Do wealthy people have different values to those with less money?
IN AN ARTICLE FOR Esquire magazine in 1961 the great African-American novelist James Baldwin wrote: “Money, it turned out, was exactly like sex; you thought of nothing else if you didn’t have it and thought of other things if you did.”
Another American – the humorist Bill Vaughan – advised that, while money won’t buy happiness, “it will pay the salaries of a large research staff to study the problem”.
This is what happened recently at the Pew Foundation’s Research Centre in Washington, where data on 13 middle income countries – including South Africa – gleaned in the centre’s 2007 “Global attitudes” project was examined to discover if people with more money do in fact have different values than those with less.
The global middle class was determined to be those with an income in 2007 buying power of around R45 000/year. A stricter definition of the global middle class is those with incomes between R40 000 and R170 000/year but in the 13-country sample the numbers in the group weren’t statistically significant.
Thus, in Vaughan’s words, Pew’s “large research staff” looked into those countries where the middle class was more modestly calculated. It was deduced that, compared with poorer people in emerging countries, “members of the middle class assign more importance to democratic institutions and individual liberties, consider religion less central to their lives, hold more liberal social values and express more concern about the environment”.
And, it appears, being better off does correlate with being happier. “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. So it’s not too surprising that members of the global middle class tend to be more satisfied with their lives.”
As is shown in the chart, of those in the middle class in the 13 countries surveyed, the lower income group has 31% of its members stating they currently are satisfied with their lives, while of the middle class 50% claim that. Further, that 50% turns into 71% who expect to be better off five years hence.
Honest elections between at least two parties are important to 59% of SA’s middle class but to only 49% of those in lower income groups. Likewise, in “Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, 74% of middle class respondents said such elections were 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”.
Given current misgivings about the ANC’s commitment to an independent judiciary it’s interesting to note no less than 68% of South Africans in the middle income group believe an impartial judicial system is very important, whereas only 50% of those with lower incomes agreed with that proposition.
When it comes to ranking their lifestyles in terms of a “ladder of life” – where zero represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life – “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 to 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.”
India was an interesting study in this exercise – given, for example, that both middle class and the poor believed equally ( just more than 50%) that honest, multiparty elections were important.
Lastly, the crucial issue of equality before the law revealed a rather discouraging picture for SA, where 68% of its middle class and only 50% of its poor believed that to be important, while in, for example, Egypt the figure was a stunning 88% for both groups.