Down and out – Shanty-towns may be more of a trap than economists thought

DO SLUMS keep people in poverty or help them get out of it? It is an important question: about one-third of the urban population of developing countries (860m people) live in them. But with little data on slums and their inhabitants, it is a hard one to answer. Nonetheless a recent paper from economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that slums are often traps rather than springboards.

Economists have tended to accentuate the good side of slums. By offering a toehold for rural migrants seeking their fortune in cities, they are thought to foster upward mobility. Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard University, argues that the buzz of slums encourages entrepreneurship and hard work. One survey from Rio de Janeiro found that a majority of slum-dwellers interviewed in 1969 and found again in 2001 were no longer living in the favelas. That suggests many slum-dwellers had moved on to bigger and better things. Other research shows that about one-third of households in Nairobi’s slums have established their own business.

Yet the MIT paper, which offers simple statistics about 138,000 slum households from around the world, suggests that slums are often an impediment to advancement. Poor hygiene, and the debilitating illnesses it propagates, is one curse. The majority of slum-dwellers in the MIT sample have no private latrine; in one Mumbai slum, taps are shared by more than 100 people. According to the African Population and Health Research Centre hygiene is regularly worse in slums than in rural areas. In the slums of Tongi and Jessore in Bangladesh, 82% of respondents report that a member of their household has been sick in the past month.

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2 thoughts on “Down and out – Shanty-towns may be more of a trap than economists thought

  1. Tucker Landesman February 9, 2014 at 2:53 pm Reply

    I think its very difficult (if not impossible) for us to make global generalizations about slums. Indeed “slum” is a social category of everyday language, but researchers continue to treat it as a legitimate analytical category than can be universalized and compared cross-culturally and even over time. But, of course, leave it to economists to try and answer questions that are based on false premises.
    We’ve had some interesting internal debates on about questions of terminology and comparison.
    I also would be interested in which study from Rio de Janeiro The Economics is citing, as most studies have found the opposite, that there is a low ratio of ‘migrating out’ of the city’s favelas. This includes Perlman’s “cross generational” study financed by the World Bank–arguably the most ambitious at comparing the lives of favela residents over time in Rio de Janeiro. She found that few of her original interviewees had “left the favela” or were measurably better off, controlling for the demolition of one favela originally included in the study. This suggests both cultural territorial stigmatization (which isn’t specific to just “slums” but many ghetto neighborhoods in the Global North) as well as structural barriers to economic mobility.

  2. […] View Original: One thought on “Down and out – Shanty-towns may be more of a trap than economists thought” […]

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