Poverty, Social Mobility, and the Middle Class: The Case of South Africa

Dr. Simone Schotte
2016 - 2018
GIGA Research Platform South Africa
Evangelisches Studienwerk e.V. (Villigst)
Cooperation partners

Prof. Murray Leibbrandt, Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU), University of Cape Town, South Africa

Jan Hofmeyr, Institute of Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa

Prof. Stephan Klasen, Chair of Development Economics, University of Göttingen, Germany



Research Questions

What makes you middle class? Is it your income, occupation, or education? Your family background or maybe the house and neighbourhood you live in? It is probably all of these things. All these factors matter, because they affect your feeling of economic security and self-sufficiency. Being middle class entails being free from poverty, which means being able to afford the basic things in life – not only today, but also tomorrow. Taking on this dynamic perspective, in this research project we investigate the main factors that can not only be associated with a non-poor standard of living, but also grant a minimum degree of economic stability and security in the context of today’s low- and middle-income countries. Using South Africa as a case study, we assess the sources of economic and social mobility that lift people sustainably out of poverty, and explore the main challenges that impede people from entering the ranks of the stable middle class. Furthermore, we explore the political thinking and engagement of the middle class and its role for democracy, accounting for potential heterogeneities arising from the unequal distribution of chances of upward and downward social mobility among individuals with similar current standards of living.

Contribution to International Research

The middle class has gained increasing popularity in explaining heterogeneous paths of development in the context of today’s low- and middle-income countries. Inherent to many of the expectations commonly placed on the middle class’s role in politics and economic development is an understanding of this class as an “empowered” and economically secure part of society. Nevertheless, standard approaches found in the economics literature to operationalise class concepts do not sufficiently account for this dynamic aspect that characterises a “stable” middle class. Addressing this shortcoming, the main argument this project aims to make is that class is insufficiently understood by a person’s current standard of living alone. Therefore, we propose a conceptual framework that takes the distribution of chances of upward and downward social mobility explicitly into consideration. We compare the proposed dynamic approach to those that have been suggested in the previous (economics) literature and illustrate the main messages that can be learnt from linking the demarcation of social strata to an in-depth analysis of mobility patterns.

Even though the focus of this project is on South Africa, we highlight a number of key messages that are considered relevant beyond the South African case and that may – to some extent – be generalizable to similar country contexts in the Global South. In doing so, the project attempts to add to a better understanding of what exactly constitutes middle-class status in the low- and middle-income country context and provide an indication of how these middle classes are expected to behave and act in the socio-economic as well as the political discourse and practice.

Research Design and Methods

The project includes both empirical investigations of the research questions set out above as well as collaborative networking activities among international researchers and practitioners working on related topics. In a first step, we aim to add clarity to the debate that is currently unfolding regarding the size, growth and purchasing power of South Africa’s middle class, by making two main contributions: First, we provide a structured overview of a wide array of definitions of the middle class that have been suggested in the economics literature, and assess their strengths and shortcomings with an application to South Africa. Second, moving beyond existing approaches, we suggest a framework of social stratification that links the demarcation of social strata to an in-depth analysis of poverty transitions, drawing on quantitative panel data. In a second step, this quantitative analysis is triangulated with evidence from qualitative interviews that we conducted, in collaboration with a local research team, between July and September 2017 in the township of Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Finally, we investigate the political economy of South Africa’s emerging middle class using opinion survey data.

Preliminary Results

This project is being realised in close cooperation with South African partners. Up to date, this collaboration has resulted in a number of joint research articles listed below. Together with our partners, we moreover organised an international workshop on inequality and middle class development in Africa that was held in Cape Town in 2016.

Summarising, four main messages emerge from the analysis conducted within this research project: First, the chosen indicator(s) of social class will certainly make a clear difference not only with respect to the estimated size and growth of the middle class, but especially with regard to its characteristics, needs, and relationship to other economic or political outcomes. Second, the notion of economic security and stability is central to the social and political meanings of being middle class. Approaches to conceptualizing and measuring social class should account for this notion and be capable of identifying a middle class that is free from concern about meeting basic needs – both statically and dynamically. The stable middle class that is identified using this stability criterion will generally be much smaller than approaches relying on less demanding criteria suggest. Third, if the growth of a stable middle class is a desired development outcome and focus of government policy, then an explicit focus on the stability and quality of employment is essential. Not only the lack of jobs, but also the prevalence of casual and precarious forms of work impede the development of a stable middle class. In this regard, policymakers will likely face an important trade-off between high market flexibility to foster job creation, and the creation of fewer, but better and more stable jobs. However, the creation of employment is not the only concern. People must also be capacitated to take on the jobs that are being created. In this regard, improvements in the quality of education as well as in the provision of infrastructure and transport (at accessible prices) are indispensable. Lastly, the middle class that is identified using standard economic approaches is not a homogenous political actor and will not unambiguously support democratic processes and institutions. Rather, even within the middle class, there is an important extent of heterogeneity in the political orientations and priorities of those who perceive themselves as winners or losers under the existing political system.

Research Team

Research Programme