Lisa Freitag says:

In the May 18 issue of TIME Magazine, I read an interview with the new Prime Minister of India, the man whom everyone thinks will succeed in changing that country for the better, Narendra Modi.

I don’t have anything against Modi, really. I know nothing about him except what was in that TIME interview, but I need nonetheless write a rant about something he said. I know that his words are, perhaps, not entirely his fault. He was merely living up to a common myth, the Great American Dream of lifting oneself out of poverty.

The quote is pretty benign, taken in that light. Modi grew up in a small town steeped in poverty, and for that reason he has been inspired to make a commitment to helping the poor. Modi says, “I was born in a poor family. I used to sell tea in a railway coach as a child. My mother used to wash utensils and do lowly household work in the houses of others to earn a livelihood.” This quote is important enough that Modi actually uses it twice in the interview.

We are supposed to be very proud of this great man who raised himself from humble beginnings to a position of power. We are perhaps supposed to believe that, since he comes from there, he understands poverty well enough that he is the perfect person to do something about it. After all, he found a way out for himself, so must see the way open to others. As a solution to poverty, however, becoming the Prime Minister of India or, indeed, the President of the United States, is not a terribly viable option. Of the hundreds of thousands of poor tea sellers, only one can become Prime Minister.

I predict that he will not succeed in making even a dent in poverty. The reason is buried in his twice-quoted statement about his poor mother. He sees poverty as shameful. Or, more accurately, he sees the work done by his impoverished mother as shameful. We are to be impressed with him, because he has risen above the shame of poverty and is now in a position to raise others as well. He no longer has to sell tea, and presumably she no longer has to earn money in any way she can. Yet he has, seemingly, not thought about the nature of the work his mother did.

What awful thing did his mother do to earn a livelihood? She washed utensils, clearly a horrifying task! One has to wonder if Modi loads his undoubtedly top-of-the-line dishwasher himself, or if he considers the person who does it for him better or worse than his mother. She also did “lowly household work in the houses of others,” another thing generally acknowledged as being “below” most other professions, if it is considered a profession at all. Yet, I rather doubt Modi cleans his own bathroom. I have no idea what he thinks about the person who does, but I suspect that he does not notice her at all. He may not even realize that she exists. He is probably unaware of the size of the pittance she is being paid by the people who hired her for the task. But I have no doubt that Modi’s bathroom needs just as much cleaning as anyone else’s.

My problem, I think, is the vast set of assumptions behind the identification of household work as “lowly.” Yes, cleaning is boring, and dirty, and often hard on the knees. Does this automatically make it lowly? Carpet laying and plumbing are also dirty and hard on the knees. These professions are certainly beneath the Prime Minister, but I doubt Modi would refer to any of his constituents as a lowly plumber. Perhaps most plumbers in India are men, and only the knee-destroying, low-paid work done by women is considered lowly? Perhaps fixing bathroom leaks in India is more necessary than cleaning toilets? Or perhaps plumbing is not so lowly because it is not so terribly badly paid?

It is worth thinking about whether housework is lowly because it is low-paid, or low-paid because it is lowly. I think both of these aspects are true, and circle each other in a downward spiral that serves to keep people, particularly women, in poverty. The spiral may have started with the invisibility of women’s work, creating the impression among the rich and powerful that the world just cleans up after itself. Modi does not have to ask who will do this lowly work, after he pulls everyone out of poverty alongside himself, because he does not know that it must be done. Yet the work of washing Modi’s dishes, and cleaning Modi’s bathroom, will continue to be absolutely necessary.

The problem, perhaps, is not with the work itself, but with the lack of notice, respect, and payment given to the people who do that work. Modi will not be able to do anything substantial about poverty until he is able to recognize as essential the “lowly” work that his mother did, and that someone else must now do in her stead. As long as the essential work of the world is held to be without value, there must be people who have no option other than to do it for almost nothing, and who thus will stay poor.

If Modi truly wishes to do something about poverty, he should start with noticing the importance of the work his mother did, and stop thinking of it as lowly. He must, of course, work toward raising wages, but I think he will not succeed unless he also begins promoting such work as honorable. Getting paid more to do the dirty work is not enough, if the people doing that work are still seen as shamefully dirtied by doing it. The “lowly” aspect of his mother’s cleaning the houses of others was not just that it was badly paid, but that her son believes that it was beneath his notice.