Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Game of Life (or, Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor...)

The other day, I played a game of Life--you know, that oddly elaborate board game whose goal seems to be to retire to "Millionaire Estates," and which no one seems to really win?--with the girl I tutor. She's eleven. She struggles with English literacy, and both of her parents are Ecuadorean immigrants who support family in Ecuador. As we played, I tried to explain, in a scattershot fashion, a few basic financial concepts--that when you borrow money, you have to pay back more than you originally got; what insurance is and why people buy it; that people take out loans to pay for college.

I don't think it was very helpful. She didn't seem to understand why I was trying to explain these things to her. Part of the problem, I think, is when you're growing up in a household of illegal immigrants, your financial examples are necessarily different. My tutee's parents can't open bank accounts, let alone invest their money, so a lot of the concepts of institutionalized finance as I understand them are foreign and incomprehensible to her.

I've been thinking about it and can't come up with any answers. This kind of stuff is crucial to success in "mainstream" America: it's part of the lever by which people improve their children's lives so they can improve their children's lives, and so on. My father is the son of immigrants--albeit legal immigrants who came through Ellis Island--who worked and fought to get their kids out of the Brooklyn tenements by sending them to college. But college is more expensive now, and harder to get into, and when the financial opportunities for illegal immigrants are so restricted, how do they better their lives and their children's lives?

This made me, as we say in the theory-and-criticism biz, check my privilege. All this personal finance stuff, my ability to improve my situation, is contingent upon opportunities I've had (and have) and opportunities my parents have had, and opportunities my parents' parents have had, and so on. Now we as a country refuse to extend that opportunity to new Americans. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free doesn't seem to apply anymore.

What do we do about this? I don't at all mean that it's ever easy for immigrant families, that success ever comes for them without years and years of hard work, but my father's parents were never hobbled by their status as immigrants in the way my tutee's parents are. My father's father was free to open a business, to hire employees and travel internationally as it grew, to save his money as he saw fit. He didn't have to live "off the grid." He didn't have to fear deportation. He could teach his children to work hard with confidence that their country would reward them for it. My tutee's parents can't do any of that.

It's just discouraging, you know? I believe so fervently, so passionately, in the old patriotic notion of America as Land of Opportunity, and now that notion is so dented and battered and tarnished.

It's pretty extraordinary, the extent to which money and personal finance participate in the broader picture. All this from a board game.


cathy said...

Wow so much from a game.. great post

mOOm said...

There are near a million legal immigrants coming in every year, the largest number through family reunion... I'm a legal immigrant in process. I have mixed feelings on illegal immigration. On the one hand the US immigration system is completely broken where the government overlooks the illegal immigraton while putting all kinds of delays and obstacles in the way of legal immigrants. On the other hand I don't have much sympathy for illegal immigrants per se when so many are struggling to get in legally, pay taxes etc. Anyway the children of illegal immigrants born in the US are US citizens and ahead of me already...

SF Money Musings said...

I'm mentoring a young girl - 8 who came from immigrant families (mom now deceased, dad likely also from gambling debts). Her aunt has no concept of money but it's not something I can teach or explain simply how I budget.

The aunt says it's expensive to feed a young child like her so she gives her can potatoes and coffee sweeteners. But she doesn't think it's expensive to have a tv, computer and Internet (both of which she is just starting to learn how to use). I think learning English should be her top priority. She almost threw away a tax refund check of her now-deceased sister-in-law before showing me when I pointed out the $3,000 was a check not an IOU.