Nov 18, 2018 Last Updated 12:17 PM, Nov 15, 2018

The new poor

Published: Sep 22, 2007

Where is the economic crisis striking hardest? Not at slum dwellers in the city centre, but at the once upwardly mobile on Jakarta's outskirts.

Lea Jellinek

Once, the kampung dwellers of central Jakarta felt there was no way to stop the destructive forces of local and international capital. During the 1980s and early 1990s, their main battle had been to protect their homes against demolition and their trade stalls from being carted away.

Today, those who survived at the city centre are the lucky ones.

City centre

An ironic consequence of the economic crisis is that it stopped the destruction of kampung houses and harassment of street traders in the city centre. Construction of the modern city is at a standstill.

As I wrote in Inside Indonesia once before (April-June 1996), Saman lost his kampung house in Central Jakarta when it was demolished for a five star hotel in 1991. He was forced to sleep on the table-top of a stall by the roadside. The compensation he received was only enough to pay for a small patch of land in his wife's home village of Cisauke, seventy kilometres from Jakarta.

His wife had previously sold their last remaining patch of wet rice land to build their city house. When the house was gone, she returned to live in the village, while Saman sought odd jobs doing car and other repairs for the people for whom he had formerly worked as a driver.

But since the economic crisis Saman has converted part of the land where the five star hotel was to be built into a market garden. He has harvested his first crop of corn. Within three months of planting, the banana trees have grown to the size of a man. What was a bare field has become a forest. He has built a shanty where his kampung house formerly stood.

His wife has returned to the city. There are no opportunities in the village. Through her network of contacts with wealthier people in the city she gained work as a washerwoman. She earns Rp 90,000 (US$9) per month plus three meals a day, making a total of about Rp 200,000 (US$ 20).


A very different story is emerging in the south of the city.

During the 'miracle' years, many people who had been pushed out of the city centre fled to Depok. With the compensation they received they bought land on the city's periphery, rebuilt their houses and grew new social ties. Thirty kilometres out of the city, some sought jobs in the new factories, offices and shopping centres being set up there. But most had to make the long trek back to the city centre. They spent up to four hours a day in traffic jams, and fifteen percent of their income on travel each day.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, these communities looked like boom towns. Houses, pathways, drains and roads were being built. Most of the new residents developed middle class aspirations. They bought consumer goods - side boards, couches, carpets, rice storage units, televisions, fans, motorbikes, mobile phones. They aspired to educate their children at university. Mothers stayed at home looking after children while fathers went to work.

Extended families gave way to nuclear families. Kinship and neighbourhood networks had broken down as families were forced to move from their village or from the city centre. Neighbours communicated less and less. Each family sat, alone in their homes, glued to the television screen. There was competition for who could acquire the most goods. People with less were shunned. Children constantly 'snacked' from mobile vendors who passed in front of their homes.

Suddenly the picture has changed. Men have lost their jobs. Newly established enterprises in the modern sector on the edges of the city have closed or are working at a fraction of their capacity. Wages have dropped or remain stagnant while prices have risen three fold. The price of rice in Jakarta ranges from Rp 2,500- 3,000 (US$ 0.25-0.30) per kg compared to Rp 1000 of only five months ago. The official poverty line is Rp 500,000 (US$ 50) per family per month. Most families' incomes range from Rp 100,000- 400,000 (US$ 10-40) per month. This has had repercussions right through the economy.

Small-scale industry, trade and services have been swamped by new entrants all battling for the same customers - customers who lack money. Estimates suggest that 60-70% of the middle to low income communities on the edges of Jakarta have suddenly fallen below the poverty line. Over the past twenty years, the edges of Jakarta were growing at the fastest rate of 10% per annum, and over half the city's population is concentrated in these areas.

Good solid houses, once stocked with consumer goods, are now empty. Most possessions have been sold. Women and their children no longer wear ear rings. All their jewelry has been sold. Mothers look forlorn and pale, and complain they cannot buy milk for their children. They are lucky to obtain a plate of rice each day. Children cry. No longer can they snack from traders. Two children fight over an empty sweet wrapper. Husbands leave the house. They have lost their jobs and cannot stand the emptiness of the house and the crying children.

Mothers are left to bear the burden of finding food for their families. Some turn to household trade but it is not easy. One woman with seven school age children was selling gado gado (spiced vegetables) in front of her house. It rained. Only one customer came to shop. Her food trade had to be eaten by her family or thrown away, and she had no capital for trade the next day. Her husband said he had left his job as a driver because his wage of Rp 174,000 per month was too low and could not support his family. But now he has nothing to do. He sits about the house and looks frustrated. So do his children who should be at school.

The situation appears to be even worse further out of the city, in areas like Cisauke. During the 1980s and 1990s, farmers sold off their small parcels of land to the rich of Jakarta. Sand mines and plantations replaced the small rice and vegetable farms. Farmers were left to seek a livelihood in the city, or to work for those who had bought their land.

With the economic crisis, little work is available in these areas, and people are silently starving. Every piece of vacant land is being used to grow root crops. In some villages, mice plagues have destroyed rice crops. Markets are far away and the price of rice is higher than in Jakarta. No non-government organisations (NGOs) or rich people provide assistance to these areas. The one government food assistance program to reach Cisauke provided inedible rice sweepings at Rp 1000 per kg.

