Swept Under the Rug: Changes in Mass Behavior Can Reduce Poverty

By Shyama Parui

The environment was brimming with pathos, the setting was filthy, yet the story was uplifting. I am talking about a recent Hindi movie titled, Gully Boy that follows the life of a young man with a talent for rap. Set in Mumbai, it peeks into the slum life led by the protagonist, Murad. The characters are plausible as are the tiny shanties and social problems portrayed. Hurdles linked to poverty repeatedly barge into the lives of the characters, but this film doesn't veer into the dark side even though there are uglier alleys. As the audience you find yourself rooting for the underdog who maintains his optimism and demonstrates sincere compassion through his poetry. To your delight, there is a happy ending which is not impossible, but there's more. Let me put on my analytical hat, which I am known to do from time to time. This movie felt believable and it hushed the cynic in me. Although the environment depicted onscreen predicted failure, it was offset by the presence of equalizers like the internet that led to opportunities. Murad illustrates this by creating a graffiti that reads roti, kapda, makan & internet (food, clothing, shelter & the internet) indicating that they are the main necessities of this century. Class or socio-economic status was also shown to be irrelevant to music.

The sad reality is that only a small percentage of people born in the lowest income group move up to a significantly higher socio-economic status. Poverty has too many tentacles; it is not a single problem. Compare it to the nature of diabetes, which is not one but a group of diseases that affects how the body uses blood sugar also known as glucose. Left unchecked or if it continues for long, it increases the risk of complications that can range from nerve damage to depression. It threatens the quality of life as well as life itself.

In countries where the poverty levels are high, its symbols are unconcealed. Even if each person sincerely does his or her part, the paucity is perceived as impossible to eradicate due to its sheer size. According to AzadIndia.org, an estimated 38 percent of India's population lives in poverty. Too often, people turn away their faces when they come across outstretched palms, because the average person does not have enough to feed all the hungry mouths or worse, they may be inadvertently encouraging exploitative practices. It's convenient to ignore.

Often visitors from so called “first world countries" visit luxurious resorts in the Caribbean and deliberately avoid local points of interest, because they do not wish to encounter evidence of destitution. Looking away permits you to ignore a problem that is currently not in your backyard. Social problems, however, tend to be insidious and have a way of creeping up in ways that eventually affect you. For example, an entire town benefits from good schools with adequate resources, effective teachers, and a society that encourages education. On the flip side, schools deprived of needed resources, underpaid teachers negatively affect not only the student's academic outcomes, but also creates a pool of citizens unprepared to serve the local community or improve their standard of living.

One might think that in an arguably classless society like the USA, where there are numerous rags to riches stories and where free market rules, people are the writers of their destiny. If you didn't make it big, it is conjectured that you didn't try hard enough. Unfortunately, hard data paints a very different picture. In 2014, National Public Radio covered the results of a study conducted by Harvard University's Raj Chetty & Nathaniel Hendren. “An American born at the bottom has about an eight percent chance of rising to the top, it found; the odds are twice that in Denmark" it was quoted. It is well known by now that these chances are even lower in Charlotte, NC at four to five percent. Although the study does not outline why the upward mobility opportunities vary from place to place, it found a strong correlation between advancement and social factors namely; the quality of schools, the degree of racial segregation, and whether you grew up in a two-parent household.

Destitution in so called first world countries are veiled, but not absent. The latest report from the US Census Bureau indicates that 12.3 percent of the US population is living in poverty, which has been defined as earning $25,100 or less annually, whereas the median income is $57,652. One of the most alarming findings is that women between the ages of 18-24 are the poorest in the Charlotte area.

This statistic begs attention, because these women are perhaps losing the opportunity to get higher education which would likely improve their job opportunities. At childbearing ages, lack of money also translates into poor health for the mothers and their children. It also puts these women in a vulnerable situation and their problems are likely to be exacerbated by the dangers of human trafficking and drug related problems.

I don't have the answers or a plan to end poverty, but a realization that we all need to be more than passive bystanders. An individual's actions may amount to merely a drop in the bucket, but mass behavior change can lead to large scale improvement. My optimism and observations make me believe that people want to make a difference. In fact, businesses have noticed that the new a generation of customers favor companies with a conscience. Many employers encourage their employees to use some of their paid time to volunteer for a good cause. It is imperative that we level the playing field in the interest of a healthy society and economy. We must fiercely protect the impartiality of potential equalizers such as education, healthcare, and internet. Admittedly, these factors are already tainted with a history of segregation, bribery scandals, and the influence of deep pockets, but things don't have to get worse. What if every citizen took concerted efforts to support laws or policies that moved us towards a more balanced society? It's not about extreme measures or spoon-feeding any particular group but creating and guarding equal opportunities. At the end of the day, we can't sweep all our problems under the rug and it's better to tackle it sooner rather than later. As ancient wisdom says, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the next best time is now."

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Shyama is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com