The Narrative of Poverty

When I was reading Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about day-to-day life in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi, I couldn't stop thinking about how much the book had in common with one of my all-time favorites: Random Family, Adrian Nicole Leblanc's masterpiece about love and the drug trade in the South Bronx of the 1980s and 90s. So I wrote an essay for The Daily Beast about the two works–and about what Indian poverty and American poverty have in common. 

…the affinities between the two books—set 7,800 miles and two decades apart—are astonishing. The way Annawadi’s savvier operators make a business out of government corruption, skimming off the top of generously funded anti-poverty efforts, is not dissimilar from the way the drug economy operates in American inner cities. “Corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained” for personal advancement in a Mumbai slum, Boo observes; several of the garbage-pickers she profiles accept their dirty lot in life only after giving up on dreams of a good education and clean, service-sector work in nearby luxury hotels.

In LeBlanc’s account of the South Bronx, smart young men like Cesar turn to drug dealing as a rational response to a neighborhood devoid of opportunity as most of us know it, one that lacks quality schools and decent jobs. In both books, individuals who idealistically resist the financial pull of illegal commerce eventually learn that, as Boo puts it, “there were millions of other bright, likable, unskilled young men in this city”—and not nearly enough jobs in the legitimate economy to go around. (Only about half of Mumbai residents hold formal jobs, while in New York, a third of all low-income households have experienced unwanted job loss, wage reductions, or hour reductions over the past year.)

Read the whole piece.

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