Everyone is familiar with the statistics of economic inequality: the wealthiest 1% of America own 40% of the wealth. The world’s 8 richest individuals have the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. Perhaps you’re even familiar with the following graph, which shows how the global poor have seen little gains to their wealth as the wealthiest witness large gains:
But to understand the statistics is different from truly understanding the severity of the problem. I remember in school we learned about inequality, the heavily unequal distribution of income. We discussed it, we largely agreed it was unfair and many of the poor require further assistance. But I also remember, when out in the city, being taught to ignore the homeless. To look away from obvious signs of poverty. To accept that inequality was a fact of life, an inevitability. So I grew to ignore obvious inequality in my actions, even if in my mind I understood its severity.
The wilful ignorance, for me personally, is relevant everyday as I walk to school. I live in Jakarta, Indonesia — in particular in the neighbourhood of Pondok Indah. Pondok Indah is widely considered one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods of Jakarta, with its mansions, private schools, and expensive hotels. Yet everywhere lay signs of the uncomfortable opposite, the underclass that serves the wealthy and the community built around them.
There’s a specific street on my way to school that highlights the divides in inequality. On one side: huge houses, almost mansions, edifices set aside for single families. On other: squatters, in corrugated iron shacks, the roofs of their shelter rusted from the tropical humidity. The squatter rest besides a river, and on the other side of the river is a private school, which has just spent several million dollars on a new building. There is clearly a massive gap in wealth, visualized, on this one street. Since I see this every day, this is an issue that I’m constantly confronted with and one I feel I can not ignore.
Although the barricades and trees mask it somewhat, this large multi-story house stretches a significant amount down the block.
Directly across from the house pictured above is this makeshift rest area overlooking the river.
A few months ago the squatters barricaded their dwellings, so this is the image seen from the outside. The house pictured above is roughly 10 meters from this shelter.
The government has placed a banner reading “littering is illegal — litter will accrue a 500,00 rupiah tax”. Naturally, there is trash next to the sign (although hard to see at this resolution). In the background is one of the buildings of an elite private school.
Normally here is where vendors will sell food, cigarrettes, drinks, and other such things, but the rain has driven all of the business away. Though obscured by the trees, in the back is a new building of the aforementioned private school whose cost of construction was in the millions of dollars.
How Cities and Countries Around the World Attempt to Combat the Problem
Periodically the squatters are evicted from their place and barriers put up around their area, but they always return. It’s the simple law of supply and demand: there is a demand for the squatters to provide the services they have set up (largely to sell snacks, cigarettes, and other such things to the maids, drivers, and guards working in the homes of the wealthy) and thus they will return to supply such things, even if the local government intervenes.
Indeed this is the typical response the Indonesian government gives to squatters: remove them from the community, rather than attempt to rehabilitate them where they are. The current governor of Jakarta, Basuki Cahaya Purnama or “Ahok”, has escalated the level of eviction within Jakarta’s poor communities. In theory the government provides those evicted with housing, particularly apartments, but many of those living in Jakarta do not have Jakarta ID cards; without Jakarta ID, they are not given housing. It is no wonder that they return to the spots where they were previously evicted.
Part of the evictions are justified on the basis of giving the evicted better living conditions, such as apartments. However it is hard to replace the jobs that the evicted had as well, which draws them back to their spot of eviction. Moreover, evictions often take place as a way to remove undesirables, that is the poor, from wealthier neighbourhoods, particularly when the wealthy or the government own the property on which the squatters occupy. Many cities around the world have taken more extreme measures to keep out the poor: they have established gated communities. Gated communities are fortified with walls, gates, and guards, barricaded off from the outside world, isolated bubbles within a larger city. These communities are found on every continent, and in many major cities. Although I could continue to explain, it is easiest to understand them through pictures (sourced from The Guardian):
Needless to say gated communities only exacerbate inequality by denying the urban poor economic opportunity. While evictions are imperfect, providing the poor with housing has a positive impact on the individual, provided they can find new work afterwards. But a gated community does nothing to address the symptom of the problem they target — that is the existence of the poor — and merely provides the wealthy an illusion of wholesomeness; the marginalized continue to suffer on ever shrinking margins. Therefore neighbourhoods should seek more productive approaches to squatting and the urban poor than mere evictions or gated communities.
While very rarely have squatters been able to renegotiate ownership with cities, in some cases — in particular New York City — authorities have allowed the dispossessed to seize unused property, given that the squatters commit to improving and taking care of their new habitat. In terms of welfare for the poor, this is their best option — with government support they can continue to live with a higher level of dignity and maintain the jobs they have created in their squatter communities. Unfortunately this approach violates private property rights, which is the cornerstone of capitalist economics. Still, perhaps for the benefit of the poor, the government can compromise with the squatters.
It is one thing to know the statistics. It is another to acknowledge inequality in one’s politics and daily lives. But it is another to truly engage, to pause and think about the underlying root causes, the physical impacts of poverty and inequality. The start of engagement is honest recognition, or to actively seek out and analyze the inequality in your surroundings that perhaps you have grown blind to. I encourage you all to go out and find a clear juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in your locale, and share it with others on this padlet. By personalizing the issue in this way, we will grow further compelled to begin enacting change to defeat inequality.