Posted by: Vikram | April 9, 2009

India’s poor and the poor in America, can a comparison be made ?

Nita and Vinod raised the question, are the poor in America worse off than India’s poor ? One can realistically only talk about the urban poor, simply because rural India is very different from America in many important ways that make comparisons difficult. For example, income in rural India depends heavily on timely and adequate monsoon rains, no such factors affect the poor in America in general.

So let us restrict ourselves to the urban poor in India. The very mention of urban poverty brings to mind slums, open sewers and general neglect. Indeed, India’s poor increasingly face both a neglectful and a repressive state, alongwith a middle class that both exploits them economically while tacitly approving the state’s violence. Nowwhere is this more evident than in the very heart of Indian democracy, the capital of the largest ‘free’ nation on earth, where the poor are being kicked out of both homes and livelihoods to make way for the ‘world class’ capital that India’s middle class so desperately craves.

Do the poor in America face such repression ? I am no expert on this matter, but I feel that a lot of the violence that America’s middle class inflicts on the poor and marginalized, is more psychological than physical. The city I live in, Austin, seemingly one of the most progressive and ‘multi-cultural’ in America is still divided along class/racial lines. East Austin, being populated by the underclass where most on the other side will not venture after dark.  Certainly it is ‘better’ than the violence and absolute poverty of urban India, but the worrying thing is that this is how things have been for decades now. When people judge their lives, their benchmarks are often the lives of their parents and their general surroundings, and in this respect the poor in America must consider themselves extremely unlucky.

America seems to have reached an unequal equilibrium.

India on the other hand is undergoing a hasty transformation towards an even more unequal equilibrium than the semi-equlibrium it was in. Economic inequalities are accentuated by a return of the psychological violence that India’s elite have engaged in for centuries. Even the acquisition of material goods by the urban poor means little when their general quality of life is constantly being degraded by increasing pollution, overcrowding and crime, when their lives are themselves threatened by an authoritarian state and ethnic/religious extremism.

Indeed if India’s poor can manage to laugh and smile in middle of all their bad luck, then they are luckier than their counterparts in America; who for some reason are supposed to be lucky that they are poor in America, not somewhere else.


  1. Interesting Vikram. I think what you are saying is that India is in a state of transition and therefore things are getting worse for the poor, particularly in the psychological sense. I think they are now exposed to ads and tv serials which bring home to them the kind of life that the upper classes lead and this does cause them psychological suffering as they live in miserable surroundings. However I think the violence in urban India is far less than in urban America amongst the poor if one takes just crime. Leave out riots and communal tensions. However this is just my hypotheses and I do not know the real situation in America.

  2. Interesting post, thanks for sharing, and insightful.

  3. @ Vikram : I think India’s poor are a bit better off because of the weather. I hear the homeless in the US usually flock to the east coast because of better weather there. However the whole debate is useless because no one can define who is poor?

    In developed country being poor is often equated with being ‘useless’ or being lazy. If you are also homeless then you are also probably dirty as well as abusing some substance. However the standard of life compared with the Indian poor people is obviously better. If I were homeless in Tokyo I would probably spend the night in a McDonalds or in a cybercafe. I would take a really nice hot bath in a Public bath. I would have a locker provided by the Tokyo Municipal Government to stash my things and I would probably hang around the parks all day. That kind of life beats being stuffed in a filthy slum full of cholera or something in India.

  4. These two cases are not comparable.Indians may be poor but India is not.In the US,every citizen has food,house,social care .In India the wealth is not distributed equally,where as in the USit is one’s rite to have the basic amminities.We still have crores of people in India living on about Rs 20 /day($0.40).Where is the comparison?We also have few amongst the richest in the world.

  5. It is an interesting question.

    While I’d agree that it is rare in the U.S. to be without food, I disagree with B K Chowla. In the U.S. health care and housing are not givens or basic rights at all.

    Vikram, I disagree with your point about the poor and violence. Violence is very present and systemic among the U.S.’s urban poor. I agree with Nita on that point. Look at the crime statistics for young urban males of Afro-American or Hispanic origin.

