It’s a changed world from the one we grew up in, for sure. When I was a kid, anything that came from or had origins in the United States of America was regarded with utter fascination in India. The US and Europe, the first world, were regarded as havens of prosperity and wealth, largely because we believed these were nations that were able to give even ordinary citizens a basic minimum standard of living, amenities and equal opportunity.
How wrong this notion was, especially for the United States, we have seen in the aftermath of the worldwide economic recession we have experienced since 2008. A report released a few days before by the Citizen’s Committee for Children reveals that were are 1.6 million people living below the federal poverty line in New York in 2010, up by 120,000 since 2008 (US Census data). One in three of the city’s children live in poverty. In fact, they live in “neighborhoods of concentrated poverty” where residents face obstacles like lack of employment, high crime rates, few educational opportunities and poor housing quality.
Concentrated poverty (also called neighborhood poverty) is a well-defined term in US policy and scholarship. Federal poverty lines too are defined clearly and are comparative to the overall income levels of Americans, which means the poverty line rises and falls proportional to the income levels of higher income groups.
In India, the situation is very different. The poverty line an absolute concept, some say this is so because the nation would be able to show very little progress on poverty alleviation if it were to be relative considering the type of skewed and dramatic economic development we are seeing in this country.
The study of poverty in India, from what I have seen, is on a pan-India scale and discusses the relative concentrations of poverty in certain states and regions in the country. Unlike the US, where concentrated poverty is studied within cities by census tract, Indian cities are not identifying and focusing interventions on pockets where there is a higher density of people living in socio-economic deprivation. Despite available technology (something as simple as google maps and community surveys in conjunction with each other, as well as poverty data from the census), there is inadequate understanding on concentrated poverty and the factors that lead to the perpetuation of such a phenomenon.
In the US, racial and ethnic segregation is often a factor. In India, we might find caste, class and the prevalence of illegal, informal settlements like slums to be reasons for concentrated poverty. We do need to recognize these areas in a city because people, especially children, get trapped in a spiral of poverty that they will probably not emerge out of for generations into the future. We need to collect sufficient data and understanding of such areas to be able to look for innovative solutions for education, employment, career counseling, housing improvement, basic services, health, water quality and many other areas where small improvements can make big impacts.
Who will do this? I doubt the government will take initiative unless we force their hand. We meaning professionals, NGOs and civil society working together to transform our cities. Without urban transformation, all the glitz and glamor of rising GDP is nought!