Central Data Catalog

Citation Information

Type Report
Title Vulnerability and the middle class in South Africa
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2016
URL http://www.nids.uct.ac.za/images/papers/2016_15_NIDSW4.pdf
Apartheid imposed a rigid racialised system of unequal resource distribution on South African society,
resulting in one of the highest rates of inequality in the world. Since apartheid ended in 1994, this
aggregate income inequality has not improved. The persistence of extraordinarily high levels of
poverty and inequality makes the definition and measurement of the ‘middle class’ particularly
challenging. A review of previous work on the middle class, both in South Africa and in other
developing countries, illustrates the difficulty of addressing this challenge. Recent research showing
growth in the South African middle class often classifies as ‘middle class’ households which either fall
below the basic‐needs poverty line or are vulnerable to poverty. This notion of economic insecurity
conflicts with the sociological understanding of the middle class as an ‘empowered’ class.
In this paper, we attempt to develop a conceptually and empirically rigorous approach to defining and
measuring the middle class in South Africa. Arguing that the notion of ‘empowerment’ is central to
the social and political meanings of ‘middle class’, we propose an empirical strategy that uses
(in)vulnerability to poverty asthe key criterion defining middle classstatus. Using the panel dimension
of the nationally representative National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS), we present a probability
model that predicts the risk of staying in or falling into poverty over a six‐year time frame, depending
on a broad array of initial household conditions and resources. We select the expenditure level
associated with a maximum risk to poverty of 10 percent as the lower bound of the middle class and
the expenditure level associated with effective invulnerability to poverty as the upper bound. This
gives us a monthly per capita expenditure range of R3,104 to R10,387 (January 2015 prices). Using
these thresholds, we find that the middle class in South Africa is smaller than previous research has
suggested (with a population share of about 13.5 percent in 2014), and has grown sluggishly since
1993. Despite this, there has been considerable demographic transformation within the middle class,
with Africans now outnumbering whites by a significant margin.  

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