Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Inequality in Slums

We live in the Repugnant Conclusion. We just don't know it yet.

From Planet of Slums, by Mike Davis (2006):

As a rule of thumb, both the popular and scholarly literatures on informal housing tend to romanticize squatters while ignoring renters. As World Bank researchers recently acknowledged, "remarkably little research has been done on low-income rental markets." Landlordism is in fact a fundamental and divisive social relation in slum life worldwide. It is the principal way in which urban poor people can monetize their equity (formal or informal), but often in an exploitative relationship to even poorer people.... To be sure, most of the urban poor in West Africa have always rented from landlords, as have a majority of residents in Dhaka and some other Asian cities (in Bangkok two-thirds of "squatters" actually rent the land they build their shacks upon). Renting has also become far more common than usually recognized in the peripheries of Latin America, Middle Eastern, and South African cities. In Cairo, for example, the more advantaged poor buy pirated land from farmers, while the less advantaged squat on municipal land; the poorest of the poor, however, rent from the squatters. Likewise, as urban geographer Alan Gilbert observed of Latin America in 1993, the "vast majority of new rental housing is located in the consolidated self-help periphery rather than in the centre of the city."

Mexico City is an important case in point. Despite a Model Law of the colonias proletarias which sought to ban absentee ownership, "poaching," and speculation in low-income housing, the Lopez Portillo government (1976-82) allowed slum-dwellers to sell their property at market rates. One result of this reform has been the middle-class gentrification of some formerly poor colonias in good locations; another has been the proliferation of petty landlordism. As sociologist Susan Eckstein discovered in her 1987 return to the colonia that she had first studied fifteen years earlier, some 25 to 50 percent of the original squatters had built small, 2-to-15-family vecindades which they then rented to poorer newcomers. "There is, in essence," she wrote, "a two-tiered housing market, reflecting socioeconomic differences among colonos." She also found "a 'downward' socioeconomic leveling of the population since I was last there.... The poor tenant stratum has increased in size." Although some older residents had thrived as landlords, the newer renters had far less hope of socioeconomic mobility than the earlier generation, and the colonia as a whole was no longer a "slum of hope."

Renters, indeed, are usually the most invisible and powerless of slum-dwellers. In the face of redevelopment and eviction, they are typically ineligible for compensation or resettlement. Unlike tenement-dwellers in early-twentieth-century Berlin or New York, moreover, who shared a closeknit solidarity vis-à-vis their slumlords, today's slum renters typically lack the power to organize tenants' organizations or mount rent strikes. As two leading housing researchers explain: "Tenants are scattered throughout irregular settlements with a wide range of informal rental arrangements, and they are often unable to organize as a pressure group to protect themselves."

Large peripheral slums, especially in Africa, are usually complex quiltworks of kin networks, tenure systems, and tenant relationships. Diana Lee-Smith, one of the founders of Nairobi's Mazingira Institute, has closely studied Korogocho, a huge slum on the eastern edge of the city. Korogocho includes seven villages offering a menu of different housing and rental types. The most wretched village, Grogan, consists of one-room cardboard shacks and is largely populated by female-headed households evicted from an older shantytown near the city center. Barracks-like Githaa, on the other hand, "is an entirely speculative village, built by entrepreneurs for rent," despite the fact that the land is publicly owned. Nearby Dandora is a sites-and-services scheme where half the owners are now absentee landlords. Lee-Smith emphasizes that petty landlordship and subletting are major wealth strategies of the poor, and that homeowners quickly become exploiters of even more impoverished people. Despite the persistent heroic image of the squatter as self-builder and owner-occupier, the reality in Korogocho and other Nairobi slums is the irresistible increase in tenancy and petty exploitation. [Citations omitted. All bolded emphasis mine.]

This excerpt illustrates a little-recognized phenomenon of the slums: wretchedly poor people making tiny, incremental moves away from the most severe poverty by exploiting even more wretchedly poor people as renters. (One fact that this passage does not emphasize is that politicians and thugs are as likely to exploit the extremely poor as are other poor people - people who sleep on the sidewalks have to pay neighborhood gangs for the privilege.)

The inequality that gets magnified is, to some degree, one of time - those who arrived earlier exploit those who arrive later. But other forms of natural or preexisting inequality are also magnified, such as differences in social connections, business savvy, and willingness to exploit others.

A slum is a pattern, a physical instantiation of a phenomenon that occurs at different levels of development. In rich countries and poor countries, slums are what happens when people are so poor that they fall out of the legally available housing system and must resort to "illegal" housing. The immense tent city slums of Los Angeles' Skid Row are similar in form to the cardboard shantytowns of Nairobi, despite vast differences in wealth between the two cities.

Most of the population growth in the Global South is happening in slums - in some cases up to 90% of population growth.

The slums are an emergency. Their scale is almost unimaginable, and they have exploded in the past few decades.

Plenty of people are born into slums. Plenty of them are smart. But this application of population magic does not seem to be having the effect Bryan Caplan hopes for when he assures us that "when population goes up, everyone gets extra choices."

As of 2006, only about 6% of the urban population of the United States lived in slums. But over a third of China's urban population, over half of India's, and a shocking 99.4% of Ethiopia's, are slum dwellers.

Both the absolute population of the slums and the percentage of the world population that lives in slums are growing. Fast.

"If such a trend continues unabated," warns planning expert Gautam Chatterjee, "we will have only slums and no cities."

I guess it's a good thing that poor people still smile.


  1. But children make poor people happy, don't they? When this population growth has to stop, they may not be as happy any more.

