A new study has found that a fascinatingly high percentage of people in India consider their families middle class — including 46 percent of people living in cities on $1.50 per day or less.
The results show an extraordinary tendency for people to consider themselves middle class even if they are in fact very poor. The study defined the "lower" annual income bracket as those earning RS 36,000 per year or less, which works out to approximately $1.50 per day. And yet 46 percent of urban residents in that income bracket reported that their families were "middle class," as did 44 percent of those in rural areas.
While data for the number of Indians within this wage range is not immediately available, to give you a rough sense of the size of this group, the World Bank estimates that in 2011, 60.6 percent of Indians were living on less than $2 per day (adjusted for purchasing power parity). Based on census results from that year, that would be about 733,600,000 people.
Strikingly, more than half of urban Indians who had not finished high school also considered themselves middle class, as did 45 percent of rural respondents.
A measure of progress and opportunity, rather than status?
These results suggest that the term "middle class " is more meaningful to Indians as a measure of progress and opportunity than as a measure of current well-being.
Those who defined themselves as middle class scored high on measures of optimism: 72 percent believe that their children will be better off than them, 62 percent report that their household economic status is improving, and 64 percent believe that the country as a whole is improving. (The study's authors note that the causal relationship could also be the other way around: perhaps considering oneself middle class has an affect on social attitudes, rather than the other way around.)
The study also points at another intriguing possibility: that class may be beginning to replace caste in India. Although caste remains important in India, it no longer has the power that it once did. This data could be evidence that class markers are taking its place as a way to determine and measure social status. If true, then this study may be an early indicator that much greater social change is soon to follow.