Who said money can't make you happy? Pew Research suggests the world's middle class is more satisfied with life than its lower classes, and is also more concerned with freedom of speech and religion. Poorer people are more concerned with freedom from want

Assuming the current reversal in fortune being suffered by the global economy doesn’t also result in a reversal in the flow of history, we can expect continued increases in the portion of the world population that can be reasonably classified as “middle-class.” And if the past is a guide, as economically developing countries grow more prosperous not only will their middle classes become more satisfied with their lives, but many of their basic values will become more like those of the publics of advanced nations. This will come as no surprise to social scientists who have argued for decades that development leads to changes in public attitudes and societal values. But the theory finds new support in a recent analysis of data from the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey by the Pew Research Center in partnership with The Economist magazine.1

Democratic Values Especially Strong Among Middle Class

For the last half century, social scientists have argued over whether economic development is linked to democracy. Many have reached pessimistic conclusions about the prospects in developing nations. In his 2003 book, The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria wrote about the world's growing number of "illiberal democracies;" journalist Robert Kaplan and others argue that premature elections often lead to widespread violence or authoritarianism. Others are more optimistic. In The Democracy Advantage, for example, Morton Halperin, Joseph Siegle and Michael Weinstein make the case that much of the previous work on development and democratization has underestimated the resilience of democracy in lower-income countries.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project has consistently found widespread support for democracy across regions and countries, regardless of a nation's wealth. Still, as this analysis shows, when compared with their poorer fellow citizens, members of the “global middle class” -- people in emerging nations whose household income can be considered at least "middle income" by international standards2 -- tend to express a somewhat more intense desire for democracy.

In the 13 nations studied, middle-class respondents are often more likely to say it is very important to live in a country with key institutional features of democracy, such as fair multiparty elections and a fair judiciary. For example, in the 2007 poll, eight-in-ten middle-class Chileans said living in a country with honest elections involving at least two political parties was very important to them, compared with about two-thirds (66%) of lower-income Chileans. In Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, 74% of middle-class respondents said such elections are very important, compared with 62% among lower-income respondents, many of whom have formed the base of political support for Chavez throughout his controversial tenure.

The same pattern holds true in the former Soviet Union. Roughly half (51%) of middle-class Russians considered honest, competitive elections very important, while just 37% of those with lower incomes held this view. In Ukraine -- where thousands took to the streets in 2004 to protest a national election widely seen as fraudulent -- a 12-point gap separated the views of income groups on the importance of fair elections (middle class -- 65% very important; lower income -- 53%).

The global middle class is also more likely to emphasize the importance of the fundamental rights enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: free speech, a free press and freedom of religion. Among Indians, for example, 63% of middle-class respondents said living in a country where you can say what you think and openly criticize the government is very important, compared with 52% of those with lower incomes.

On these questions about democracy, the gaps between the middle class and those with smaller incomes are not always large, but they are reasonably consistent -- and sometimes quite pronounced. For instance, six-in-ten middle-class Poles rated a free press very important, compared with 42% of their lower-income compatriots. More than two-thirds (68%) among the South African middle class said a fair judicial system is very important, but only half (50%) of those with lower incomes agreed.

The middle class is also different when it comes to the role of freedom in their own lives. When asked to choose which is most important to them personally, free speech, freedom of religion, freedom from hunger and poverty, or freedom from crime and violence -- essentially Franklin Roosevelt's "four freedoms" -- the global middle class was more likely than others to prioritize being able to speak freely in public. Lower-income respondents, on the other hand, were more likely to emphasize being free from hunger and poverty.

A Gap on Religion and Morality

While there is a gap between the global middle class and others on democracy issues, there is an even more consistent gap on issues tied to religion and morality. People in the global middle class are less likely to consider religion central to their own lives.

Previous Pew Global Attitudes research has shown a clear link between wealth and religiosity at the country level -- as a country's overall wealth increases, its level of religiosity generally declines. There are, however, some exceptions, most notably the United States, which is both a wealthy and a religious nation.3 What this new analysis illustrates is that within countries, wealthier individuals are often less religious.

