For the past 50 years, hard work has brought the poor nothing

Yet we praise meritocracy as though it were a god and blame the poor for being poor.

Utopia - John Metta essay
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

When I was a boy, I lost a five-dollar bill and my family had nothing to eat for the week.

Back then family-run grocery stores were not the novelty they are now. They spread throughout cities like veins, providing the continual exchange of small amounts of money for precious nutrients. One of them was just two blocks outside of The Projects where I grew up, nestled in a neighbourhood of two-storey duplexes where, I thought, the rich people lived. I had been sent there to buy the standards for the week: bread, lunch meat, carrots, onions, apples. No dairy. We got dried milk, cheese and butter for free on Sunday after standing in a long line at the middle school.

I lost the five-dollar bill between F building and the playground. F building was the last building in The Projects before the rich people’s houses started, and it had the worst playground. An asphalt pad with two broken swings and a domed metal monkey bar that we called The Turtle. One day long past, I fell off The Turtle and landed on my head and had to cry all the way home while the other kids laughed. I never played there again.

I had stopped briefly to talk to The Monster. It lived under the playground, in the storm drain that caught so much of our childhood imaginations. It hated us because sometimes we threw toys down there. The big kids could reach to the bottom and pull the toys out, but only on a dare. I showed The Monster my list and my five-dollar bill and said I was going to get food to eat and he wasn’t. Then I headed on to the store.

It was at some point between leaving The Projects and entering the store when I noticed I only had the list. Still, I kept walking, my scared child mind hoping, or wishing, or waiting for it to magically reappear. I handed the list to the grocer and he fetched items from the back while I got some from the cases. As he rang the items up in his register, I waited, scared and embarrassed for the five-dollar bill to reappear. It did not. The grocer was a nice man, he gave me a Swedish fish to eat. I had just forgotten the money, he said. “I’ll set the groceries aside and you go back home to get it.”

I don’t ever talk about what happened inside my house.

On the following Sunday, my sister and I went to stand in line at the middle school and I carried the huge block of cheese home on my shoulder like a champion.

When I think of the word utopia, I paint simple pictures in my mind. I have seen images of grandeur and majesty, but I am much too plebeian to imagine a land where everyone lives like a king. My utopia is the world we live in now, but with one difference: We care for the least among us.

Our society worships the lie of meritocracy, where anyone can be rich if they simply work hard enough. But I know how hard poor families work. My single mother had two jobs and went to school. How many teenagers know that, however hard they work, society does not care whether they live or die? That their grandchildren will still live in the same poverty?

Economists and politicians use gross domestic product (GDP) as an indicator of our success, and for good reason. According to World Bank statistics the US GDP, adjusted for current US dollars, grew from $686bn to $20.5 trillion between 1964 and 2018. Growing our economy by 30 times paints a nice picture. Similarly, it paints a nice picture to show that the average hourly wage in the US has grown 10 times from $2.50 in 1964 to $22.65 in 2018.

But as a Pew Research Center article illustrates, $2.50 in 1964 had the same purchasing power that $20.27 has today. While the actual dollar amount of hourly wages has increased, so has inflation, which has increased the cost of goods. Inflation has eaten away those perceived gains so that the actual purchasing power of average US employees has remained effectively flat for nearly 50 years. None of the economic growth of the US, it would seem, has gone into the hands of the US’s workers.

Despite the hard work of employees, the wealth of our economic growth has increasingly been concentrated in the rich. Since the 1970s, family grocery stores like the one I went to as a boy have been replaced by large corporate chains. No longer a neighbourhood exchange of wealth, stores became a place for the working class to maintain the same wages as 1967 while billionaires used them to amass the wealth of countries.

If all it took to succeed was hard work, we would live in one of those grand visions of utopia where everyone lives like a king. Hard workers are everywhere. From The Projects of the northeast to the coal mines of Appalachia to the barrio of southern California. From the suburbs of Paris to the favelas of Brazil to the factories of China. During 50 years of economic growth, hard work has bought the poor nothing. Yet we praise meritocracy as if a god, and blame the poor for being poor.

My utopia is not a picture of majesty, it is a picture of compassion. In my utopia, we would still work, but our economic success would not be measured by how rich the rich are. Rather, we would measure success by how we care for our poorest. We would not fault the working poor because they are poor, we would fix a system that forces poverty upon them. A small boy losing a five-dollar bill would not prevent a family from eating.

My utopia is unlike many in that it is simple, plebeian. We merely build a society that ensures care for the least among us. Unfortunately, it seems that my utopia is just as unattainable as so many visions of grandeur. We would only need to replace greed with compassion. But I fear that – for our rich and our politicians – that is too much to ask.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.