Chuck Collins


Chuck Collins is director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he coedits

He is the author of a number of books including Born on Third Base.

Can you explain what your work involves?

My main work at the Institute for Policy Studies is to support social movements that are working to reverse the extreme inequalities of income, wealth and opportunity. This includes working with activist partners, co-editing the web site, and coauthoring reports on the racial wealth divide, top heavy philanthropy, the disruptive impact of luxury real estate, and the problem of hidden wealth and extreme inequality.

What was the motivation behind your book Born on Third Base and what is it focused on?

Born on Third Base is really about demystifying advantage, trying to explain the workings of the multi-generational nature of inequality. I grew up in the richest 1 percent and share my own experience alongside what I’ve learned about the narratives that hold inequality in place. I’ve got a pretty good list of the 101-plus ways that intergenerational advantage works.

My experience campaigning around tax fairness and addressing poverty has reinforced why this work is important. There is, for example, a fair amount of amnesia when it comes to people remembering how they got to where they are. White people forget about government funded programs that helped build white wealth after World War Two – and thwarted wealth-building by people of color. Business owners forget about family help that may have been essential to their own success narrative.

In Born on Third Base I lift up the stories of people who society would view as wealthy and successful – and amplify the part of their stories where they disclose the family and government help that made their situation possible. I call these the “I Didn’t Do It Alone” stories. It is an attempt to replace the destructive myth with a more accurate narrative of wealth-creation.

What in your view is the dominant narrative around poverty and poorer people in America? How does it differ from the narrative that surrounds the rich?

The dominant narrative about poverty is the mirror image of the dominant narrative justifying great wealth. If I were to summarize it on a bumper sticker it would be, “People are (economically) where they deserve to be.” In other words, people possess wealth because they work hard, take risks, have greater creativity and intelligence – they have greater virtues such as grit, etc. And the shadow corollary to that story: people are poor because of individual deficiencies.

Of course, there are individual differences in effort, skills, etc. And these might account for differentials in rewards. But such relatively minor differences should not be deployed to explain deep and systemic inequalities. The narrative of individual “deservedness” has the effect of taking big systemic causes and individualizing them or personalizing them. The implication is, therefore, to fix poverty we must “fix the individual” or fix the “delivery mechanism” of access to education, services.

Why do these narratives exist?

Without these simplistic narratives, we would have to address the underlying systemic roots of inequality, including historical barriers to ownership, wealth, land. We would have to face the legacy of systemic white supremacy and colonialization on wealth building – and how the past shows up in the wealth accounting of the present. We would have to understand the deep inequality of opportunity and the legacy of trauma and deprivation that weighs down some people more than other.

These narratives serve the interests of powerful elites who are interested in individualizing the causes of structural inequality.

Sometimes I worry that the focus on poverty sometimes keeps the frame of vision and conversation focused on fixing poverty. Whereas a unified narrative of wealth and poverty that explains systems of institutional oppression and wealth extraction leads to a very different set of solutions and interventions.

How do these narratives impact on our understanding of poverty and poorer people? 

These narratives confuse people about the nature of poverty and people who are impoverished. A narrative framework is a mental short-cut that allows us to quickly and simplistically explain the world –without having to learn individual stories or face larger systemic challenges. They are sometimes necessary as we go through our days, but can be destructive.

The narratives of deservedness enable the brains of the non-poor to categorize or ignore other people’s experience of material deprivation and social isolation that foster trauma, loss and illness. We do need to listen to one another’s stories –which requires attention, openness, even vulnerability.

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