Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Siberia’s Middle Class Increasingly Feels Itself to be the ‘New Poor,’ Sociologist Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 26 – While the poorest Russians have benefited somewhat from government programs over the last two years, a sociologist says, the middle class in Siberia in particular has suffered to the point that Russian scholars now classify it as “the new poor” and even speak about the disappearance of that group.
Before the current economic crisis, Nadezhda Vavilina, a sociologist who is a member of the Social Chamber, says, “the population of Russia consisted of an upper, middle and lower class, but now the situation has radically changed,” with the middle class more or less disappearing and Russian society divided between a small upper class and a larger lower one.
Because that expanded lower class now consists of significantly more people, she continues, sociologists divide it among “the poor” whose incomes have been below the minimum standard set by the government, “near poor” with slightly higher incomes, and “the new poor” who have seen their sense of security disappear (info.sibnet.ru/?id=282197).
During the crisis “and thanks to the social policy of the government,” Vavilina says, “the percent of ‘the poor’ has significantly declined.” In Novosibirsk oblast, for example, its share of the population has fallen from 18 to 16 percent. But the number of people “near poor” – those with incomes under twice the minimum standard has risen.
Those in the second group are not “poor” at least “according to official criteria, but they cannot allow themselves much” beyond the necessities, the sociologist continues, and over the last year, their share in the population in Novosibirsk has doubled and today “forms approximately 50 percent” of the total.
But despite their numbers, those “approaching poverty” do not “influence the situation in the country nearly as much as ‘the new poor’ – those whom we are accustomed to call the middle class.” Their incomes remain well above those of the poor and “near poor” groups, she says, but as a result of the crisis, “they have begun to consider themselves poor.”
Most of these people have not seen their incomes decline, she says, but they have lost confidence in the stability of their situation. “Now they understand,” Vavilina points out, “that everything can disappear in an instant, and they have begun to sharply reduce the level of their consumption, by selecting less expensive goods and services.”
If their incomes or even expectations decline further, she argues, then the Russian economy “may really stand at the edge of collapse,” because if the former middle class doesn’t buy, firms won’t pay taxes, and “the government will not be able to give the poor even that which it has promised them.”
The government has taken some steps in this direction, Vavilina notes, including programs to boost the purchase of Russian-made cars, but more needs to be done. Indeed, the Social Chamber member continues, Russia needs “consumer protectionism” in order to defend against new traumas.
But other experts point out that Moscow is severely limited in what it can do. Igor Lyakha, a psychologist at the Insight Clinic, argues that the middle class is quite prepared to defend its interests and will “support the policies of the powers that be only if the government does not change the rules of the game.”
And one of those rules is that if someone has the money, he should be able to spend it on whatever pleases him. Thus, when Moscow forgot that “rule” and imposed new import duties on foreign cars in order to boost domestic production, Russians and especially members of the middle class protested vigorously.
But Lyakha says that the sense that many members of the middle class have that they are “the new poor” is having a broader impact than even Vavilina suggests. That is because they “are not only changing the structure of their expenditures but, as a rule, being ‘influentials’ are having an impact on the preferences of those around them.”
Vavilina agrees that before the crisis, “the middle class not without success defended its interests, but over the last year,” she points out, “its activity has declined to almost nothing in all regions of the country,” including Siberia. Consequently, Lyakha may have too high expectations for the future.
Lyakha, however, responded that “in Siberia, the middle class always regardless of the crisis was a small, divided, and weak stratum of society.” But the two did agree that “this social group, whatever you call it, is rapidly losing its importance, and if the government is not focused on the middle class, there will be nothing between the lower and the higher classes.”

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