A Critique Interpretation of the Behind the Beautiful Forevers
The Accident of Birth
One’s birthplace can disproportionately influence one’s quality of life. Where per capita income is low and public education not as ubiquitous as in most of the first world, people often experience oppressive limits in terms of their economic opportunities. In India, the cultural remnants of their caste system as well as a general lack of social equality present nearly insurmountable barriers to those who are impoverished. Many Indian families, such as those seen in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, often spend generations with little to no improvement in their quality of life. The people that populate slums like Annawadi are usually victims of the accident of birth, meaning that they were born into poverty. However, although one’s birth determines their economic opportunity, it is worth noting that the accident of birth can have an aggregate effect when already resource-strained societies continue to increase population.
In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, it is shown that everyone in Annawadi is aware of the three main ways to get out of poverty (Boo 62). One can find an entrepreneurial niche and thus generate income for oneself, thus elevating one’s standard of living (62). One can also try to fight back against the corrupt system that tries to keep the masses impoverished for their own benefit (62). However, many people look to education as a means of elevating themselves from poverty (62). Each of these methods presents its own advantages and disadvantages, and each method is often very difficult for various reasons.
Finding an entrepreneurial niche is often cited as a method for getting out of poverty. For example, the Husains were able to use the skills that their family had accumulated over generations to have better-than-average success as scavengers for recyclable materials (62). However, without any kind of financial education, and without access to capital, it is often insurmountably difficult to realize any kind of entrepreneurial activity, in particular when the ultimate goal is to operate a business in these low-income regions. Additionally, because of the lack of financial expertise, many of these people may end up running nearly identical businesses and competing with each other often to a destructive degree. This is exemplified by the extraordinary number of scavengers living in Annawadi and other slums constantly fighting over dumpsters like street gangs. This is also a function of population, which brings up the aforementioned issue of high birth rates.
Working with a corrupt system can often provide a framework for an eventual legitimate ascent into the middle or upper class. For an example, we can look at Asha, who is the unofficial slumlord of Annawadi (17). One of her main sources of income is securing loans for residents of Annawadi, supposedly to jump-start businesses (24). However, she takes money from the loans as commission (25). In this scenario, the theft might not be considered corruption if the circumstances were normal. However, the loans are meant for small businesses and given out based on how many jobs the new business will create (24). Because Asha’s only stake in the loan is the commission, she does not care whether the business will create jobs, or even if there is a business. This myopic self-interest is bad for the economy of Mumbai because the borrowed government funds may not be repaid, and thus government money will have been wasted.
Asha is not only a de facto broker of government loans. She also provides residents with access to education or jobs, usually for a fee as well (21). With the money she had aggregated from these corrupt activities, Asha was able to send her daughter, Manju, to a reputable school so that she could be educated and lead a productive life. Through this investment in human capital, Asha will hopefully elevate her entire family’s standard of living. In keeping with the theme of birth rates, it is worth noting that Manju is an only child.
Education and vocational training are perhaps the most common way for one to elevate one’s standard of living. In general, the people that are impoverished are low-skilled or semi-skilled laborers. The fact that they are not necessarily trained in anything unique or sophisticated is what prevents them from finding gainful employment. This diminished opportunity for employment is derived from having a lesser skillset than someone who is more educated. Since they are unable to seek gainful employment, they are often unable to send their children to the same schools that they themselves were unable to afford, and the cycle continues.
One of the main problems in Annawadi is that there is very little public access to education. Additionally, the public schools that are available are generally of poor quality. For example, of the public schools that are available, only about 40% of the educators even have a college education themselves (63). Furthermore, the schools generally have access to minimal public funding. This can be attributed to the fact that these schools are often the result of corrupt attempts to maintain an image rather than any truly altruistic attempt to educate the people (63). In this society, the overarching corruption has subsumed the mission of education and investment in human capital.
Adding to the issue, a society with a quickly increasing population will make it more difficult to benefit from the pedagogical institutions because of increased pressure on resources. Large class sizes are proven to reduce the overall quality of education, but this is particularly true in environments where resources are already strained. For instance, it is highly improbable that there are any textbooks or workbooks available to students in the public schools of Annawadi. Therefore, although there are schools available, they do not necessarily provide the benefits one might imagine. This indicates that increasing access to education is likely not the sole solution to poverty.
In places like India that have a historical caste system with social effects that persist, often none of these aforementioned methods will improve one’s employment prospects. Their low caste may decrease access to education and employment to begin with. Additionally, attempts to include historically low-caste people into jobs and governments are often circumvented by corruption. For example, a man named Subhash Sawant, running for the role of Corporator, was not a member of a historically low-caste lineage (51). However, he was able to manufacture the paperwork that said so and he was able to enter and win the election (51). This instance of fraud entitled him to a position meant for historically oppressed Indians.
High levels of corruption will prevent even the noblest attempts to include oppressed peoples in the governance and economic activity of a society from achieving any significant result. Those that are in positions of power, without just governance, will simply continue to manipulate the system to keep their power. This means that attempts by the government to create opportunities for the existing population without changing the overall system of government cannot be the sole solution to poverty.
Because there is very little ability to educate one’s children and thereby improve the economic value of said child, it is very common for families to have multiple children, voluntarily or otherwise. This is because these children will each earn income in any way that they can. And, since the families have no substantial income, they end up spending little if anything on their children. Ergo, the marginal benefit of an additional child usually outweighs the marginal cost. Furthermore, high mortality rates make it difficult to know exactly how many children one will have even one year in the future, so families make it a practice to have many, which can be thought of as a sort of income insurance.
A consequence of high reproduction is perpetually increased competition for resources. Things like water and food become increasingly difficult to access over time if the population continues to grow with no economic improvement. For example, in all of Annawadi there were six faucets that would run water for a total of only three hours per day (53). As competition for resources increases, so do malnourishment and dehydration. These conditions can lead to increased health problems, and often can lead to obvious deficiencies like stunting the growth of a child or teenager (35). People often turn to alternative means to satisfy hunger when food is not available, like smoking the remains of a cigarette, or other cheap ways to achieve a drug high that eases the pain of hunger (35, 43). Since so much time is spent in the pursuit of these resources, it is no wonder that they are unable to focus on things like education or entrepreneurship.
The accident of birth is often thought of as the idea that one is born into poverty. However, the implications of many accidents of birth can be appreciated as an aggregate phenomenon as well. Often, people born in impoverished areas are in poverty because everyone else around them was born into poverty. High birth rates are common in underdeveloped regions of the world, often because the act of human reproduction is quite desirable, even under circumstances where the addition of children to a family is unfavorable, as in Abdul’s family in the book (2). This is largely because these families are not capable of investing in human capital through education or vocational training. Ergo, having a child adds to the income potential of a family.
Once these new people are born, they have individual needs to which society must attend. Also, these new children often end up in socially destructive behavior cycles identical to those of their parents and relatives. This will increase stress on society’s resources. Ergo, the accident of birth must not only be thought of as an individual’s circumstances of poverty, but also as an aggregate phenomenon of exponential population increase in already adverse circumstances, exacerbating the existing social and economic problems.
In conclusion, the place in which one is born can disproportionately influence one’s quality of life and economic opportunity. However, this is not solely a phenomenon related to the chances of an individual. The accident of birth is a situation in which high birth rates in underdeveloped areas of the world decrease opportunity for all by continuously putting stress on what little resources are available. This stress perpetually pushes the impoverished further below the poverty line. This issue will continue to be a problem for as long as people do not have access to reasonably priced methods of contraception in the developing world.
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