Middle class attitudes and the politics of poverty reduction in India
He asks what makes the middle classes oppose or support initiatives intended to lift people out of poverty, and how the development community can secure their interest in and approval of such policies.
His findings are based on interviews with respondents living in the Indian state of Gujurat selected to be representative of gender, age, religion, caste, income and occupation. They were mostly urban dwellers and their circumstances fitted Varma's broad definition of the Indian middle class as encompassing 'anybody who has a home to live in and can afford three meals a day, and has access to public transport and schooling, with some disposable income to buy such basics as a fan or watch or cycle'.
Three broad themes emerged strongly from their responses. The vast majority said they believed that poverty was simply part of the natural order and would always exist, no matter how much effort was made to eradicate it. The widely held belief was that getting out of poverty depended on an individual's motivation and determination, rather than what help might be available to them.
Finally, it emerged that India's middle classes feel frozen out of the political process by:
- their perception that the country's elites focus on the poor, particularly during election campaigns, and do nothing for the middle classes;
- a sense of powerlessness in the face widespread corruption, and a perception that the political class is particularly corrupt;
- and a belief that the country is in reality run by large corporations rather than the government.
This study's findings reveal the complexity of the perceptions and beliefs of the middle classes. It suggests, for instance, that although donors and practitioners often assume that middle class disapproval of aid for the poor is based on self-interest – a fear that lifting others out of poverty will make their position more precarious, for instance – this is far from being the only driver of their opposition. Many respondents said they would happily support poverty alleviation policies that demanded some form of effort from recipients, such as sending their children to school to improve their chances of getting out of poverty, rather than making them work and contribute to the family budget.
The paper concludes that a political approach to policy design needs to be less institution-focused and to take public opinion into account.