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Who You Callin' a Slumdog?

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America sees its future in Oscar-winning film

Slumdog Millionaire is much more than a breakout film with $150 million (and counting) in box-office earnings and eight Academy Awards: Interestingly, given the heart-rending poverty central to its plot, its success happens to coincide with the growth of U.S. tent cities -- a phenomenon that reveals not only deep undercurrents of material instability among middle-class Americans, but also points towards a future where slums may become a prominent feature of contemporary American life.

Since the sub-prime mortgage meltdown and the onset of a full-blown economic crisis in October 2008, the number of unemployed, homeless, and hungry in the U.S. is expanding quickly (witness the dramatic rise in demand for food banks and shelter spaces), while more and more tent cities are sprouting up nationwide. Just last month, journalist Lisa Ling, special correspondent for the Oprah Winfrey Show, unveiled a recent feature story for Oprah called "Inside a Tent City."

Ling traveled to her birthplace, Sacramento, California, to document tent cities that have taken root because of the economic crisis. Now, in Sacramento, according to her piece, approximately 1,200 people, some formerly of the middle class, are living in makeshift conditions.

The enthusiastic embrace of Slumdog Millionaire may actually signify a sober recognition that growing inequality has become a permanent, unchangeable facet of U.S. society over the past 30 years. Among youth, the elderly and those with a fragile grip on a middle-class status, this recognition may include, with greater urgency, the possibility of homelessness and the precarious psychology that comes with it.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based think tank, in the two decades between 1985 and 2005, the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. -- and the rich and the middle classes -- is rising along with poverty.

New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis writes: "Slumdog Millionaire...proves to be one of the most upbeat stories about living in hell imaginable."

Could it be that because a large swathe of Americans has traveled the world during the past three decades, they feel increased empathy towards the impoverished? Yes. Could it also be that, during that same 30 years, U.S. income distribution has begun to resemble that of a developing country, with our exposure to poverty elsewhere inuring us to eroding living standards at home? Hmmm.

In Rolling Stone magazine, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman writes "[U.S.] pretax incomes are now as unequally distributed as they were in the 1920s -- wiping out virtually all of the gains made by the middle class during the Great Compression."

(Economic historians refer to "the Great Compression" as the period between the late 1930s and mid-1940s when U.S. income inequality decreased.)

"These days," Krugman continues, "to find societies as unequal as the United States you have to look beyond the advanced world, to Latin America." (Okay, so Latin America isn't Mumbai, but in places it's not that far off.)

I believe that there's a barely suppressed awareness among Americans that things could get worse, horribly worse, in the state of the economic union: If so, the U.S. theatrical success of Slumdog Millionaire may revolve around its audience's sixth sense that the American Dream is verging on collapse.

With consumers overwhelmed by debt, weakened financial institutions, barriers to continued borrowing -- and, most tellingly, inadequate health insurance coverage -- falling off the cliff from relative middle-class comfort into abject poverty, chronic ill-health, or both, requires less bad luck than at any time since the Great Depression.

So, if the economic recession turns into another depression -- and the gap between the rich and the poor (and the rich and the middle classes) continues to expand -- take note: We may all be witnessing the birth of the "Century of the American Slumdog."