The story of the middle class you’re never told
What is the picture that flashes through your mind when someone talks of social classes? A reader of The Guardian newspaper once made an interesting albeit highly generalised observation. "Upper class: your name on the building. Middle class: your name on your desk. Working class: your name on your uniform." The reality is not so simple, of course, nor is it my intention to delve into a lengthy study of class divisions. Suffice it to say that we all have some idea of what constitutes the social hierarchies. Rich or poor, we all seem to know our place.
Yet it is possible that we don't know or care enough to recognise that there exists a class of people that still remains outside the bounds of established class narratives. For lack of a better word, let's call them a hybrid group—they have the "appearance" of the middle class but face all the "realities" of the lower/working class. This ambiguous social identity makes them a class of their own, and extremely vulnerable at the same time.
This week, we got a glimpse into the complex make-up of their world through the story of Farid Ahmed, a resident of the Kashipur Union in Narayanganj Sadar Upazila. On May 19, Farid Ahmed called the government hotline 333 asking for food assistance. The hotline, as many will know, can be used to seek help in a variety of crisis situations, and the government has recently added food assistance for the poor to its list of services. So after Farid's call, the upazila administration responded and, the following day, arrived with help. Then, they came to know that Farid owned a four-storey house and also a hosiery factory. As punishment for his apparent deceit and "harassment" of government officials, UNO Arifa Zahura, who led the team carrying food supplies, directed Farid to arrange for food for 100 poor people. Under threat of imprisonment for three months, Farid obliged, and prepped Tk 65,000 worth of food packets—each containing 5 kg of rice, 1 kg of salt, potatoes, onions and oil—which the UNO later distributed.
This could have been the end of this story, and we all could have gone to bed with a little more proof of the decadence of the Bengali middle class. But, as it later transpired, Farid Ahmed, despite the appearance of a well-to-do person, is actually poor and deserved every bit of the help he sought. The house he was reported to be in possession of is inherited property which he shares with his seven siblings. It is not his to claim. He lives with his wife, two daughters and an intellectually challenged son in tin-shed rooms built on the roof. A sexagenarian stroke patient, Farid is the sole earning member of the family and works for a pittance in the hosiery factory he was falsely credited with owning. As if he wasn't already struggling enough, after the UNO's ordinance, he now had to mortgage his wife's jewellery and take out a high-interest loan to pay for the penalty.
The absurdity of the situation is hard to miss. Here was a man in need of urgent assistance. He and his family were most likely facing risks of starvation before his appeal for help, but far from getting it, they were humiliated and slapped with a punishment to feed a hundred others like them. Even if the monetary loss can be recovered after the local administration recompenses him, which hopefully they would, the loss of reputation this family has endured could hurt them for a lifetime. Who will they turn to now to address their very real threat of hunger?
In simple terms, this is a story of misidentification leading to punishment handed out by an overzealous executive officer of the state. Since the news went viral, many people have lambasted the said officer. They also criticised the rudimentary beneficiary identification mechanism of the social safety net programmes as well as the discretionary power exercised by state executives when confronting an alleged crime. All fair points. It also should be noted that a noble initiative by the state was undone by the inefficiency of certain state functionaries. A case can also be made of the poorly planned and communicated hotline food service that provides no guideline as to who will or will not qualify as beneficiaries, and nothing in the way of instructions to penalise potential wrongdoers.
But for me, beyond all this, this story also represents the ordeal facing the hybrid social group sitting awkwardly between the middle and lower classes in our society. Imagine the courage it must have taken a man of Farid's background—with a building carrying the family legacy—to reach out and ask for government assistance. These people have their sense of dignity but don't have the means to lead a respectable life any longer. They cannot seek aid as openly and readily as many others, and they are generally frowned upon when they do so. There is no government support package for them either. Evidently, lack of a home or flat or even desk is not the only measure of poverty. Clothes, on the other hand, can make the poor invisible too: in this day of RMG revolution, "it is much easier to be decently dressed than it is to be decently housed, fed, or doctored". So to really understand the plight of this group of people, you have to look past their attire and any remaining sign of affluence, and into their wallet which can uncover the real picture: their reduced food intake, dissaving and indebtedness.
In economic terms, there is a term that comes close to describing these people: "new poor". Before Covid-19, the official poverty rate in Bangladesh was 20.5 percent. There hasn't yet been a government survey on how many people have fallen below the poverty line during the pandemic. However, according to a survey by the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM), 42 percent of the population are now poor. According to another survey conducted by the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) and BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), some 24.5 million new people have become poor due to the effects of Covid-19. Clearly, a large segment of the middle class is filling up the ranks of the newly impoverished. Because of the pandemic, many have either lost their jobs or have had to contend with reduced salaries. Many relocated to cheaper housing establishments or their village homes permanently, failing to bear the expenses of a city life.
Unfortunately, across the policy and social circles, there seems to be an apathy born of a lack of understanding about the social fluidity and attendant complications facing the new poor. We remain generally indignant about the best-dressed but silently suffering poor. We find it hard to fathom the enormous amount of change that a sudden loss of income or status can bring into one's life. Just consider: how many times have you heard your friends and colleagues ridicule people's tendency to leave Dhaka during holidays? The poor and new poor, faced with the socioeconomic insecurities thrust upon them, are leaving the cities in search of a cheaper and more secure life in their villages. Many are leaving because holidays are the only time they get to see their loved ones, and because we, in our infinite wisdom, have made sure there is little income-generating activity for them during the holidays. Most of us only see defiance and lack of awareness in their actions. We ridicule without ever probing why they do what they do.
Can the poor and new poor be blamed for struggling to meet the increasingly high costs of living in Bangladesh? Is the government doing enough to ensure the newly poor are also brought into the social protection schemes? Are we doing enough to help address their sufferings? What about the psycho-social impacts of their transition from being once-affluent to now-poor? How is this affecting their choices, decisions and social realities?
There are many questions and few answers about the story of this largely invisible, little understood and almost muted newly-impoverished middle class. It surely deserves closer attention.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Email: [email protected]