What are the characteristics of the poor, middle class, and wealthy?

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There are a whole slew of ways to define if someone is poor, middle class, or wealthy.  The following chart is one of the most helpful resources I have encountered because it holistically deals with many different characteristics between the poor, middle class, and wealthy.  How do the middle class characteristics compare with your own?  Do you related to the characteristics of the poor?

The following chart is from Chapter Three “Hidden Rules Among Classes” in A Framework: Understanding and Working With Students and Adults from Poverty

Poverty Middle Class Wealthy
Possessions People Things One of a kind objects
Money To be used, spent To be managed To be conserved, invested
Food “Did you have enough?” (Quantity) “Did you like it?” (Quality) “Was it presented well” (Presentation)
Clothing Valued for individual style and expression of personality Valued for quality and acceptance. Label Important. Valued for artistic sense and expression. Designer important
Time Present most important. Decisions made for moment for survival. Future important. Decisions made against future ramifications. Traditions and past important. Decisions made based on decorum.
Social Emphasis Social of inclusion of people they like. Emphasis on self-governance and self-sufficiency. Emphasis on social exclusion.
Language Language is about survival. Language is about negotiation. Language is about connections.
Family Structure Tends to be matriarchal. Tends to be patriarchal. Depends on who has the money.
World View See the world in terms of the local setting. Sees the world in terms of the national setting. See the world in terms of an international view.
Driving Force Survival, relationships and entertainment. Work and achievement Financial, political, and social connections

Middle Class Characteristics & Characteristics of the Poor: My Thoughts

Having worked now for over three years in a third world context I can say Amen to all of the items listed in the poverty category.  The list of characteristics of the poor is indicative of the situation here in Papua New Guinea.

Having grown up in a middle class home I can say that the list certainly describes my experiences.

The wealthy list was actually surprising to me because of the number of categories that actually applied to me.  Specifically that money is to be invested and the ability to view the world in terms of an international view. 

What if Work Ethic Were Added to the List?

I think if work ethic were added to the list most would say the poor are lazy.  The middle class work hard. The wealthy work very hard or are lazy and lucky (depending on how they obtained their wealth).  I cannot comment on the accuracy of this statement in a North American context; however, in terms of the world’s poor it is not laziness that causes poverty.  It is instead a lack of opportunity.  A lack of availability.  In a country with a limited number of good paying jobs, only the top few percent have the opportunity to apply their education to an income generating employment.  Imagine where you would be if there were a limited number of jobs available?  Personally I credit my current financial situation to a lot of things outside of my self – parents’ example, academic opportunities, and an affluent culture.  These are things most of the poor do not have the blessing to enjoy. 

Is there a solution?

Unfortunately, many think the ultimate goal is for there to be a migration to the right column.  Honestly, I think that kind of thinking is a form of idolatry, even with the best intentions.  It is idolatry because it shows that we think mammon is the solution.  Would the lives of the poor be better if they all migrated to the middle class category?  Would they not just encounter a unique set of issues and frustrations?

In an 1989 interview with Mother Teresa (full text appears in The National Catholic Register)  Edward W. Desmond (of Time Magazine) asked “Is materialism in the West an equally [referring to previous question about abortion] serious problem?”  Mother Teresa responded by saying:

… Take our congregation for example, we have very little, so we have nothing to be preoccupied with.  The more you have, the more you are occupied, the less you give.  But the less you have the more free you are.  Poverty for us is a freedom.  It is not a mortification, a penance.  It is a joyful freedom.  There is no television here, no this, no that.  This is the only fan in the whole house.  It doesn’t matter how hot it is, and it is for the guests.  But we are perfectly happy. 

The Time interviewer followed up by asking “How then do you find rich people?”  She responded as follows:

I find the rich much poorer.  Sometimes they are more lonely inside.  They are never satisfied.  They always need something more.  I don’t say all of them are like that.  Everybody is not the same.  I find that poverty is hard to remove.  The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.

Personally it seems then the solution begins with one first step of understanding.  What has caused this burden?  What has caused this struggle?  What are the names of people afflicted by poverty?  From there we will have the resources to truly help the needy.