    There has been a lot written that in the U.S. people in their early 30s and younger will probably not live as well as their parents did. Even in the middle class. Does that mean they are poor? I don’t think so. Perhaps the appetites of the West have grown too big and people will have to reassess their goals and plans.

    What does ‘poor’ mean? I’d say it means a loss of hope that life will get better for self and for family. It means limited access to the fundamentals of life: food, shelter, health care, education. In the U.S. it also means shame because in the U.S. it is true that there is a widespread belief that if you are poor, it is your own fault and that you are “lazy” or “stupid” or both. I think of “poor” as a permanent condition.

    I’d say the poor all over the world face pollution and crime. As for overcrowding, India’s urban poor “wins” that one.

    The U.S. will also bulldoze people’s homes and even entire communities to make way for “progress”. In Minnesota it happened to St. Paul’s African-American community, Rondo. In other places it happened to Chinatowns or Hispanic areas. True, in the U.S. homeowners will receive some compensation, but fair market value? That could be debated.

  6. @ Nita, things are definitely getting worse for large sections of India’s poor and marginalized. And not just the psychological violence of unfulfilled aspirations, but also physical brutality by the state that is tacitly approved by the middle classes.

    Not that the American state does not use violence against its poor.

    I think you will get a better idea of poverty in America if you read MmeetsK comment. A lot of times when I have asked my middle class American friends about poverty here, they have said atleast its better than India. But my point is that, it makes little difference to the poor because poverty is relative and the poor here will not compare themselves to the poor elsewhere.

    @ Ebrahim, Welcome and Thank You.

    @ odzer, MmeetsK , I have consciously tried to make a distinction India’s poor and the ‘poor in America’. I feel at some level most Indian’s realize that their society is inherently responsible for the widespread poverty in the country. So indeed India’s poor have a lot of Indian characteristics.

    I think Americans are more likely to think of the poor as an aberration, not the result of inherent social and systemic inequalities.

  7. Housing and health care may not come necessarally.The US admin has created a system by which everyone can AFFORD health care.It is the admin systems,dedication,policy etc.I was only comparing.

  8. Thank you Vikram. An educative post as usual.

    You’ve brought out a couple of points in this comparison:

    (i) the trends in the disparity between the poor and the rest in India and the US

    (ii) the attitude of the middle class to the poor in India and the US.

    Could you add a few words in comparing the condition of the poor themselves i.e. the quality of life they lead in the two places? What is easier (or not) as a poor man in US and what is easier (or not) as a poor man in India? Why do I see the poor in US better dressed than the poor in India? Is there any truth to the claims by the middle class Indians that the slum dwellers have a quantum of happiness about their lives while the poor in the US look perpetually sad?

  9. I think I would measure poverty by both material well-being (indices on food, health, education) and human well-being (how many friends per capita does the citizens of a nation have)

    The poor of India perform badly in the first index, but do remarkably well in the second index.

    It is not rare to find in India even extremely poor people sharing morsels of their food to their poorer brethern. Well, this tradition of sharing is disappearing amongst the middle and upper classes of India (who are probably more miserly than their counterparts in USA).

    The ultimate wealth that any human being can aspire for is friendship. Anything else is just means for the end.

  10. Poverty in India and the US are not comparable and I agree with Vikram that it is relative with one’s own countrymen. Weather makes a lot of difference to the poor per se. Indian poor can sleep anywhere, not so in North America in winter. I have seen people sleeping on the foot path in downtown Toronto in snow – same people everyday. I have also seen people sleeping in shelters wearing pinstriped suits because they were living well beyond their means and lost their job and were thrown out of the house by the mortgage company. In India poverty is a class phenomenon whereas in N America it is a class – drug addicts, lazy, unskilled and not interested, and a life style phenomenon. I haven’t studied this phenomenon but have made these practical observations while living in Canada for six years and the US for one year.

  11. @ Joshiji, in India poverty definitely has more connotations than just class, the poor are also effectively disenfranchised and dehumanized.

    North American poor on the other hand are considered aberrations.

  12. […] The rest is here: India’s poor and the poor in America, can a comparison be made ? […]

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