The state of Kerala in southwest India is a socio-economic abberation: despite a per capita GDP of US$247, far below the world average, its 32 million people enjoy good health care, US-level birth rates, literacy rates and life expectancies. "Demographically, in other words," Bill McKibben wrote in 1998, "Kerala mirrors the United States on about one-seventieth the cash." Today its economy is hurting as its foreign remittances dwindle — Kerala is known for providing much of the now shrinking Middle Eastern migrant workforce. But the template for the state's strange demographics began long before, with Hindu rulers, missionaries and then leftist governments emphasizing widespread education and health care.
Though the state suffers from chronic (but decreasing) unemployment, the "Kerala model" breaks the stereotype of the third world, with lessons for the First World. "Kerala implies that there is a point where rich and poor might meet and share a decent life," notes McKibben, "and surely it offers new data for a critical question of our age: How much is enough?" Redefining what it means to be well off, Kerala's rough template is one from which we might all learn.