Sunday, December 14, 2014

My life as a middle-class academic ... is one gross lie!

Back when I was a kid, I gathered from family conversations that my people in Pattamadai and Sengottai were rich.  Which confused me because I didn't see any evidence of that wealth.  At our home, heck, we didn't even have a fridge because we couldn't afford one.  The old beaten up car had already been sold and my father bicycled to the store even though he was a part of the upper management in the company town.  "Rich, my ass!" is what I would have said if I had known such language back then ;)

I suppose they were framing it within the contexts of Sengottai and Pattamadai and Neyveli, while my yardstick was, well, my classmates and schoolmates, some of whom had cars and scooters and bikes and, yes, refrigerators.  "Rich" is a relative concept.

Poor and poverty is easy to define, but once past the abject poverty, are we poor or rich?  I, therefore, settled on identifying my family as "middle class." Sometimes I said "upper-middle class."  Of course, now I know better, but wisdom is always a day late!

Who might be the middle-class in India now?  A fairly straightforward question to ask, right?  The older I get, even simple questions become difficult, it feels like.
The rapid growth of the Indian economy over the past three decades has led to a substantial expansion of India’s “middle class”. This has triggered a robust debate over who in India actually belongs to the “middle class,” its size, composition, and political and social behaviour.
A "robust debate" means that this is no simple question.
But even if acceptable measures and hard data could be marshalled, they would still be ill-equipped to nail down a rather elusive concept: whether Indians actually believe and behave as if they are part of the middle class. Self-identification of class status is important because it suggests the possibility that Indians may behave in ways that are actually at odds with material realities.
To investigate this, the latest Lok survey asked respondents from across the country whether they considered their family to be a “middle class” family.
"the possibility that Indians may behave in ways that are actually at odds with material realities" is an interesting phrasing that immediately signals that there is something exciting coming.  So, what is that?
To our surprise, nearly half (49 per cent) of all survey respondents believed their family is a middle class family. There was, as one would expect, great variation in responses across states. For instance, while 68 per cent of respondents in Karnataka believed their family belonged to the middle class, just 29 per cent of respondents in Madhya Pradesh felt the same. Self-identification as middle class is expectedly more prevalent among urban respondents (56 per cent) but the share of rural individuals claiming to be middle class is also remarkably high (46 per cent).
It is a surprise because:
But the extent of “middle class” identification is striking, not simply because of its size or the fact that it seems to run counter to households’ own economic realities, but also because it appears to have powerful experiential effects on respondents’ social attitudes.
If only somebody would say all these in easy to understand words, right?  Here it is:
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.
That's right, folks--even those earning a buck-and-a-half a day identify themselves as middle class.

The economic well-being is a state of mind, once past that horrible, abject poverty.  You are as rich or as poor as you think you are.

Which is why we folks who are rich--yes, you and I are part of the global rich, despite what my "poor" socialist colleagues claim--feel like we are sliding down from the middle class.  After all, our frames of reference are, well, those Facebook and Wall Street people we read about, who earn gazillions.  The football coach at the university in the town where I live earns in a year twice the total amount that I hope I will be able to earn before I die!  Won't I feel poor then?  Am I not justified in thinking, believing, that I am slipping down to the category of low-income, after having lived a life of "upper-middle class?"  Woe is me!

If only!

I am one heck of a rich man.  My parents were right (dammit!)--my people were rich.  To think otherwise is the grossest of insults to the happy "middle class" that earns even as low as $1.50 a day.


Ramesh said...

Indeed, we are all incredibly rich. This is a theme you have visited before in your posts.

It is natural that a large number of people claim to be middle class. Unless you are super rich, you don't want to be called rich and unless you are dirt poor, you don't want to be called poor either. There is a comfort in being in the middle.

Poor and rich are indeed very relative terms. The context of time, geography and aspiration determines a feeling of poverty or affluence. That is why I do not have much sympathy for a fair number of your fellow countrymen who moan of being poor.

By the way, you would be far better off understanding the intricacies of football instead of prattling away on "inane" issues :) Start watching the telly , my friend (not Book TV), and learn to be a football coach. Hahahahaha

And if you are feeling nostalgic about your homeland, tune in every morning to Sony Six and watch the Trail Blazers doing rather well these days.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, a theme that I explore often from different angles ... it is that important a public policy issue ... The post after this is also about the middle-class ...

Last night, I wanted some kind of an intellectual engagement. My brain was craving for it. I turned the telly on ... of course, there was nothing even remotely resembling BookTV. Channel after channel was low quality programming pretending to be entertainment. Whatever happened to the long and rich culture of literature and debates and drama, Ramesh? How did India--and Tamil Nadu--slide down so easily?

I shut the idiot box off and played some bridge instead and went to sleep. Meanwhile, the football coach at the university collects huge bonuses that I cannot dream about. I am beginning to worry that I am a huge misfit in this world! ;)

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