Poverty and the Middle Classes

By Atika Pasha

The second session of the working group on Multidimensional Poverty covered the topic of Poverty and the middle classes over a wide range of data and within-country comparisons. A prominent discussion point within the session was the broader outlines along which the middle class can and has been defined. While some definitions pertain to income and some to occupations, there are those that relate to more non-monetary variables of categorization, while some are based on an abstract idea or an altogether different notion of well-being. The recurring aspect within each presentations and paper was to describe the role of the middle class, by evaluating its nature in terms of its vulnerability to poverty, its involvement in the political machinations of the nation, the economic role it plays and the related social and cultural changes that might precede or be caused by it.


The first presentation, by Lukas Scholgl, was along the upcoming definition of the middle income classes on the basis of transportation assets. The “scooter class of Indonesia”, as he calls it, is that section of the population that could be classified as the imminent middle class in Indonesia. Different from the traditional western definition of middle class (not owning cars, not necessarily having tertiary education or sound housing structures for instance), he showed that the share of these households, which own a scooter, achieved a startling rise, versus those who walk (walking poor) or those who own one car (car class). From the following discussion it was made further clear that in defining the middle class of several countries, it may be easier to use assets or non-monetary measures of poverty (which are relatively insensitive to positive transitory income shocks and seems to have a more multidimensional way of registering social class differentiation).
Thereafter Meena Tiwari presented here paper dealing with the rising apathy in urban middle classes, wherein hers was a case study of Mumbai. The findings on this new Apathy Index, created using 56 variables, seem to indicate evidence of a rising sense of individualism within households, especially as they perform better on the HDI. Therefore, while they seem to be rising out of their circumstances of abject poverty, they are more nonchalant in their attitude towards other sense of injustices prevalent around them. They were however outliers to this general trend, and the reasoning behind this empathy or apathy was entirely contextual to the regions itself. However, the authors agreed that this was work in progress and their definition might be reflecting other latent components from their variables.
Luuk van Kempen followed with his presentation on the peace of mind narrative. He presented the hypothesis that the middle class might be categorized by those people who can enjoy a certain minimum level of peace of mind (and can indulge in forms of cultural capital) due to their job security, which consequently means that they have more room for other productive and constructive activities and thoughts. Within their structural model, they found evidence that education has impact on cultural capital investment as well, besides its direct link with employment and if income is measured relatively, it affects the sense of control that an individual feels in his life. The linkages here were often bought into question within the discussion, and the directional causality was also questioned, especially when one accounts for the difference in behaviour of people across countries and regions.
The next presentation from Jason Musyoka presented evidence on the income transfers that exist between the various household tiers within the South African black communities. The paper examined the role of outward income transfers from the newly ‘affluent’ families, to secondary (extended family) and tertiary (friends and neighbours) households, for subsistence living expenditures. The hypothesis here was that these transfers would be lead to a lower welfare state for these households (little p poverty) as one doesn’t have enough to progress own skills, and is unable to hold oneself in the middle class, and would subsequently lead them down the road of abject poverty. The justification for these decapacitating transfers is that black headed household are very strongly linked (payback from the previous times when secondary and tertiary households helped finance expenditure and living), as well as prevailing traditional pressure to help out. He did find evidence in the data that some secondary households lose all those transfers and pass it to other poor households.

Tim Stoffel, the last presenter for the session took up the example of Ghana and the vastly different and exaggerated estimates that arise due to the manifold definitions for the middleclass. Even when one has determined the indicators, whether to measure it in relative or absolute terms is something that is not constant across estimates. While he found the Multidimensional poverty index helpful in removing some of this research bias, he was not sure this was the way forward.

Overall, the predominant perception was that the definition and measurement are important in the case of middle class. The current understanding of class comes from Marx and Weber, but in each society, who the classes are, and what the resulting class conflict is, are questions with very ambivalent answers. In a very contextual sense, it makes sense to have occupation, but in a global sense it is more reliable to have assets. Simply put, despite an effort to outline clear definitions, one might still run into problems when comparing a middle class woman in Europe to one in Mexico.

Atika Pasha is a member of the Research Training Group 1723 ‘Globalization and Development’. She is a PhD candidate at the Georg-August-Universität in Goettingen.