Your income determines your attitude, your values, your beliefs
India’s middle classes are estimated to be about 300m today, a figure expected to double in the coming decades. And along with the economic transition, what is also evident is a transition in value systems. We have always strongly suspected that people who are better off have more of a liberal attitude, or rather, they can afford to have it. This has been confirmed by research initiated by The Economist magazine. It asked the Pew Research Center to go through its past its Global Attitudes database to find out how true or false this assumption is.
Hundreds of people in 13 middle-income countries with large or growing middle classes were studied and the results showed that people’s attitudes towards religion, democracy, life satisfaction, homosexuality and the environment did vary according to the income segment they came from. The comparison was made between the middle classes and the poor, not with the rich, as the data on the rich was not considered statistically significant. Another anomaly is that in four countries (India, Brazil, South Africa and Venezuela) the samples were predominantly urban. This would certainly skew the results, but it is interesting nonetheless. It gives pointers to the differences in attitudes between the urban poor and the urban middle class.
The overall difference in attitudes over these income groups was not that dramatic though, as seen in the graph below:
Differences were mostly by an average of about 10 percentage points, but they were less pronounced in India and in some countries where the samples were predominantly urban. When it came to attitudes towards specific issues, the difference in attitude was considerably narrower when it came to attitudes towards democracy. It was found that large sections of the poor in all countries favoured democracy even though all did not live in democratic countries.
It was attitudes towards religion, homosexuality and environment that differed most significantly between the poor and the middle classes, with the better off being less religious, more concerned about their environment and less rigid about sexual mores.
Who are the middle class?
Those who earn approximately between Rs 200000/Rs 2 lakhs ($4,376) and Rs 1 million/Rs 10 lakhs ($ 21,882) per year are the middle class. This has been adjusted to the lower prices in India because this income does not constitute the middle class in the United States. The Pew research however took a more conservative estimate and their cut-off for the middle class was an annual earning power of 17000 US D = 8,47,450 Indian Rupees.
At the lower end, the middle class consists of youngsters just joining the job market, middle level executives to small businessmen. These people usually have food and shelter and also own many consumer durables, including a vehicle. However they live on a tight budget.
At the upper end of the middle class spectrum are those who own larger businesses, senior officials and well paid professionals. They can afford luxuries, regular vacations and almost invariably own a four-wheeler.
The poor fall into different groups as well. Households earning less than Rs 200,000/2 lakhs ($4,376) per year but more than 90,000 ($1,969) are considered the poor, but they are at the higher end of the poor spectrum. They comprise the small shopkeepers, farmers with small landholdings or semiskilled industrial and service workers. They lead a hard life but usually have enough food and might even own the inexpensive consumer durables, often bought second-hand. Most of their income is spent on necessities.
Those who earn below Rs 90,000 a year are considered the deprived ($1,969 per household, or about a dollar per person per day) and these include subsistence farmers, unskilled laborers who often struggle to find work. They used to comprise about 90 percent of the population about 25 years ago but today are just over 50 percent of the population. This percentage is still huge, but expected to steadily decrease over the coming decades.
So the comparison is basically between those who earn up to Rs 2 lakhs per annum and those who earn between Rs 2 lakhs and Rs 8 and a half lakhs. ($4,000 to 17,000).
In India we have been seeing many clashes the last several years between different groups, and the issues range from gay rights, freedom of speech, film censorship, the rights of women, right to go to pubs, and overall about individual freedom. There are those who intensely fight for the environment and there are large sections of the populace who remain indifferent. Partly, this is a class struggle, as shown in the differing views of income groups. What is interesting however is that the average attitude difference in India between the urban middle classes and the urban poor (as shown in the first graph) is not very significant. I wonder if it is this very thing which is disturbing to the extremist elements in both the poor and the middle classes.
(Graphs are from Pew Research and the dollar-rupee conversions are approximates)
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