The Capability Threshold: Re-Examining the Definition of the Middle Class in an Unequal Developing Country

Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers No.16/2015

21 Pages Posted: 28 May 2017

See all articles by Ronelle Burger

Ronelle Burger

Stellenbosch University

Camren McAravey

Stellenbosch University

Servaas van der Berg

Stellenbosch University

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: May 25, 2017

Abstract

In a polarised and highly unequal country such as South Africa, it is unlikely that a definition of the middle class that is based on an income threshold will adequately capture the political and social meanings of being middle class. We therefore propose a multi-dimensional definition, rooted in the ideas of empowerment and capability, and find that the ‘empowered middle class’ has expanded significantly since 1993 also across vulnerable subgroups such as blacks, female-headed households and rural inhabitants. It also is much larger than when measured in terms of income.

Differing trends between the middle class defined based on income and based on capabilities is attributed to improved capabilities have not been rewarded with a proportional increases in access to the labour market. It is disconcerting that links to the labour market improved only slightly and this is attributed to sluggish labour market growth and low quality of education.

We find that the middle class tend to have lower expectations around social mobility than the vulnerable. It is concerning that vulnerable individuals harbour unrealistically high expectations of the social mobility of the households and do not understand the determinants of social mobility and labour market prospects – possibly due to a mixture of heightened expectations following the political transition, but also the continued disconnection and marginalisation of vulnerable subpopulations from the mainstream economy.

Keywords: Middle class, Capability approach, development, South Africa

JEL Classification: I32, I38, N97, D31

Suggested Citation

Burger, Ronelle and McAravey, Camren and Van der Berg, Servaas, The Capability Threshold: Re-Examining the Definition of the Middle Class in an Unequal Developing Country (May 25, 2017). Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers No.16/2015. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2973746 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2973746

Ronelle Burger

Stellenbosch University ( email )

Private Bag X1
Matieland, 7602
South Africa

Camren McAravey

Stellenbosch University

Private Bag X1
Stellenbosch, 7602
South Africa

Servaas Van der Berg (Contact Author)

Stellenbosch University ( email )

Private Bag X1
Stellenbosch, Western Cape 7602
South Africa

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