Two very different pictures emerge when one compares income changes of the relatively affluent ‘middle class’ with those of people in the literal middle of the income spectrum. In the affluent middle there has been significant racial transformation and growth of the ‘black middle class’. However, households in the actual middle of the income spectrum have experienced the lowest income growth of all groups since 1993. Both perspectives are crucial for the pursuit of an equitable path of development.
The middle class is a hot topic in media and policy circles. But how should the middle class be defined, particularly in a country with high levels of inequality? Individuals and households which fall in the actual middle of the income distribution in South Africa have a standard of living well below a ‘middle-class lifestyle’. Defining the middle class on the basis of the ‘actual middle’ versus ‘relative affluence’ provides vastly different pictures. This necessitates great care in using these conceptions, especially in policy design.