“What role do ‘middle classes’ play in ending poverty, or do they, rather, perpetuate continuous impoverishment?”

Posted on: October 16th, 2012 by

 “How is poverty socially and racially constructed?”

“What are the processes that cause and reiterate persistent poverty on a global scale?”

Dr. Jutta Gutberlet, professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Victoria, draws on Victoria Lawson and the Middle Class Poverty Politics Research Group (MCPPRG) to discuss the role of the middle class in acting in alliance against poverty. In identifying the role of the middle class, she highlights the importance of deconstructing the structural reasons and motivations behind poverty generation and poverty maintenance.

The current structures of our society are built upon economic and political relations deeply entrenched in colonialism and capitalism. These systems create vast inequality and poverty that are perpetuated on a global scale.

Poverty is often framed by a “lack of income, as a consequence of specific class, gender, or racial relations… [or] hegemonically explained in terms of personal abilities, inappropriate behaviour or lack of entrepreneurial engagement.” These common perceptions and attitudes towards poverty are highly influenced by mainstream media and political discourse. Lawson challenges these definitions as they allow for the “measurement” of poverty by “statistics, categories and benchmarks used to indicate social change and progress.”

“Do these statistics and standards really tell us about the wellbeing of individuals or communities, and do they in fact help to deconstruct the structural reasons and motivations behind poverty generation and poverty maintenance?” (20).

Viewing poverty from an objectified and abstracted point of view has the potential to dehumanize and devalue the individuals who are living and experiencing the effects. What is the middle class’ role in this? Statistical measurements can lead to social categorizations that reproduce and reiterate stigma and inequality making “continuous exploitation possible” (20).  

The work of Lawson and the MCPPRG “focuses on the role of the middle class, and the mechanisms in place for acting in opposition to or in solidarity with the poor” (20).

Middle classes are known for playing a key role in capitalist markets, hegemonic political discourses, and neoliberal politics “based on unequal exchange, exploitation and resources extraction”.  Can a new rise in “middle class poverty” be the grounds for a middle class alliance against poverty?

Despite common depictions of the global South being more vulnerable, forces creating poverty and inequality are also present in the global North. Lawson highlights the vulnerability of middle class groups to economic downturns with examples from the economic crisis in Argentina (2001), Thailand (1997), the US and Canada (2008) and the 1994 transition to South Africa (22).

Neoliberal reforms under capitalist and economic systems” have led to expansion in the informal recycling sector in the global South and the global North, stimulating exploitation and exclusion in both regions (21). Individuals in well noted affluent North America and Western Europe also experience deepening social inequality and marginalization materializing in the “reliance on food banks, homelessness and living in crowded spaces, and or long-term unemployment and working full-time just for subsistence” (on Canada see Morissette & Zangh, 2006). Further, the expansion of capitalism in conjunction with colonialism has created both social and environmental poverty in the global South and global North as seen with US industrial decline and the expansion of Brazilian agro-businesses.
No matter the geographic location “no society is immune from the global consequences of capitalistic economic growth and accumulation” (21).

Racial capitalism” is also a central building block of poverty where, like in South Africa after the transition, “‘economic elites remain predominantly white and [black] Africans remain mostly poor”’ (citing MacDonald, 2006: 178) (21).

Our current systems, dangerously driven by capitalist and colonialist politics and economics, create vast inequality and poverty perpetuated on a global scale. With the rise of “persistent poverty” and a “disappearing middle” are collaboration and solidarity “necessary social traits in order to face ecological, social and economic threats…?(22)

Despite middle class alliances expanding in both the international and grassroots contexts, Gutberlet believes that “the voices and mobilizations of the underprivileged themselves are more capable of provoking long-term change for sustainable development” (23). The critical debate then, is whether middle cross-class alliances and networks can “disrupt social polarization and more effectively address poverty reduction…by provoking a necessary paradigm shift towards social inclusion, equity and justice” (23).


*This blog was based on:

Gutberlet, J. (2012). Middle Class Alliances to End Poverty? Commentary on Victoria Lawson with Middle Class Poverty Politics Research Group’s ‘Decentring poverty studies: middle class alliances and the social construction of poverty’. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 33(1), 20-24.


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