Middle Income Growth and Development: Social and Political Implications of the Developing World’s ‘New Middle Classes' (MID-DEV)
We are witnessing dramatic transformations in the income distributions of developing countries. By recent estimates the developing world’s share of individuals just above the absolute global poverty line of US$ 2/day has doubled since the early 1990s and now accounts for well over half of the population outside of industrialized economies (Sumner 2012, Kochhar 2015). Also more affluent middle classes have expanded rapidly over the past decades. While these groups still account for relatively small population shares within their societies, their absolute sizes begin to exceed those of middle classes in developed countries by some estimates (Kharas and Gertz 2010, Wilson 2013).
Despite wide attention in the public media and gray literature of aid agencies, the ‘new middle classes’ have received only little attention from political scientists and political sociologists. For instance, studies of democratization processes have often taken a longer-term view and do not yet take into account estimates of recent poverty trends and middle-income growth in developing regions (see for example, Boix 2011, Houle 2009, Kaufman 2009). Evidence about the ‘new middle classes’ also typically does not play a direct role in studies of conflict and political outcomes in developing regions with expanding lower middle income groups like sub-Saharan Africa (see e.g. Esteban et al. 2012, Michalopoulos and Papaioannou, 2014).
Our project aims to address these gaps in the literature at both cross-national and sub-national levels. At cross-national level we seek to understand how the presence of large populations who are upwardly mobile but often still live in relatively precarious circumstances affects socio-economic divides and political institutions. We are primarily interested in the situation in low and lower middle income countries, where observers have identified the highest risks of political instability associated with recent lower middle income growth (Birdsall 2015, Kochhar 2015). We also plan to explore other understudied correlates of lower middle income growth that have been identified as important drivers of political development in other contexts, including demographic change (Przeworski et al. 2000, Dyson 2015) and longer-run regime and social policy contexts (Haggard and Kaufmann 2008, Huber and Stephens 2012).
At sub-national level we seek to study how recent lower middle income growth has affected longer-term mobility trends and existing socio-economic divides within developing societies. We plan to focus on sub-Saharan Africa, where research into longer term mobility trends and the social and political contexts of recent middle class growth is still relatively underdeveloped. We have identified surveys and census data for several African countries, with information that will permit approximations of mobility trends over time. In this context, we will also study how lower middle income growth has affected inequalities across and within other socio-economic groupings which are often considered as ‘politically salient’ in African societies, such as ethnicity, religion, and urban rural status.
The research builds on previous theoretical and empirical work by the project’s main contributors (Wietzke, Frank-Borge and Andy Sumner. “The Developing World’s ‘New Middle Classes’: Implications for Political Research.” Perspectives on Politics, 16, no1 (2018):127-140.
- Andy Sumner (King's College London)