It has long been a policy goal of developed countries to become "slum-free." In fact, the town-planning movement in the U.K. was born out of the desire to combat the severe public health problems caused by the densely-packed slum communities that grew up around centers of industry as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

However, with alarming levels of inequality emerging in the U.S., people are starting to ask whether slums are still a phenomenon confined to the developing world, or whether they are also a cancer within?

What is a slum?

The definition of a "slum" is a matter up for debate. One offered by the United Nations considers a slum-dweller as exhibiting one or more of the following attributes:

  • insecurity of tenure
  • low structural quality of dwelling
  • poor access to safe water
  • poor access to sanitation facilities
  • insufficient living space

While settlements in the U.S. are undoubtedly of a more formal character than those cities of the Global South we associate with the "slum" stereotype, a recent report argues that several of the problems outlined above are very much a part of the story of urban settlements in the U.S.

The Alston report

In December, Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on poverty and human rights, set out on a two-week tour of the U.S. The report he produced made for uncomfortable reading.

Alston concluded that despite the U.S. being one of the most powerful countries in the world, "neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40m people continue to live in poverty."

We are not used to hearing of UN-sponsored debates on water and sanitation being targeted at places like Alabama and Virginia rather than cities like Rio de Janeiro or Addis Abbaba. It is certainly jolting to hear these concerns closer to home.

The making of a slum

Let's turn back to the attributes the UN believes makes a slum a slum.

Across the Global South, sprawling slums form when families illegally occupy land and construct houses without any documentation to show for it — the relatively robust legal system in the U.S. means that such pure informality is rare. However, Harvard's Matthew Desmond reveals in his 2016 book "Evicted" the hidden story of widespread housing insecurity in the country, mainly among private renters known to spend as much as 70-80 percent of their income on housing.

Thanks to building regulations, the structural quality of buildings is also not comparable to the shacks found in slums in the developing world. However, the growing (and distinctly American) trailer park phenomenon, boosted by the nation's housing crisis, results in thousands living without hot water and among burning trash heaps.

Many trailer parks are reportedly illegal, and the fact that trailers (like cars) lose rather than gain value after purchase makes it difficult for owners to build the equity to purchase more secure accommodation.

The Alston report in particular raises shocking concerns about access to safe water and sanitation highlighting that the U.S. ranks 36th globally for access to water and sanitation. Alarmingly, hookworm (a 19th-century disease long thought eradicated in the U.S.) is returning to communities in Alabama due to falling standards in sanitation.

Guns and opioids

Beyond the technical definitions, slums in the popular imagination are widely associated with the dual blights of crime and drugs — spurred by films such as "City of God," set in the slums of Rio. Despite falling overall crime rates in the U.S., the residual crime is becoming concentrated in pockets such as St. Louis, where residents stand a 1 in 55 chance of being a victim of violent crime.

Similarly, recent revelations about the scale of the U.S. opioid crisis, where addiction to prescription drugs such as OxyContin combines with high poverty rates to create and embed a complex drug culture that changes the face of small towns like Huntington, West Virginia.

This is a phenomenon associated more with small towns than densely-packed cities, reminding us of how the traditional association between slums and cities is breaking down with the suburbanization of poverty a trend the U.S. shares with many cities of the developing world. Finally, the toxic affinity between slums and loan sharks is another feature the U.S. shares with developing countries, exacerbating poverty cycles in both.

Behind closed doors

We often use our visual senses to determine what intuitively constitutes a slum. Indeed, a trip to the "charred carcasses" of Detroit's Highland Park leave little room for doubt that America is home to slums, even judging by sight alone. However, Pushpa Arabindoo's description of the "marginal and precarious lives" lived behind closed doors by those in the slums of France may be a better place to start.

She also argues for a rethink of the binary divide between the "precarious urban worlds" of the Global North and the Global South. It would be unfair to include communities in the U.S. in the same bracket as the mega-slums of places like Manila or Mumbai. But more reflection on the overlap is important.

This is particularly important because while slum-dwellers in the developing world are often praised for their heroic powers of survival, low-income Americans trapped in a shabby trailer park for years are more likely to be seen as having made "bad choices."

The reality is that the divide may not be as distinct as we like to think.