“Poverty tourism” has several possible definitions: it could be the act of traveling to an impoverished area to see what it’s like for the people living in the poorest, most destitute conditions. Alternatively, poverty tourism is the act of “slumming it.” According to National Geographic, “‘Slumming’ was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1860s, meaning ‘to go into, or frequent, slums for discreditable purposes; to saunter about, with a suspicion, perhaps, of immoral pursuits.’”
People have been touring slums since the 1800s, when rich British tourists wanted to see what it was like in the saloons, brothels, and opium dens in the slums of New York City. The practice is still alive and well today. Poverty tourism often takes the form of guided tours; the tourist who wants to go slumming it, whatever their purpose may be, has to choose their own adventure.
There are plenty of opportunities for slumming it in the world. The UN reports that about 25 percent of global city-dwellers live in slums.
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The Tourist’s Intentions
Some poverty tourists who visit slums may have good intentions. The thinking is something to this effect: “If I can get a first-hand perspective of what it’s like to be poor here, I’ll be more compassionate and empathetic.” The tourist may already be a philanthropist seeking to inform their efforts with real world experience. Their intent is to get a more hands-on experience than a guided tour can provide.
The tourist who is slumming it may have other good intentions. They may want to see the world from a different perspective, or they may want to be better equipped first-hand to help unfortunate people. However, slumming it often has a sense of novelty and excitement — even danger — for the wealthy person bored of their first-world life.
The novelty and excitement factor is what the Oxford English Dictionary first noted. From the beginning, slumming it wasn’t about helping people; it was about hanging around in a slum for discreditable, immoral purposes. Slumming it is the root of poverty tourism. The original poverty tourists couldn’t help but get caught up in the vice and grime of the slums. The modern poverty tourist may have a different intent. But the question is, no matter the intent, does poverty tourism do more to enable the problems associated with poverty than it does to mitigate them?
How Poverty Tourism Misses the Mark
If the intent of poverty tourism is to help the poor, then the American tourist should start in their own city. In America, the Census Bureau’s poverty rate in 2017 was 12.3 percent, which equals about 39.7 million impoverished people, or one out of eight Americans living below the poverty line.
Yet some experts, such as economist Steven Pressman of Colorado State University, believe the US Census Bureau’s measure of poverty isn’t quite accurate. Pressman uses the Luxembourg Income Study, which adjusts for taxes, real world expenses, government benefits, median national income, and the incomes of other nations, to argue that the poverty rate is higher than 12.3 percent. According to the UN, America has the highest poverty rate of any developed nation. America’s extremely poor people might as well be living in a third-world, developing nation.
Many poor people in America and in developing nations don’t have a safety net — government or otherwise — which makes being poor a struggle, not a novelty. Poverty tourism fails to take this factor into account. Although a poverty tourist might be able to learn about the local lifestyle, and may spend money in local shops, poverty tourism is not as helpful as influencing government programs and providing upward mobility for poor people.
Slumming It Is Condescending — Even Harmful
A wealthy person who adopts aspects of a poor lifestyle, or visits the areas in which they live, is missing the reality of what it is to be extremely poor. To live in poverty is to have limited options and limited resources, which isn’t romantic or exciting. It can be deadly: a study found that the rich and poor have a huge mortality gap. For men, if you’re in the richest 1 percent, on average you live 14.6 years longer than the poorest 1 percent of men. The wealthiest women live 10.1 years longer than the poorest women.
Poverty also increases infant mortality rates. If you’re slumming it or going on a poverty tour, you don’t necessarily see what it’s like to not be able to afford medical care for your dying child.
“Slumming it” trivializes a life-and-death matter. Extremely poor people often have to work multiple jobs to afford to go to the doctor and take care of their kids. They make valiant efforts to rise above the extreme poverty line, and some succeed — but some don’t. Poverty tourism reduces these efforts and dehumanizes people by making them a spectacle. This, then, increases the social distance between rich and poor, the watcher and the watched.
The Biggest Problem with Poverty Tourism
If the tourist learns a great deal about the state of poverty in a country, state, or city, and it influences their voting decisions, philanthropy, and life choices, there may be a positive side to poverty tourism.
But the problem with poverty tourism is it thrives off of the spectacle of poverty, a shallow avatar that doesn’t present the whole picture. Tour companies don’t have an incentive to present slums as a sordid places that are the result of political choices. In a study of poverty tours in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, Melissa Nisbett found that “Slum tour[ing] depoliticizes poverty,” and, “Slum tour[ing] empowers white, wealthy westerners, rather than slum residents.”
Dharavi tour operators showcase the industrious nature of the denizens. According to Nisbett, Dharavi’s “poor sanitation, lack of clean water, squalid conditions and overcrowding are ignored and replaced by a vision of resourcefulness, hard work and diligence.” Tourists get a romanticized picture of poverty that doesn’t address why the slum exists in the first place.
Poverty Tourism in Pop Culture
Critics often call it “poverty porn.” Think back to all the movies you’ve seen that romanticize the lives of poor people. Flicks like, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Good Will Hunting, or Slumdog Millionaire. The latter won an Oscar for Best Picture, but critics such as the London Times’ Alice Miles initially called it poverty porn. The movie was met with protests in India. Arindam Chaudhuri, a film producer, claimed that Slumdog Millionaire characterizes India as “the accidental millionaire, which in fact happens to be a slumdog.”
In the movie, an extremely intelligent “slumdog” from India lives a life that coincidentally equips him with the answers to the questions on the Indian version of the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. To what extent does a movie like Slumdog Millionaire serve the same purpose as poverty tourism?
Such a movie can boost poverty tourism. HuffPost reported that “tours of Mumbai slums are experiencing a boon since Slumdog Millionaire won eight Academy Awards.” HuffPost’s Richard Chin argued that people should channel their poverty porn/poverty tourism interest into donations to nonprofits (like his) that seek to alleviate problems associated with poverty. But if you’re someone watching Slumdog Millionaire, which seems more exciting: writing a check to a nonprofit you’ve never heard of? Or visiting the slum so vividly depicted in the movie?
Therein lies the problem with poverty tourism and poverty porn: you can direct a tour or make a movie that makes light of poverty, but there’s no guarantee that such a project will help poor people. There are slum tour companies that use tourists’ money to help slum residents, but there are also companies that don’t. No one is regulating the slum tourism industry. If, for some reason, a tourist decides to take a poverty tour, they should be advised to research the tour company extensively and to think about whether or not there are better ways to help the impoverished.
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