The Poverty Politics of the Middle Classes

The Poverty Politics of the Middle Classes

Commentary by Victoria Lawson, Asuncion St. Clair and Hårvard Haarstad on an article in "Bistandsaktuelt", No. 4, May 2010

May 2010

Rather than congratulate ourselves on an increasing “global middle class", we need to see whether, when and how middle classes may or may not align themselves with poor people and anti-poverty social agendas and policies. 

By Victoria Lawson (University Of Washington and WUN Poverty Group), Asuncion Lera St. Clair (CROP-ISSC/UiB and WUN Poverty Group), and Håvard Haarstad (UiB)

                                                               Hatred of the poor is fuelled by the middle class's fear of falling during hard times (Wray 2010)

In an interview with Bistandsaktuelt (no 4, May 2010) Norwegian Minister of Development and the Environment, Erik Solheim, argues that the traditional focus of development on the poor is not enough, we must, he claims, “support the middles classes. More economic growth is fundamental, he argues, and history teaches us the engines of growth are the middle classes.

We agree with Solheim's call for a focus on the middle classes, and welcome a shift in development politics away from a sole focus on the poor. Experience tells us that poverty is most successfully eradicated and avoided under welfare state and others social arrangements that cut across classes. Middle class groups have played a historically important role in previous moments of crisis, supporting socially protective policies and poverty reduction in Western democratic states. They have been and still are key actors in articulating social and political agendas that are often inclusive of those above (elites) and those below (workers, vulnerable groups). Arguably, without middle class involvement in democratic governance and pressing for social provisions and entitlements, contemporary western societies and cultures would be unthinkable.

However, there are a number of critical issues that the article fails to raise. Middle classes can play a key role in poverty eradication, but that depends on a range of factors that are currently under threat. Because of the way “new middle classes" are emerging in Asia, and the way the “old middle classes" are pressured in the West, they may no longer play the same growth inducing and social cohesive role that they have played in the past. Most importantly, the focus should not be limited to the middle classes as engines of growth, but on an assessment of their own vulnerabilities and how this influences what types of poverty politics they support and what types of cross-class compromises and solidarities they create. In turn, the question is not whether development politics should focus on the poor or on the middle classes, but on social cohesion across classes.

The Middle Classes in Understandings of Poverty
As Solheim notes, within international development circles the dominant discourse has focused on the poor. In our view, this can be characterized as a 'poverty alleviation discourse' that targets the poor while ignoring the importance of alliances between the poor and non-poor that were so central to building social protections and nearly eradicating poverty in most rich countries. Embryonic attempts to build welfare state arrangements in countries in the South have often been strangled by external pressures to settle for a minimum of protection for the absolute poorest. The disconnect between a historical experience of cross-class compromise and solidarity in the West on the one hand and the focus on the poor as a separate target group in international development policy on the other is exemplified by distinct reactions to the current financial crisis. In the US and Europe the emphasis is on Keynesian-style stimulus spending benefiting the majority of citizens, whereas recommendations for the Global South prioritize fiscal discipline and targeted spending only on the extremely poor.  The latter, targeted approach divides social groups and works against broad social cohesion and support for inclusionary social policies. The missing middle classes in dominant understandings of poverty have blinded us to this double-standard between the US and Europe on one hand and the Global South on the other, and thus to social histories of inclusion rather than exclusion.  Further, this focus on the very poor ignores relations between poverty and inequality and to the structural conditions that cause and perpetuate poverty. 

The disappearing middle
In our view, middle class vulnerability is key to understanding the role that middle classes play in development and poverty politics. For contemporary middle class vulnerability, evidence is gloomy. There is a lot of talk about the millions of people being lifted into the middle classes in China and India, and the Bistandsaktuelt article also points to this as evidence of a “global middle class". But this is based on an income definition of 16 to 82 dollars per day, and most new members of this middle class are most likely at the bottom of that scale. It is doubtful that these relatively vulnerable middle class actors can be engines of growth and mobilize politically for socially cohesive policy. In both rich and middle income countries, economic growth coupled with deepening and sharp inequalities suggests that the middle classes are receding, creating what is referred to as the 'disappearing middle'. This shrinking of the middle is giving rise to the 'new poor'. Globalization also appears to weaken the national basis for social cohesion and directs middle class ambitions and identification outside of national borders, potentially weakening their willingness to develop solidarities and compromises with the poor in their own countries. Evidence from emerging economies suggests that the term “global middle class" hides the transitory and temporary nature of this middle position, threatened by constant vulnerabilities on one hand and for a few, just a step on the way to the ranks of a wealthy elite.  Global financial crises, share price bubbles, intense job losses, spiralling energy and food costs and defaults on housing and consumer debts has made middle classes more vulnerable and anxious across the globe.

A research agenda absent from the politics of development aid
These trends raise urgent questions about responses to, and involvements with poverty for those who are newly vulnerable. We have to understand how the breaking of national social bonds under globalization has impacted upon the willingness of middle classes to play a socially progressive role in their own countries. And we have to understand how middle class anxiety in the context of the financial crisis and rising inequalities affects the types of poverty politics and practices they support and mobilize. Questions that arise from this problematic and that require theoretical development and empirical research include; do middle class poverty politics change for those who become materially poor, but still identify as middle class? Where, through what mechanisms and under what circumstances do middle classes define themselves in opposition to, or in solidarity with the poor? What roles do middle class people play in blocking, initiating or catalyzing actions responding to or preventing poverty? And finally, a key problem that development research and policy will have to relate to, we suggest, is what happens to a world without a middle class to play a socially cohesive role.

Rather than congratulate ourselves on an increasing “global middle class", we need to see whether, when and how middle classes may or may not align themselves with poor people and anti-poverty social agendas and policies. Development is to a great extent dependent upon the middle classes, but the middle classes themselves are facing an uncertain and vulnerable future.

NOTE: Worldwide Universities Network Critical Global Poverty Studies Group (WUNCGPS) together with the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP), Poverty Research Programme of the International Social Science Council (ISSC), has launched a core project that investigates these questions across four countries, two advanced economies (the United States and Norway), and two middle income countries (Argentina and South Africa). These countries have diverse but substantial experiences on middle classes poverty politics. The ideas presented here are elaborated in an unpublished research project description, led by Victoria Lawson (University of Washington, Seattle) in cooperation with Haarstad and St. Clair, with the participation of a team of scholars from all the countries named and various members of CROP international and national committees such as Bob Deacon (Sheffield University, UK), Jean Comaroff (University of Chicago and University of Cape Town, South Africa); Tone Fløtten (FAFO) and Asuncion Lera St. Clair (UiB).


CROP News and Events

CROP-GRIP Newsletter 2019-2020

March 2020

This special issue newsletter is the final one for CROP and the first one for GRIP. It explains the transition process and provides an overview of CROP activities in 2019.

The Politics of Social Inclusion: From Knowledge to Action

15 November 2019 | UN Library, GENEVA

BOOK LAUNCH for forthcoming CROP/UNESCO publication (as part of UNRISD Seminar Series)

Putting Children First: New Frontiers in the Fight Against Child Poverty in Africa

18 October 2019 | Brighton, UK

BOOK LAUNCH and workshop at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in Brighton, UK

News from CROPNET