Ethan Arpi

How the Other Half Lives

other halfIn the late 1800?s, Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant in the United States, set out to document New York City’s teeming tenements on the Lower East Side.? His finished product, How the Other Half Lives, was an immediate success and is now recognized as a canonical work of American sociology.? By calling attention to the day-to-day activities of New York City’s forgotten underclass, Riis, along with a handful of other Progressive Era reformers like Upton Sinclair, catalyzed a political movement that would change the course of American history.

Here at Nextbillion, my colleagues are working on an equally ambitious project, which, in many ways, mirrors Riis’s 19th century work.? From what I have seen, their project, Tomorrow’s Markets, is a 21st century answer to the problems that Riis first identified in the 1890s. ?The parallels between Riis’s epoch and our own are striking.? Riis wrote his study at the height of the Gilded Age, a time of excess, exploitation, and economic expansion.? As railroad barons and other well-connected captains of industry reaped personal profit while powering the American economy, they left in their wake massive social and economic inequalities, a ravaged environment, and a corrupt and cynical political culture.

Sound familiar?? Last month the United Nations released its World Economic Survey, showing that global economic expansion has actually widened the gap between rich and poor.? “By many measures, world inequality is high and rising,? the study reports.? ?Most of the world’s poorest nations are falling behind in more or less similar degrees.”? Beyond unprecedented inequality, this generation shares other inconvenient truths with the Gilded Age, like environmental degradation, which, today, comes in the form of global warming.

In order to end the recklessness of the Gilded Age, Jacob Riss thought it was necessary to highlight the problems that underpinned American society.? In the introduction to his work, Riis makes a scathing attack on those who willfully ignored the squalor around them: ?Long ago it was said that “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat. There came a time when the discomfort and crowding below were so great, and the consequent upheavals so violent, that it was no longer an easy thing to do, and then the upper half fell to inquiring what was the matter. Information on the subject has been accumulating rapidly since, and the whole world has had its hands full answering for its old ignorance.? ?

Now that CK Prahalad and Stuart Hart have brought the plight of the poor to the attention of the business community, my colleagues have had their hands full trying to explain how business can meet the needs of the other half, while still turning a profit.? Specifically, they are concerned with these questions: How do people earning $2 a day spend their money?? How do they acquire drinking water?? How much money do they spend on batteries, kerosene, and firewood?? Can this money be spent better on sustainable energy?? How do they get loans?? What types of technology can improve their lives?? How do they get health care?

By analyzing data from household surveys from 25 countries in 6 different continents, my colleagues are attempting to identify cruacial patterns of behavior and consumption.? Armed with this information, their goal, like that of Riis, is to make poverty a thing of the past. ?

Stay tuned…In the fall Tomorrow’s Markets will document how the other half lives.

World Resources Institute