This pattern is true across a number of countries and a variety of faiths. One-third of the middle class in predominantly Catholic Mexico said religion is very important to them, while about half (48%) of poorer Mexicans express this opinion. Similar gaps exist in largely Hindu India (middle class -- 60% very important; lower income -- 72%). In Malaysia, which is majority Muslim but has significant Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities, 60% of the middle class said religion is very important to them compared with 86% of those with lower incomes.

The global middle class is also less likely to believe faith is essential for morality. This pattern is especially strong in several of the predominantly Catholic nations in the analysis. Roughly six-in-ten (58%) middle-class Argentines, for example, said it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values, while just four-in-ten lower-income Argentines held this view. There are also double-digit gaps between the middle class and poorer respondents in the Latin American nations of Mexico and Venezuela, as well as in another largely Catholic nation, Poland.

Similar differences characterize views about homosexuality, especially in Eastern Europe. A clear majority (58%) of middle-class Poles said homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with just 41% of those with lower incomes. Half of middle-class Bulgarians believe it should be accepted, while only one-in-three (34%) expressed this view among lower-income respondents.

The Environment -- a Middle Class Priority

There is a less pronounced, but still notable, difference between the global middle class and others on environmental issues. Middle-class respondents in many countries are more likely to consider global warming a very serious problem; and they are more likely to say that pollution is a very big problem for their country.

Among Ukrainians, for instance, 69% of those in the middle class say global warming is a very serious problem, compared with just 54% of lower-income Ukrainians. In India, Argentina, and Bulgaria -- all countries where environmental concerns have surged in recent years -- similar gaps are seen between middle-class and less-affluent respondents.

Life Satisfaction

Nearly everywhere, wealthy people tend to be more satisfied with their lives. Life satisfaction tends to be higher in wealthy countries; and in developing countries, it tends to be higher among wealthy people.4 So it is not too surprising that members of the global middle class tend to be more satisfied with their lives.

Still, the gap is often striking. When asked to place themselves on a "ladder of life," where zero represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible, roughly half (49%) of the South African middle class rated their current life at least a seven, but only 24% of their poorer countrymen rated their lives as positively. Similarly, 52% of those in the Malaysian middle class placed themselves near the top rungs of the ladder (7-10), compared with just 30% of people earning less income. Overall, across the 13 nations, the median percentage rating their current life in the range of seven to 10 is 50% among the global middle class and just 31% among poorer respondents.

The middle class is also more likely to think their lives will warrant a high rating in the future – overall 71% expect their future lives to earn a 7-10 compared with 58% of less well-off respondents. In Bulgaria, the gap stretched to a yawning 34-percentage-points.

Where the Income Gap is Largest

The survey found interesting differences between the global middle class and others in all of the 13 countries in this study, but these gaps were especially consistent in a few places.

Notable differences were particularly common in Chile, Russia, Bulgaria and South Africa. Looking at the 16 measures analyzed, on 14 of those middle-class Chileans differed from lower income Chileans by at least five percentage points.

Differences were only slightly less common in Russia (13), Bulgaria (12) and South Africa (12).

Considerably fewer differences were seen in Egypt (7), Brazil (7), India (6), and Ukraine (5) -- four of the five poorest countries in the analysis.

Read the full report at pewglobal.org.

1. See the Economist's discussion of this analysis at www.economist.com.
2. Based on studies by the World Bank, we define the global middle class as people earning more than $4,286 per year in standardized international dollars. For more on this study's methodology, see the methods section in the full report.
3. For example see "Unfavorable Views of Jews and Muslims on the Increase in Europe," released Sept. 17, 2008 and "World Publics Welcome Global Trade -- But Not Immigration," released Oct. 4, 2007.
4. For more on the relationship between a country's wealth and its level of life satisfaction, see "A Rising Tide Lifts Mood in the Developing World," July 24, 2007.

Comments (7)

by Bruce Thorpe on March 06, 2009
Bruce Thorpe

I wonder if middle class, and income are the only variables or does education, especially functioning literacy, play a significant part in the practice of democracy.

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