    I think poor people badly need children since they can't indulge in the kind of pleasures the childless rich can. Also, most social hierarchies place children below their parents, so having children is one way poor people can actually see worse-off people (schadenfreude) ... or to put it differently, someone who needs them. Feeling needed is nice.

  2. I also recollect this blog:

  3. I don't think having children is about schadenfreude, but rather about fulfilling evolutionarily inherited drives, parrying death, providing meaning, adhering to norms, and insurance[1]. Also, some people actually derive joy from their children--most parents, probably, in fact[2]. There may be some mean ex post schadenfreude, but my intuition resists admitting it as a motivator for procreating.

    But I do think Srikant's point about a greater opportunity cost of having children for the rich is significant. When I think about what upper-middle-class-to-rich Westerners (a description that will in a small number of years describe myself and my closer friends, if it doesn't describe them already) stand to lose from having children, they include a fair number of pleasures unavailable to the materially poor.

    1. And other things that I haven't bothered to think of.

    2. I'm confident that the antinatalist cases are strong enough that admitting that children do usually provide significant joy hardly weighs indefeasibly in favor of procreation.

  4. Sister Y: We live in the Repugnant Conclusion.

    I'm not so sure. Utility is certainly left-skewed, and most of the people we know aren't in the left-skewing tail, at least by their own estimation. But even slum-dwellers could have it a lot worse. I applaud efforts to make comfortable people who have leisure time to comment on blog entries more aware of all the shittiness in the world to the extent that it prevents them from adding to it and, hope against hope, that it moves them to lift their eminently amputatable "ring toe" to donate a bit of time or treasure to make things less shitty.

    But I have a really hard time of figuring out where the baseline is for a worthwhile life is. There's a lot of stupid but understandable bias that makes the popular conception of where that line is almost certainly an underestimate (that is, places the line further down the utility scale than it objectively lies). I don't believe self-reports (vide the pathetic golem) in the slightest. But what really have we to go on? Reports of shittiness in the world's slums offer us a description of the extreme values, and extreme values are generally a poor guide to central tendencies.

  5. Re: repugnant conclusion. What I mean by this is that we have, as a world, made the decision to increase the number of lives to "slum world" across-the-board poor welfare, rather than have a low-population splendor world. It is not at all clear to me that a life in a slum is worth living, or that a life in a first world country is worth living, for that matter.

  6. Rather than demonstrating the raw misery of slums, I think what this excerpt illustrates is their zero-sum-ness - that the main way welfare improves for extremely poor people is through the exploitation of even poorer people.

    At one time it may have been true that slums represented "extreme" values, but nowadays they are merely the low end of normal - and the future of normal, period. A sixth of the world's population, well over a billion people, live in slums.

  7. Yes, the "extreme value" thing was almost metaphorical -- people look at the fraction of mathematicians and theoretical physicists who are men and conclude that "men are better at math than women", when really the fraction of the most talented people who are men tells us nothing about whether the typical or average man is better at math than the typical or average woman.

    I guess what I mean is that while we're further along toward the Repugnant Conclusion than we typically imagine, it's hard to tell where "barely worth living" lies. How many times greater is the utility enjoyed by a typical middle-class American than by a Cairo slum-dweller? I guess this is where stuff like your "Mathematics of Misery" post and some others come in, where we try to infer where the barely-worth-it line should be drawn and estimate how many people are below that line.

  8. To be fair to Parfit, the "Repugnant Conclusion" at least requires for these lives to be, on average, worth living, even if only barely so. If they are not, than the status quo is worse than the Repugnant Conclusion. If they are, the Repugnant Conclusion might not be as repugnant as it seems to us.

    I suspect you can make almost every person worse off than dead if you increase the stressors enough, keep them persistent enough, and make suicide hard or otherwise undesirable enough, and the poorest of the poor sound like likely candidates for some of these factors.

    However, neurodiversity and hedonic-treadmill-like dynamics should not be dismissed too lightly. There are probably neurological phenotypes who are more robust or happier in shitty circumstances than other ones. It is at least hypothetically possible to have minds so robust and resilient that very bad lives still usually feel better than unconsciousness to them. This concept is at the core of the Abolitionist idea (cf. If those poor mostly consisted of such resilient minds, there lives could hypothetically be more good than bad, compared to non-existence. If not, I'm not so optimistic.

  9. HT,

    Neurodiversity might dull the sting at some ever-widening hypothetical margin, but "compared to non-existence"? I don't think you can square that with any notion of resilience, since a "resilient" being has, by definition, emerged from something ... worse. Unconsciousness and non-existence don't feel like anything.

  10. How are you mocking Anarchism on one entry and then lamenting the drastic economic inequality around the world? That's kindof our whole point, Sister Y...

  11. Chip, the idea would be that even minor pleasures feel very rewarding to such a neurological phenotype, while stressors and error signals are perceived, but not experienced as horrible, in such a way that life in poverty still feels generally more good than bad (i.e. it is better than not experiencing anything at all).

    I'm not claiming that this is the status quo of the currently existing slum world, just that it's a general possibility (also compare

    There is evidence that differences in pain sensitivity and reward intensity exist in the population and are correlated to genes, meaning that there are possibilities of future non-destructive hedonic enhancement techniques that can make life even in poverty feel more good than bad:

  12. We live in the repugnant conclusion (or are on our way to it) if you buy the "smile test" as the cut-off for a barely worth living life.

    I intend this to show how ultimately inhumane said "smile test" is.

  13. And Francois, I hope I did not come across as mocking anarchism - it makes more sense than most of the other options - but I would say that anarchism does not just entail concern with poverty and unfairness, but also entails faith in a particular solution to this unfairness. It is only this faith that I do not share.

  14. I don't even have a slum home. My life totally sucks.


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