Inequality isn’t something I have thought of at a truly deep level, but its consequences are becoming more apparent to me the more I learn about the world. I grew up believing that anything was possible for anyone, and that anyone could become president of the United States or successful in their own endeavors as long as they worked hard. While I still do believe that we can all become successful through hard work, and while I do think we should still encourage some form of this myth, I don’t fully believe the myth myself. I think that luck and structural factors of our lives play a huge role, in other words, inequalities matter.
In the myth that I grew up believing is that inequality was purely a result of one’s natural skills and how hard one worked. It was an end product, not an input. Many people choose to see the world this way, especially, in my experience, if they themselves are lucky, wealthy, and privileged. Inequality simply doesn’t matter in this worldview, and it is in some ways a good thing, reaffirming that the successful people are smart, hardworking, and deserve what they have.
I now think that our interconnected inequalities are much more serious that I had believed. Inequality is visible, and it is understood across the globe. It shapes how people think about themselves, about their futures, about the way other people value them, and about what they can and cannot be. A character introduced in Sam Quinones’ book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic speaks to this reality. A character by the name Enrique opens the book and Quinones writes, “Growing up in a poor Mexican village had attuned Enrique to the world’s unfairness. Those who worked hard and honestly got left behind. Only those with power and money could insist on decent treatment.”
From this mindset Enrique chose the only way out of his situation (being the son of a poor sugar cane farmer in Mexico) that he thought could get him money, prestige, and power. He chose to become a heroin dealer. His story is told in the book, and in the opening introduction we see Enrique feel guilty about his life choices, but confirm to himself that it was his only way out of destitute poverty as he watches a group of farm-hands/construction workers be deported in an airport.
It is global inequality that drove Enrique to drug trafficking. Through no fault of his own, Enrique was born into a family in a poor village, and the clearest path toward employment for him was pursuing his family’s sugarcane business. A career that meant hard work, near subsistence wages, and little respect. Sure, he could have found other options and become a rags to riches/slumdog millionaire story, but expecting everyone to do so ignores the reality of the message that inequality pushes in the face of those born into such adverse situations. Enrique learned that people didn’t treat him and his family with respect, but saw the respect shown to people in the town with more means.
Enrique eventually came to the United States to chase money and status back home in Mexico. The inequality he first saw in his home village never left him. He found inequality everywhere, and the interconnected inequalities between the United States and Mexico in many ways created his lifestyle and enabled his drug dealing.
I don’t have a solution to our interconnected inequalities, but I think we need to acknowledge them. I am sure that some level of inequality is inevitable, and likely even healthy, but I’m also convinced that the inequality we see between people and between nations is part of what drives much of our global conflict and grief. So much of the world’s inequality seems completely unnecessary, and in many ways should be addressed head-on, so that people at the bottom don’t believe that the only way to improve their lives is through illicit means, and so that people at the very top don’t use resources in such wanton ways to signal how wealthy and successful they are at the expense of others.