The global phenomenon South Korean series “Squid Game” has shattered records as Netflix’s most-watched show of all time, with 142 million household viewers — approximately 5% of people on Earth. And just recently, it received three nominations for Golden Globe awards. The show resonates with so many because of the deeply symbolic episodes reflect society in a microcosm of, among other things, violence, group patterns and inequality.
The fictious games feature 456 players who play a series of Korean children’s games with a twist — while the winner takes a prize equivalent to $38.6 million, losers face brutal deaths. The intensity of the competition is heightened as each player has elected to participate due to crushing debt and poverty.
But one of the most apparent and grim messages of “Squid Game” is this: The games are less violent than living in the reality of poverty, which is why so many of the players in the show chose to participate as their odds of success in life-or-death games are higher than that in real life. This takeaway is also salient for the many Americans living in poverty and the daily violence they face. It should shift the way we view the impacts of economic inequality on both body and mind.
Poverty is surprisingly common in the U.S., despite its being one of the richest nations on Earth. Last year, the poverty line was set at about $26,000 for a family of four, and the estimate was that 37.2 million Americans lived below this threshold. In Texas, the poverty rate is higher than the national average, with 3.9 million Texans living in poverty in 2019. Concerningly, in 2019 almost 1 in 5 Texas children experienced poverty.
It is critical to reflect on the ways that we have built institutions teeming with structural inequalities that prey on people in poverty. In fact, inequalities are so deeply ingrained in our society that if we fail to address them, we could find ourselves mirroring either the players or observers of “Squid Game.” If we truly consider poverty as a form of violence, the reimagination of a society free from it would require dismantling oppressive institutions and building mechanisms to protect minds and bodies.
We do not lack the tools or resources to combat poverty. For example, there is more than enough food for every person in the U.S. It is simply a matter of redistribution. As a start, policymakers should introduce a livable minimum wage, child care support, a universal health care provision, and reparations for low-income communities that have been disproportionately affected by poverty.
Throughout history, poverty has often been viewed as an individual deficit — or in other words, a personal moral failing. However, the overlooked fact is that poverty is a systemic form of violence against those involved. The violence hurts every aspect of life: mental health, physical health, mortality and every aspect surrounding individuals, families and communities.
Those in poverty have a greater risk of cancer, heart conditions, developing severe symptoms of illnesses such as COVID-19, and a shorter lifespan. The stress of having to choose between food, housing, medical bills, or other necessities has pernicious effects on the human mind. Constant scarcity forces the brain into survival mode, making it difficult to make long-term financial decisions. Experiencing poverty is also connected with higher risks of serious mental health conditions and hurts the minds of society’s most vulnerable — our children. A child who grows up in poverty has a higher risk of developing mental health conditions throughout life. In other words, poverty is cumulative violence against the human mind.
The scars of poverty’s violence may manifest as metaphysical or distant images portrayed on a hit TV show, but poverty has very real consequences to our society. The grand prize money for the fictious “Squid Game” is just under $40 million — a number that is eerily equivalent to the actual number of Americans living in and experiencing the preventable violence of poverty today. We, as a society, have the power to make the chances of good health, both physical and mental, higher than a game where the odds are 1 in 456.
Shetal Vohra-Gupta is an assistant professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.
Bethany Wood is a doctoral candidate in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.
Weiwen Zeng is a doctoral candidate in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News, Abilene Reporter News, Newsbreak, Daily Advent, BBC and Yahoo News!