Monday, February 09, 2009

Grades of Poverty

A friend of mine sent me a link to a web site where a precocious middle class trust fund baby chronicles his experiment of living in poverty. He moves to a new city with $25 to check the claim that one could "get an apartment, a car,... by just working hard in a minimum wage job". The author suffers through hardships like not having a cell phone, only being able to watch network TV, and eating Rice-A-Roni, one of the more infamous San Franciscan contributions to the culinary fabric of the United States.
My insensitive response was "everyone who talks about poverty with a cell phone can suck it."
I feel for the poor in the US, but on a global perspective, they are among the luckiest 5-10% of humanity.
But what is poor? I mean really really poor?
One of the first things that come to many people’s mind when thinking about depraving, gut wrenching poverty--if they are not thinking sub-Saharan African refugee camps--might be the infamous Indian rickshaw driver ferrying huge loads or fat tourists like me on rickety bikes for a few pennies an hour.
My education in poverty Indian style started when I hired one for a tour of Old Delhi, and paid him 120 rupees (about $2) plus a tip for two hours of excellent guiding. He seemed happy enough, but it was still hard work. On the tour, I saw carpenters waiting for work on the road side, and porters and flower pickers who clearly couldn’t make a huge amount, but I had no clue how much money they made or didn’t make.
A few days later, I found out that I obviously overpaid by a huge margin. The going rate for Indian tourists who hired rickshaws was about 150 rupees a day. (OK, I also negotiated no shop visits, so that was worth the extras. If you don’t, you’ll end up not touring the city, but carpet and craft stores that pay the drivers a 5% commission on sales.)
$3 for an 8 hour backbreaking tour in Delhi traffic must be about as bad as it gets, right? Turns out, not even close.
Towards the end of the trip in Varanasi, we once again hired rickshaw drivers for a multi hour tour, and I got somewhat of an education from my driver who was the leader of that particular rickshaw posse. The most pushy of my fellow tourists had negotiated a 20Rs/hour rate with the "facilitator" in front of the hotel. (I’ll rant about the "pay local rates and don’t tip" tourists later).
From these 20Rs, 30% went to the facilitator and 20% to the owner of the rickshaw. So, Considering that children were selling 100Rs postcard books to tourists, 25 cents/hour must be as bad as it gets, right? Well, my driver also had a nut fixed by a roadside bicycle mechanic who got 5Rs for his work, and he’s sitting by the road all day and might get one customer an hour. So, 5Rs an hour is really bad?
Turn out, not really. My driver was proud that the 200-300RS or 4-6 dollars he made a lead driver during a 16 hour work day enabled his family of six to live in relative comfort compared to his former job as a carpet weaving instructor that paid 500Rs a month, or 20RS per day.
(Unrelated side note: the really poor in Indian cities don’t beg from tourists. Since you can make a lot more that way, most areas are pretty tightly regulated and swarming with the ones who know a smattering of English, and don’t run afoul of the ones who manage the begging. My come to Jesus moment was on the Ghats in Varanasi when I recognized one of the beggars as the manger of the shawl store Veerle and Carrie had just dropped about 1500Rs. Along Connaught Square in New Delhi, 90% of the ones asking for money were fairly well dressed English students--or kids that claimed they were and asked for money for books.)
So, 20Rs a day is rock bottom? Definitely not, if you make 20Rs, your extended family can probably spend 25 days combined salary on a cremation on the river Ganges. But as I mentioned in my last post, people move to Varanasi to die and get a free cremation because their families can’t afford it. So the ones who live in the ruined buildings charitably called hospices must be poorer than that. And I think you can reasonably assume that a dooby wallah or washer makes less than an artisan like a weaver. A person who makes a living standing in the burning sun in a dirty river doing the backbreaking work of slamming clothing on a flat rock all day must be at the bottom of the poverty scale? What speaks against this is that these jobs are hereditary and enviously guarded, people fight to defend their slots on the river bank. The families literally sleeping on the streets and traffic circles in Delhi would probably kill for the opportunity. But even the families living under tarps along the roads leading out of Bhopal and whose children I saw digging through the smoldering trash heaps in the early morning fog moved there to escape rural poverty and are not moving back.
I think what’s really poor never hit me until we drove through the back of beyond in Madra Pradesh and families were living in 5’ by 8’ straw huts scattered in the fields. Sorry about the image quality. This was shot off a bus bouncing along what was euphemistically called a "main road".

Of course, they were close to a major road and can sell a bit of produce, so there are probably still a few rugs below that on the ladder.

So, yeah, the guy too poor to afford cable can suck it big time.

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