Sunday, 8 May 2011

Middle-class Africans

I'd been planning to write something this weekend about this report that suggests that 1-in-3 Africans is middle-class but Andy Sumner and Nancy Birdsall got there first and did a much better job than I would've.

I think this is important. Partly for the reasons the article highlights - because a catalytic class makes change - but also because there is a psychological difference between perceiving yourself (and your group) as poor and seeing yourselves as middle-class. There is a helplessness that comes with perceiving yourself as poor. A sense of being victims of a system far too big to fight. This starts to sound like blaming the poor for being poor at some point but that's not it.

There are people in South Africa who fit the middle-to-upper end of the absolute poverty range used in this study, who are professionals or civil servants, who own cars and houses, who are by far the top earners in their communities and who still consider themselves poor and disadvantaged. I'd love to see some research on what effect, if any, this has on their saving, investment and consumption patterns.

If the middle-class is important because they tend to save, start businesses, invest and hold government more accountable because they pay more taxes, what happens to the 'middle-class effect' when the people who should be the middle-class consider themselves poor and in need of government relief, and choose to invest in the informal sector because they don't think of themselves as wealthy enough to (have to) pay taxes? Also, what does this do to effective targeting and the possibility of reaching those who really are poor?

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