Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The problem is the critical mass

The root of the severity and entrenchedness of poverty in India is just how incredibly many people there are with so incredibly few resources. The problem plays out sort of like this:
1. Poor means really, really poor. Our cook tells us she pays about $15/month rent for a single room that she shares with her husband and two children. He makes RS 2k/month, or about $45. That's actually pretty good at Rs60/ day. There are plenty of people who make less.
2. That many people who are so desperately poor means an immense pool of labor and a lot of competition which drives down labor. Those poor people also have had lifetime malnutrition and poor education, meaning they are small, not so strong (though phenomenally tough), and largely lacking in marketable skills.
3. These people are also a massive market for lowcost goods. Poor people can't buy expensive, so manufacturers can't make expensive, so labor can't be paid much. See #2. For an instantiation of this et omni passim, see the latest election stunt by the Hindu right.
Since everyone can buy food at the same price, the rich get to buy bananas for $.20/lb, too.
4. The depth of the deprivation is such that any chance to get out of it is cherished and tightly guarded. This works out in two ways:
a. the middle class, newly escaped from poverty, do everything they can to distance themselves from the poor, including talking to the help like they're inherently less-than. Hindi has a whole structure of pronouns and imperative forms that signal the esteem in which the speaker holds the addressed. I think this becomes, psychologically, true for those who are continually spoken to in this way. Both white tiger and last year's booker awardee Inheritance of Loss deal extensively with the constant state of humiliation vis a vis the wealthier people both in India and abroad, and the fawning sycophancy demanded by the wealthy which inculcates the sense of less than in the poor. Our own cook talks about 'little people' and means herself.
b. the government, in which people can insulate themselves from poverty through power, and which can sometimes help the very desperate, is incredibly corrupt. Bribes abound, and in their absence, nothing gets done.
So--the poor will do anything for money, the rich know this and fear a return to that state themselves, and without a massive surge in economic activity without a concomitant inflation (both the indian economy and inflation should grow at about 10% this year) there's little way out.
5. No unions. The Communist parties (i for international or m for marxist) are actually in power, and thus are corrupt and have sold themselves to the highest bidder and forgotten about the workers they're supposed to serve. Votes are bought on the cheap through outright purchase or by coercion and plying the poor with liquor and food, and the cycle then perpetuates.

When I was trying to think through all this it made a great deal more sense, and was also more concise. I feel that way about a lot of things these days--we're all good til we try to write it down.

In other news, the shoe beating that took place in front of the house over a kid's ear being pulled made the front page of my driver's tabloid yesterday morning.

I apologize that this post includes no pictures. And that this blog is now starting to sound like the soundtrack to my childhood: one long conversation about what can be done for the poor.

1 comment:

Susannah said...

This from GrampaG

Very informative--reminds me of a classic article by Herbert Gans--"The positive functions of poverty," which is included in a book, More Equality. Bottom line: poverty persists because it benefits those who are not poor--who get to sell everything from day-old bread to slum housing and who get work done at lowest wages.

There is no simple solution, but, to some degree, this also occurs in developed countries, even those with labor parties and better protections for workers.

At the same time, I think it can be argued that the 20th century was a time of progress in the US AND India. There is a growing middle class there--making progress the same way our grandparents recommended--get a good education and work hard. And be very careful about every penney you spend.

To make an incredible contrast, consider the life and career of Warren E. Buffet, detailed in a new book The Snowball, but also capsuled chronologically on Wiki.

Perhaps we will have do an Eliot--"we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our search shall be to arrive at the point where we first began, and recognize it for the first time."--from memory, perhaps not literally rendered.

Thank you for your accounts--much enjoyed.