The major difference between young people today is not their nationality but whether they’re urban or rural. Illiterate villagers live in a past century. For example, I interviewed village kids in Indonesia, India and Pakistan who had never heard of global warming (see the interview with an illiterate Pakistani girl in Chapter 13). Middle-class urban young people share a youth culture with its own music (hip-hop), clothes (jeans and T-shirts), slang (cool), social networks (Facebook and Twitter), and electronic pastimes (video games, texting, movies and TV). However, almost half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day and about one billion people are illiterate.[i] When around 5% of the global population receives 40% of world income,[ii] rising expectations fuel discontent.
Global youth live in rural areas, in urban slums, or urban and suburban middle-class families—in that order. Middle class young people are the ones who have the opportunity to get an education and access the Internet, either at home or in Internet cafes. Only a fifth of youth live in upper-middle and high-income countries. Globally, 31% of females and 28% of males are enrolled in higher education,[i] while about 8% of boys are illiterate and 13% of girls.[ii] Illiteracy is highest in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia. Globally, about 150 million children live on the streets, some without any parents to care for them.[iii]
The interview with Mashal in Chapter 14, a rural Pakistani teenager who lives in a mud brick hut, conveys the pain of spending all your time working to try to feed the family, being illiterate and having no control over your own life. She only saw her fiancé once and hopes he won’t insist on gold jewelry for her dowry that her family can’t afford. Photos of the one-room apartment I visited in Shanghai covey what their life is like. The little girl, age 8, said her parents argue all the time over lack of money. They can’t afford to get medical care for a burn scar that bothers her, but she is going to school.
Photos of the favela I visited in Rio de Janerio reveal bullet holes in walls from gun battles between the young drug lords who control the favela and the police. A study of one favela found the average school attendance was for four years–20% of Brazilians live in favelas.[iv] The young men sat on their motorcycles guarding the entrance to the favela, knowing they will probably die in their 20s. The woman who showed me around Rochina has staph sores on her legs because of the human waste in floodwaters that flow in the narrow alleys between houses when it rains. Because of poverty and drug use, families are unstable with children growing up without their fathers.
Katherine Boo reports on the grim details of children’s lives as trash pickers in a Mumbai slum in her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012). Rubina, the child star of Slumdog Millionaire also grew up in a Mumbai slum. She told her story to a French writer when she was nine (although she doesn’t know her exact birthday).[v] Rubina described the children playing along the railroad tracks, because it’s dark and damp in the shacks, so close together they don’t allow sunlight, similar to the slums I saw in Rio. Her extended family sleeps next to each other on mats in one small room with no window, and their only luxury is an old black and white TV.
Rubina explains there is no privacy in the slum and people insult and shout at each other “all the time.” Boys harass and chase the girls. Kids have to get up early to wait in line to get water for the day before the water stops at 10 am so they can’t go to school. During monsoon season, the slum floods with dirty water as it does in Rochina. There’s a toilet area with three holes that don’t get pumped out. Rats and mosquitoes cause diseases; “every year children die of malaria in our slum,” she reports.
The poor don’t have the resources to pull themselves out of poverty and their governments are in debt. Economic development moves from agriculture in rural areas to light manufacturing and urbanization, to high-tech services in cities, but poor counties don’t have the basics to get the evolution started, explains economist Jeffery Sachs.[vi] He breaks down the numbers of global poverty this way:
1 billion: About one sixth of the world’s people are the extreme poor who live in developing countries and earn pennies a day. In India, about 836 million people live on less than 50 cents a day. They are not on the ladder to development and progress, caught in a poverty trap. For example, two-thirds of India’s population of a billion people lives in the nation’s 600,000 villages. Despite India’s economic growth, the disparities between wealth and poverty are enormous. Many villagers migrate to the cities in search of work and end up begging on the streets.
Most of the poor live in rural sub-Saharan Africa, and East and South Asia. In Latin America, the extreme poverty rate is stuck at around 10%. Globally, a record 1 billion people went hungry in 2009, with parents cutting back on school and health care to give their children a meal once a day, according to the UN Food Agency. A child dies every six seconds of malnutrition, so investment in agriculture needs to be increased. Thirty countries require emergency aid to feed people, including 20 African nations. I asked Hassan in Pakistan to interview a village girl so we could have an insight into the life of one illiterate girl who spends her days working without hope for a better life, in the next chapter.
1.5 billion are poor who have food but may lack safe drinking water and working latrines, as in Bangladesh. Together with the extreme poor, they make up 40% of humanity. Approximately half the world’s population of 7 billion (as of 2011) now lives in cities and towns. In 2005, one out of three urban dwellers (approximately 1 billion people) were living in slum conditions.
2.5 billion are middle-income. Most of them live in cities, but wouldn’t be considered middle class by rich countries. They may be able to purchase a scooter and send their children go to school. About 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty, according to the National Academy of Science in 2009. MAHD doctors report 50 million Americans don’t have health insurance, 14,000 lose coverage each day, and 120 die daily due to lack of health care. [vii] The US lost 15 million jobs since the Great Recession of 2008, so many Americans also struggle with food shortages—about 5.6 million households had chronic struggles putting enough food on the table in 2009.[viii]
1 billion, about one-sixth of the world, is high-income. The richest countries, in terms of average earnings of the population, are Luxembourg, Norway and the United States. The most expensive countries to live in are Japan, South Korea, and Russia. The countries with the most billionaires are the US, Japan, and Germany. (aneki.com)
Improvement is occurring in some areas. The UN reported in 2010 that the extreme poverty rate (earning less than $1.25 a day) fell from 46% in 1990 to 27% in 2005, and is expected to fall to 15% by 2015, mainly because of gains in Asia.[ix] Deaths among children under five years of age have been reduced from 12.5 million per year (1990) to 8.8 million (2008).[x] However, hunger and malnutrition are increasing in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and gaps are widening between rich and poor and between urban and rural areas. Women are more impacted by poverty: A girl who lives in a poor households is four times more likely than a similar boy to not be in school. In some African regions, less than half the women are assisted by skilled health workers when they give birth.
[v] Rubina Ali. Slumgirl Dreaming. Delacorte Press, 2009.
[vi] Jeffrey Sachs. The End of Poverty, 2005