Photo by LizMarie.

What do you think about the chart?  Does it seem accurate based on your experiences?


  1. jarthurford says

    The chart rings true to me. I see myself in various categories, and perhaps wishing for some of the characteristics of the poor. Two observations. One of the signs of Jesus being the Messiah related to the gospel being preached to the poor. God’s heart goes out to the poor more than ours.
    Secondly, I think you essentially said this, but we need to realize that one of the things that happens is that the more to the right on that chart we find ourselves, the more choices we have. Often, I think we fail to realize how many of the choices we have in this life are related to our wealth. It covers almost every area of our lives. Where we live, what we eat, how we will spend, where, or if we will holiday, the medical care we will receive, and on and on it goes.

  2. says

    The chart rings true to me, too.

    I, too, find myself mostly in the middle class and wealthy categories. I find myself longing to be either poor or wealthy depending on the day. When I experience friendships with the poor, that’s what I want. When I experience some of the conflicts and struggles of the poor, I quickly decide I’d rather be wealthy or even middle class.

    I definitely want to be wealthy with regard to holidays and global view. Other than that, it’s hard for me to find attractive elements in middle class or wealthy, and yet that is what I am. Am I stuck or what?

    Yet, I don’t think being poor is all that it’s cracked up to be, mainly because I don’t know how to truly BE poor in the sense that Jesus would be. It seems wisdom and integrity and love are just as rare and wonderful in no matter which class you find it.

    And I think Mother Theresa is right.

  3. says


    Thanks for the thought provoking post. It means more coming from a person who has lived in and served in a third world country.

    I am curious about these classes…are these based on world comparisons, or does each culture have its own poor, middle class and wealthy. I am sure that a “poor” American is in the top echelon financially when compared with the world as a whole.

    I have been on many short term mission trips to poverty areas and I always come back with an amazement of how happy people can be who have very little stuff. Not only happy, but generous. Yet, as jarthurford pointed out, most of these people don’t have the choices we have. I hope I am learning to use my choices to prioritize my life, keep things simple and be generous.
    .-= Joe Plemon´s last blog ..Seasons of Life =-.

  4. Craig says

    @jarthurford – I completely agree that the more wealth we have the more choice we have. For example, when we have medical issues or complications we have the choice to go overseas to get medical attention. Many do not, simply because of money. Just like Paul says we should not use our freedom for self indulgence but for service I believe the same applies to our free choice and wealth.

    @ Jason – I think the life of the poor is both simpler and much more complex. I am thankful for every financial opportunity I have and don’t think I desire to be poor. Simplicity by choice is an appealing option for our family.

    Thanks for the comment.
    The book where this information was taken was specifically referring to American urban poor. However, I found the class distinctions to be just as true in my context here in Papua New Guinea.
    I think many people share your experiences regarding short term mission work. I do find it interesting (and I do the same thing) that we say money does not buy happiness and then are shocked when people without money are happy.
    Choice is a powerful advantage of the wealthy.
    I pray also that I am learning the same lessons about simplicity and generosity. In fact, I’m in the process of working on another book and those are a couple of the key tenants.

  5. says

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Having seen the poverty that has affected my own extended family, my aunt used to spend 8 hours a day peeling vegetables for $1.

    $1 in that local currency.

    Barely enough to even buy the couple of vegetables that she had spent hours peeling.

    But she did it. She did it, she worked for $1 a day, because she had to, as there weren’t any jobs available and she had no education or proper skills to help her succeed.

    Luckily, she had other siblings who were better off, and sent money to their mother and other siblings who lived at home, to help them out.

  6. Joel L. says

    The chart rings true for me as well. My issue: financially speaking, I’m at the poverty level but I retain and hold to the values of the middle and upper classes. Perhaps it’s time for someone to humble themselves and start letting go of their (my) rich values.

  7. Ted says

    It astonishes me how many get the social-economic and psycho-demographics of the truly rich so very wrong. It is no wonder to me that so many once great brands have gone under or near to doing so because of it.

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