth by over 700 percent. But traditional drivers of wealth creation do not produce as much value for people of color relative to their white counterparts (with the exception of Asians). For example, education has long been described as the great equalizer and, while there are significant economic returns to a college degree, there are large earnings and wealth gaps by race even among those who have earned postsecondary degrees. Similarly, homeownership is the largest expenditure for many families and represents a large portion of their total wealth, but non-whites are less likely to own their own home and, when they do, their property values are significantly lower. Given the extent to which homeownership is constrained by income and student loan debt (which is accumulated in larger amounts by non-white students), these racial disparities are not surprising.
Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The College Payoff. 2011
Intergenerational transfers of wealth are another major contributor to wealth creation, but for black families, this strategy is much less successful. Black children born into moderately wealthy families (the middle wealth quintile), are more than twice as likely as white children to fall from the middle to the bottom quintile as adults (33 percent vs. 14 percent).
This trend is especially concerning in the South, with deep racial divides in economic opportunities and a long history of excluding racial minorities from sources of wealth accumulation. For example, the high degree of residential segregation found in the South further exacerbates the gap in wealth created by home ownership; neighborhoods with higher concentrations of non-white residents often have significantly lower property values. Coupled with lower rates of intergenerational income mobility, this suggests that an even greater challenge exists for black and Latino families hoping to build wealth and economic security.
New Outcomes Require New Systems
If black and Latino families are pursuing the same strategies for upward economic mobility as white families, why aren’t they reaping similar rewards? As we’ve written before, our history, particularly in the South, of economic dependence on forced and exploitative labor limited opportunities for wealth creation for those outside the economic elite, and particularly for people of color. Unequal investment in community resources that are beneficial to the entire population, like schools, transportation, and healthcare compounded these issues. This history and it’s continued legacy, apparent in current disparities, undermines a pillar of our proclaimed American ideal that upward economic mobility is available to all who are motivated, persistent, and hard-working. If we believe that closing the racial wealth gap is an issue best solved with strategies implemented at the individual level, what then, is a viable pathway for black and Latino families to catch up, if not through education, income, or homeownership? If we do not have a good answer to this question, we cannot continue to tell ourselves that the only thing standing between poverty and prosperity is a strong work ethic. Instead, we must commit to systemic changes at the institutional level, which focus on the racial disparities among major drivers of wealth creation and create an infrastructure of opportunity that is prosperous for everyone.
If you’ve been keeping up with us here on the State of the South blog, you probably know that we’ve been traveling across North Carolina since August facilitating community work sessions with the John M. Belk Endowment and local institutional partners. These work sessions were sparked by a report that MDC and the Belk Endowment released earlier this year titled North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity, examining how North Carolina reflects recent research showing that the South has the lowest rates of economic mobility for young people in the nation.
To find out how these data play out in real places in North Carolina, we talked with leaders from eight communities in the state about how residents and institutions are confronting slim odds for upward mobility. Now we’re reconvening those same leaders and more to reflect on the data as a cross-sector group and to lay the groundwork for planning next steps.
Lori Preast and Rachel Bridgers (Pitt Community College) share why mobility matters to them.
In mid-November, two MDC staff members had the privilege of traveling to the eastern part of the state to hold two of these work sessions: one in Brunswick County, including leaders from New Hanover County; and one in Beaufort County, including leaders from Pitt and Martin counties, as well. Though distinct in geography and history, these regions in the southern and northern parts of the state have a lot in common—people in leadership who care about their community and are striving for deeper cross-sector coordination; a mixture of urban and rural areas, each with unique needs; and strong higher education institutions that are determined to expand access to all residents in their service areas.
Those of us at MDC who had the opportunity to speak with a variety of leaders in both communities couldn’t help but notice a similar challenge, followed by a similar proclamation, in both regions: Fragmented work makes for fragmented funding, which stalls strategic investment that could move a community forward as a collective group. Both sets of leaders bemoaned that all too often, groups of leaders get together, each say their bit about the work they’re doing, and then go back to their corners without having really changed much about their way of working. Even in communities where there is some cross-over, it can be difficult to create deep collaboration that reaches every system or institution at every level. In fact, a participant at the Brunswick County session raised an issue with the word “collaboration” itself: one definition of the word refers to how an enemy might gather information from their opposing side. Though malicious intent doesn’t apply, this sense of working on separate “teams” is all too common as communities strive in silos to achieve change and growth.
But both of these work sessions were different. Inspired by sobering data showing that nearly 70 percent of children born into poverty in both the southeast and northeast regions in North Carolina will stay at the very bottom or rise only one income quintile as adults, leaders from these eastern counties were ready to put their heads together to find a new way of pooling their resources. By aligning their efforts and working to fill gaps in resources as a community team, in which all players are working towards the same goal, these regions can start to build an infrastructure of opportunity in which the systems and factors that influence a person’s path to success are strengthened and aligned to make sure no one sees inequitable barriers to opportunity.
Big thanks to the caring and insightful leaders from New Hanover, Brunswick, Pitt, Martin, and Beaufort counties for two great conversations this November on why #NCMobilityMatters! It’s hard to believe we only have on more community work session to go—we’ll see you Dec. 13, Fayetteville!