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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Column: Real world hunger games

The blockbuster film The Hunger Games, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, depicts a post-apocalyptic country in which 24 teenagers are chosen by lottery each year and forced to participate in nationally televised blood sports. Everyone must submit their name to the drawing once, but the most destitute can put their name in multiple times in exchange for additional food. As a result, in Panem, the poorest citizens are also those most likely to fight and die in gladiatorial combat.

Despite all its science fiction trappings, I would argue that The Hunger Games is not a cautionary tale: it’s an allegory. We already live in a world in which the risk of injury and premature death is distributed unequally.

As Ulrich Beck has demonstrated, our probability of suffering misfortune is closely tied to our socioeconomic positions. While no one is totally safe, the most affluent are able to rely on risk management strategies like health insurance or preventative care while the working class and the poor have become increasingly exposed to risks.

We can see this quite clearly through statistical measurements like mortality rates. On a global scale, the differences in life expectancy between the richest and poorest countries are shocking. The average American will live a quarter of a century longer than the average citizen of a country in sub-Saharan Africa.

Part of this discrepancy can be attributed to world hunger. Though we currently produce more than enough food calories to feed the world, 925 million are undernourished, with the vast majority in developing countries. As in Collins’ dystopian future, food is rationed unequally between geographic regions.

But even in America, class plays a significant role in mortality, determining things like access to health care, nutritious food, reliable protection from violence and a safe working environment. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the average white male born into the highest socioeconomic category in 2000 will live 4.5 years longer than one born into the lowest. Life expectancies are even worse for African American men who, on average, die six years younger than their white counterparts.

When we get into the details, though, the chasm between rich and poor becomes even wider. One Gallup poll discovered that those with the lowest income level were more than four more times more likely to report significant health problems than those at the top.

Meanwhile, one in seven households in the bread basket of the world is unable to afford enough food for a healthy diet.

If some totalitarian government decided to withhold adequate food rations from one-seventh of the population, many would sure rise up, but when the markets decide so, it’s business as usual.

Moreover, there’s something about the nature of risk that makes it difficult to appreciate and grasp. Most people seem willing to accept that those who earn the least are much more likely to die because it seems like pure randomness, individual failings or the work of some invisible, unknowable fate.

But the genius of The Hunger Games is that it takes abstract statistics and renders them concrete. Dramatizing bloodless numbers, The Hunger Games turns statistical risks into deadly games of chance, giving them greater emotional and moral force.

Nevertheless, many are willing to tolerate massive inequalities in risk distribution because, like the citizens of Panem, they still believe the poorest still have a chance to win. Rather than face these realities, they fantasize about winning the Mega Millions jackpot or climbing up the income ladder. These daydreams play out on shows like “America’s Next Top Model,” which suggest that if you work hard and have ambition, you’ll make it.

But the numbers reported by the Pew Economic Mobility Project reveal the American Dream to be more of a delusion: Class mobility is considerably lower in the U.S. than in most other developed countries. A mere 6 percent of those whose families were in the bottom fifth income category will make their way to the top fifth. Statistically speaking, your parents’ socioeconomic status is a far greater determinant of financial success than the amount of work you do.

The Hunger Games travesties these false hopes, revealing them to be part of the system that maintains wealth and power inequality. As the dictatorial President Snow suggests, far more than fear, it is the insignificant chance of beating the odds that keeps so many in the exploited class cowed. Sure, the impoverished live miserably and die young, we are told, but you can’t win if you don’t play the game.

JORDAN S. CARROLL is still reading the second book in the trilogy, so no spoilers. He can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.

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