Why the Middle Class Misunderstands Inequality

This year, Australia has endured yet another rise of racist public discourses about refugees taking away jobs from “Australians.” But given that refugees who resettle in Australia are, in fact, Australian, which Australians are being evoked in this argument and why? In May 2016, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said of refugees:

“For many people, they won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English, and this is a difficulty. These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that, and for many of them that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare and the rest of it.”

These comments are not factual – half of all refugees speak English and three quarters have at least a high school education. It is well documented that refugees and their children make a strong economic contribution to the Australian economy. Refugees do not ‘take jobs away’ from other Australians – this perception is founded in the historical racist rhetoric that underpinned Australia’s immigration policies since Federation. Refugees, especially the children of those from non-English speaking countries such as Viet Nam, are more socially mobile than third-generation Australians. That means that, even if their parents arrive in Australia as working class, the second-generation joins the middle class. But this does not push Anglo-Australians out of the middle class. So why this misinterpretation?

Australian sociologist Michael Pusey’s research on The Experience of Middle Australia finds that most people in Australia, whether they are lower, middle or upper class, perceived themselves to be ordinary or average middle class folk. They all perceived that wealth distribution in Australia is unfair, even though it is is relatively better than other societies. His research does not focus on race and ethnicity specifically; but if we look to other sociological work, first-generation migrants from non-English-speaking countries do not share this view. They see that Australian society is mostly egalitarian, even though they have experienced racism.

Economic sociologist Michael Gilding explains that middle class people feel uncertain about economic reform. They don’t really understand economics, perceiving things to be unfair but without adequate knowledge of how to critically assess the impact of policies on their lives.

Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz makes a similar argument, finding that Australia’s economy is relatively strong. He argues individuals have accepted the “doom and gloom” stories about national debt which spreads disenchantment and stops the nation from redirecting public spending to increase sustainable economic growth. That is, via public investment in education, technology and public infrastructure.

Similarly, in the USA, the proportion of Americans calling themselves “lower class” hit a 40 year high of 8.5% in the General Social Survey. Philip Cohen argues this isn’t just about the economic downturn. The official poverty rate in 2013 was the same as 1972, when only 4% of people said they were lower class. What’s changed in the perception of class and inequality during this period?

Percent of Americans describing themselves as "lower class." Via Family Inequality
Percent of Americans describing themselves as “lower class.” Via Family Inequality

The reality of class is that there is indeed an underclass that suffers, but this things are not as they seem to the middle class. Even if things the middle class perceives a loss in status, they have not actually dropped in substantive class position. These people are not locked into a system of structural inequality; whereas working class and poor people are tangibly affected by economic relations.

Two grandparents hold a babyMoreover, sociology shows that the middle class has strong inter-generational social capital, meaning that, even after a period of economic downturn, the subsequent generation of middle class will rebound. For example, a sociology study of 17,000 British people finds grandparents influence social mobility. Amongst the third-generation whose parents had experienced downward socioeconomic status, people with wealthier grandparents could still get ahead.

So: class benefits transfer from one generation to the next for longer-established families. White middle class people can continue to pass flow-on effects to their children and grandchildren. For refugees and other migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds, this generational social capital does not have the same stability. If any group should feel uneasy about their class position, it is not those of Anglo-Saxon heritage.

This post was first published on Google+.