Slumdog Captures Need for Anti-Poverty Policies

I found Slumdog Millionaire, nominated for best picture, an uplifting film. It tells the story, sorely needed in these times of economic despair, of a young man making good despite incredible odds. If Jamal Malik can overcome such severe handicaps of birth and circumstance, the film says, then despair is unwarranted.

Slumdog Millionaire displays the best and worst sights India has to offer. The glitter is visible – plush cars, swanky apartment blocks, high-tech TV studios – and so is filth. Many among India's elites are upset about this public viewing of their country's less glittery side. They are proud of what their nation has achieved in the past two decades. Their leaders no longer roam the world begging for aid. Instead, the world is coming to India for investment opportunities.

So what good does it do to lionize shantytown dwellers and emphasize the meagerness of their existence?

Three children in the streetWell, for one thing, India's rising economic tide is not lifting all boats equally. Those born poor tend to remain poor, regardless of how smart or hard-working they might be. Jamal Malik succeeds through a combination of talent, hard work and sheer good fortune, but those with whom he grew up are condemned to less bountiful lives – some turning to crime, others begging on Mumbai's streets.

As part of my research for a book that examines the dynamics behind poverty, I tracked down thousands of people in three parts of India who moved out of poverty. In most of these cases, improvements were slim. They were street vendors, chauffeurs, maids, itinerant repairmen, lorry loaders and day labourers. Not one among a random sample of 150 software engineers in Bangalore was born into a poor household. Despite the nation's spike in aggregate achievement, many Indians lack for opportunity.

Maya Ajmera (MPP '93) discusses the work of her organization, the Global Fund for Children, on behalf of children in poverty in India and other countries on this NPR broadcast on the issues raised by the movie.

Similar trends are visible in other developing countries. World Bank figures show that, between 1981 and 2005, the number of people living in acute poverty (below $1.25 a day) fell by 500 million worldwide. Yet, this entire reduction seems to have been absorbed by the ranks of the near poor: Over the same period, the number of people living between $1.25 and $2 increased by 600 million.

In modern economies, only the well fed and best trained can compete successfully. As Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen notes, “It is hard to participate in the expansionary process of the market mechanism (especially in a world of globalized trade) if one is illiterate and unschooled, or if one is weakened by undernourishment and ill-health.”

Below a certain threshold, one's life chances get drastically reduced. One cannot hope to become a financial analyst or computer engineer without mastering algebra and calculus in high school. In India and many other developing countries, more than 70 per cent of teenagers don't even enter high school because it's too far away or too expensive, or because they're woefully unprepared to compete.

Rising social unrest in India indicates that, instead of grousing about the ugly underbelly that Slumdog Millionaire exposes, elites need to sit up and pay more attention. Enriching opportunities available to capable individuals – no matter where they're born – should become a central part of public policies. Progress can start by investing in better school quality and improved health care. Information is another key need. Institutions providing reliable career-related information – such as employment exchanges and counselling centres – simply do not exist within poorer communities, so people remain unaware of what they can aspire to become.

In my interviews with poor parents, I was brought back to one essential fact: One's own poverty is easier to bear if the future for one's child appears bright. As I watch the Oscars on Sunday night, I will be pulling for Slumdog Millionaire and hoping its take-home message – that talent is abundant within poor communities but needs to be connected with better opportunities – resonates with people worldwide.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail.