An Egyptian garbage collector works in the impoverished Al-Zabbalin area in Al-Mukatam neighbourhood in the Egyptian capital Cairo.
An Egyptian garbage collector works in the impoverished Al-Zabbalin area in Al-Mukatam neighbourhood in the Egyptian capital Cairo. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: We're going to go back to the Middle East now and the regional part of this larger story. Behind the political protests of the past few weeks are some economic realities. High unemployment. Low wages. And widespread poverty. Yesterday on the broadcasr, Stephen Beard told us how the wealthy in countries like Egypt and Jordan have laid claim to virtually all the power and opportunity.

From Jordan today, Marketplace's Alisa Roth brings us the flip side of that story -- what happens to the very poor.

Alisa Roth: Siham Taher is showing me the long-handled squeegee she keeps in her kitchen. She needs it because the kitchen floods every time it rains. She and her family of seven live in this two-room concrete house in the outskirts of Zarqa, which is an industrial city about an hour north of Amman.

The rain comes through the space where the corrugated metal roof and the wall don't meet. The bathroom is a hole in the floor. Here in the bedroom she points out the crack in the ceiling. She's afraid it'll collapse on her children's heads some night.

Here in Jordan, as in Egypt and many other countries in the Middle East, there is a large gap between rich and poor. Here, families living below the poverty line, like Taher's, make up more than 13 percent of the population. And there's not much chance for them to escape.

Hani Hourani is director of the New Jordan Research Center, which is a think tank in Amman. He says there used to be more mobility in Jordan.

Hani Hourani: One day, it was happening that people coming from poor areas can achieve something by better chances in Jordan. Right now, these equal chances is not existing.

He says the disadvantages start early: There's a big difference in the quality of education in public and private schools. And the curricula need to be revamped completely, so that students get the kinds of skills they need to work in a global economy -- whether its training on computers or learning foreign languages.

As it is, the lower classes are essentially locked out of economic opportunities.

Hourani: This system is enabling the elites only and ignoring or isolating the majority of the people. In the long run, it will be a disaster for the country and for the stability.

Ahmed Hamdan directs an Islamic social center near the Taher family's house. The center provides all kinds of services for poor people in the area: Food, cash assistance, medical services and classes like this one, in religion, health and parenting.

Ahmed Hamdan speaking in Arabic

He says the families in his community know the importance of education. And some even manage to graduate from high school and go on to the university. But many others end up dropping out of secondary or even primary school. And many children born into poor families grow up to be poor themselves, because it's hard to break the cycle of poverty. It's nearly impossible for kids who start life in a poor family without connections to be accepted into the monied elite.

Look at a family like Taher's and it's easy to see why. Her husband has been unemployed for five years. She can't work because of an old injury. They depend on government aid and charity to live.

Siham Taher speaking in Arabic

She says her biggest hope is that one of her daughters, who got a scholarship to the university, will rescue them. But there are days when Taher can't scrounge the few dollars her daughter needs to get to school. And even if her daughter does manage to graduate, there's no guarantee she'll be able to find a job.

In Zarqa, Jordan, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.