Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 12/2011

Where Is the Virtue in the Middle Class?

Charles Kenny

November 2011

Center for Global Development


It is widely agreed by economists and political scientists that the middle class is vital to progress because of its many virtues: a commitment to work, education, and entrepreneurship alongside a desire to hold governments to account in delivering quality services. But it is difficult to define a middle class by income in a manner that doesn’t either include a lot of very poor people or suggest that most of the world’s countries have no middle class to speak of. Furthermore, survey evidence suggests the middle class is not culturally unique, particularly socially progressive, or entrepreneurial. Whether there is a middle class matters to development because inequality matters, as do changing attitudes toward education and the role of the state. But the idea that there is a virtuous middle which needs nurturing does not fit with the evidence. When the middle of the income distribution sides with poor people in demanding equitable access to quality government services (instead of siding with the wealthy for small government and unequal access), pro-poor policies are far more likely to emerge. But this necessary role should not be confused with virtue.