It says something about the extremities of inequality in our world when rich people are now paying money to take tours of poor people. An article by Eric Weiner in the travel section of the Sunday New York Times highlights the growing business of "poorism" -- taking tour groups to visit the world's slums and shanty towns for a glimpse at just how bad things really are.
Troubling enough is the irony of tourists paying enough money to a tour guide to traipse through a poor family's home that, if given to that family instead, might actually help them escape from poverty. One excursion cited in the New York Times article charges $7.50 per person to gawk at the Dharavi slums of Mumbai, India. Worldwide, 3 billion people --- nearly half the world's population --- live on less than two dollars a day, including almost 80% of Indians and, most assuredly, 100% of people living in the Dharavi slums.
It's not that rich privileged folks seeing poverty first-hand is a bad thing. It's vital that everyone from titans of industry to those of us privileged enough to have a home and running water understand the true depths of poverty that exist on our planet, in our own backyards and on the other side of the globe. Yet, when day-to-day, the privileged are so removed from the poor that we need tour guides and travel itineraries in order to actually witness what poverty is, there is something to be said for just how extreme inequality has become.
Consider the recently opened Liberty Hotel in Boston, fashioned by remodeling a former prison. With more than 1 in 100 Americans behind bars, there's something sick about people paying $319 and up a night for "lockdown" in a prison-turned-luxury-hotel. Can you imagine young African American men -- 1 in 30 of whom are incarcerated, and all of whom face the ever-present threat of incarceration through racial profiling -- finding it "vacation-like" to spend a night in the prison-hotel, even if they could afford it? That those who can afford a $319-a-night hotel room at the Liberty find it novel reveals how insulated they are from the nowhere-near-novel reality of prison in the lives of many, especially poor communities of color.
Then again, maybe I'm being too -- oh, I don't know -- moral. Perhaps poverty tourism and prison-chic simply reflects pragmatic, economic opportunism. After all, we've build a society and an economy in the United States where extreme greed is rewarded and, in fact, reinforced. The resulting poverty and suffering at the bottom is not only accepted but, by growing prison construction and cutting domestic social service programs and foreign aid, sustained. So, in the otherwise-collapsing US economy, poverty may be just the growth industry we need! Better yet, we should continue to slash public benefit programs and programs that help the poor, to open up new economic "horizons".
With that in mind, knowing that the chieftans of exploitation are always looking for the next big thing, here are some other "poorism" suggestions:
* Inside an ICE raid -- Be there as armed agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency storm the home of a Mexican-American family at midnight, tear an undocumented immigrant mother away from her citizen children and partner, lock her up in prison and send her back to Mexico to never see her family again
* Waterboarding 101 -- Learn what all the fuss is about when you get waterboarded for hours on end until you finally confess to something and are then detained indefinitely without access to a lawyer or any communication with your family
* Oh no, HMO! -- Watch as a middle class family takes their sick child to the doctor only to learn that their health insurance won't cover the life-saving medicine their child needs, then in a real nail-biter, watch as both parents take second jobs and wonder: Will it be enough?
* Human Wrongs Around the World -- Travel on a secret CIA extradition flight with stops in Pakistan, Columbia and all the countries where your tax dollars are funding dictatorships and human rights abuses.
I suppose if you can't beat inequality, profit from it. That's the American way, right? Land of opportunity (though some exclusions apply). We could choose to distribute resources and opportunity fairly to everyone, create pathways to education instead of prison and poverty, and re-build an America where we put the common good and common needs ahead of selfishness and exploitation.
Or we could continue to allow those who've risen to the top to systematically kick away the ladder of opportunity for everyone else.
And then sell tickets and call it tourism.
Sally Kohn is the Director of the Movement Vision Lab at the Center for Community Change.