In Tangerang, west of Jakarta, the factory workers are angry. Their wages do not cover a quarter of their daily food needs. If they try to complain, they are sacked. They face the dilemma of whether to stay in jobs which provide an inadequate income, or to leave and face the possibility of long term unemployment.

Employers are constantly trying to get their workers to resign rather than be sacked so that they can avoid severance pay. Once the workers are out of a job, they face another dilemma - to return to their home village or to remain in the city. Some have returned to their villages and become dependent on extended family. Others say there is nothing for them to do in the village. Their lands have been taken over by modern developments, rich landholders, factories, plantations, roads, golf courses and hotel resorts. They are embarrassed about losing their jobs and do not want to admit this to their families.


A year ago, rubbish recycling was reviled as the lowliest of occupations. Today, rubbish recyclers are seen as the survivors in a time of adversity. While the lower middle classes in Depok are unable to feed their children, rubbish recyclers are still able to feed themselves and save money to send back to their children in the village.

Their advantage is that they have a foot in the city and a foot in the village. Most rubbish recyclers earn where money is greatest and spend where it goes furthest. In the village, housing, water, fuel, education and health is much cheaper than in the city. Rubbish recyclers have always lived with low overhead costs - spending almost nothing on accommodation in the city. Their life has always been difficult and their housing primitive. Their children work from a young age. Unlike the Depok dwellers who invested in good houses and consumer goods on credit, rubbish recyclers never had such possibilities.

Only a year ago, street traders were viewed as a thing of the past in the city centre. The middle class patronised mega-malls, restaurants, bars, coffee shops and cafes. The street traders were chased away. Today the central city streets - Wahid Hasyim, Sabang, Tanah Abang, Senayan, Kebayoran, Merdeka Square, Senen - are lined with traders.

It is said that 'artists have descended onto the streets'. They have set up 'cafes' - stalls with elegant awnings, lanterns and table cloths - which compete with the more traditional traders. The middle classes who have lost their jobs in advertising agencies and mega-malls are copying the survival strategies of the poor.

Entire families - women, children, husbands - are going out to seek a living on the streets. Stalls which once used to support a nuclear family of five people now employ 15. Families borrow money from many different food stalls without each of the stall holders knowing about the family's numerous other debts.

Women who were housewives are turning to household trade, massage or domestic service. Children who went to school are baking corn on the sidewalks. Other children from still poorer families have become beggars, shoeshine boys, streets singers or prostitutes. Husbands who had regular jobs may be turning to crime to support their families. Vacant pieces of land in the city are being cultivated.

Cutting down on food is one of the best ways to economise. Old recipes from the Japanese time are being resuscitated. Instead of eating two or three meals of rice a day, many eat only one plate of rice. It can be cooked as a porridge so that it feeds more people.

Used rice is dried and recooking (Oyem/gogik). Root crops - formerly frowned upon as the poor man's diet - are eaten. They too are boiled up into a porridge to make them go further. New methods of reusing cooking oil are being developed. Some are eating roots and leaves not normally eaten. Families turn to kerosene instead of electricity or gas for cooking. People who cooked separately, cook together to save on fuel.

People are clustering together in denser accommodation. Whereas formerly they rented units separately, now friends and relatives move in together. Groups of young boys or students sleep side by side on the floor of a friend's home or in the mosque. They cut their hair short so they do not have to buy shampoo, and wash their clothes less frequently so they do not need soap. Others share toothbrushes, shirts, books and cigarettes. Some children take turns going to school - one sibling going on one day, the other the next - to save on transport costs. Children no longer buy books but gather around one book and study as a group. Children who once bought lunch and snacks at school, now carry whatever food they can find from home. The amounts that they have to spend - Rp 300-500 (US 3-5 cents) - only buys two sweets or a small cake, which leave them feeling hungry and unable to concentrate for most of the day. Some have shoes on their feet held together with elastic bands.

Neighbouring women gather together to dull the pain. 'Talking makes us forget about our empty stomachs. It helps to pass the time.' They talk and joke about their difficulties in a way they never did before. Previously they would have competed to show me what goods they had. Now they compete to prove that one is poorer than the next.

One jokes about how she has sold everything except herself. 'Saya tidak laku' (nobody would want to buy me). Everybody laughs. Laughter helps to alleviate the sense of loss and helplessness. They gather together to play badminton or volley ball to fill their empty days. They are turning to religion. Religious mentors advise 'to accept (nrimo) and not dwell on loss. Fighting the situation only causes illness'.

Help from relatives, neighbours and friends is one of the most important survival mechanisms. Those who have more help those who have less. Some of the middle class and rich are making contributions of rice to people who now cannot eat each day. The NGOs play a critical role in distributing these resources - collecting from the rich to give to the poor. But not enough of this is going on.

Most of the rich still pretend that Indonesia is not in crisis and are living life as usual - driving big cars, spoiling their children and going to mega-malls. The gap between those who have resources and those who do not is expanding. The rich are distancing themselves from the problem. The poor are getting more desperate. Crime is growing, and with it fear.

Lea Jellinek lectures at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of 'The wheel of fortune: the history of a poor community in Jakarta', 1990. This Jakarta visit was supported by AusAid for SMERU of the World Bank.

Inside Indonesia 57: Jan-Mar 1999

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