When I approached a community such as the one I work with - low income urban households, namely slum dwellers - much of my view of their wealth and their needs was coloured by how I expected poverty to look. It is only now, after more than a year of working intensively with the same community, that I am starting to understand their income and behaviour patterns.
Last year, if I saw a shirtless youth sitting under a tree by the side of an open sewer, listlessly playing cards with his mates during a hot afternoon, I'd instinctively think of that young man as being "unemployed" (or underemployed), "poor", and needing skill training or career counseling. This year, I know that the young man probably makes Rs. 5000 a month by working just a few nights a week at catering events (weddings mainly), gets free food along with cash in hand for each night's work, and thus gets the opportunity to spend lazy afternoons lounging with friends.
Wages for Educated Entry Level Workers - Community Viewpoints
Just yesterday, my project coordinator** told me of a discussion between him and a number of other community members who were primarily construction workers.
Here is what he said (paraphrased):
"I told the construction workers** that they were earning more but working less than I was. They work 25 days a month while I work 30; they make Rs. 300 a day while I make Rs. 200; this adds up to Rs. 7500 a month for them and often doesn't comprise a full day's work.
What does a college education give? After a college degree young kids are working for Rs. 4500 a month even in big companies. All that education and training doesn't even give you Rs. 7000...
So I told them that while they were earning more than me, they weren't saving enough... perhaps this is where an education would have helped them. Rather than spending on alcohol, they could save enough money every month to spend on important things for themselves, their families, and their homes. I told them they needed to learn to save, put money away systematically.
I told them that they could dress better....why can't they wear an ironed shirt and a pair of trousers? Why can't they dress respectably, in clean clothes, the way those who work at an office do? After all, they earn more than these office workers even without an education...".
** My project coordinator (who is also a leader in the slum community with which I work) has a college degree, and holds education in high regard. He spends a lot of time ensuring that his two sons get ample academic and extra curricular opportunities. His sons are bright and pick up new information very quickly; they are both enrolled in our after school program. His wife has also finished her schooling, and spends time helping the children with their homework.
Both parents are keen that their sons get the chance for higher education; my conversations with them give me the sense that they think of education as a means to acquire social privilege and a "better life". Like most members of the Indian middle class (or most members of the economically lower class who aspire to be middle class one day), they too accord educational pedigree a high degree of social respect.
**He is talking about 'skilled' construction workers for the most part, not the very base level 'labourers' (e.g. stone carriers/breakers) who make Rs. 150 a day on average).