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FactCheck: Do 70% of Irish people see themselves as middle class?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made the claim while speaking to Vincent Browne.

fact Source: TheJournal.ie

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR spoke to Vincent Browne for the penultimate episode of the veteran journalist’s eponymous TV3 show last week.

During the interview, Varadkar spoke about a range of issues but a comment about middle-class Ireland gained the most attention online and in commentary thereafter.

In an exchange with Browne in which Varadkar said that middle-class people were underrepresented, An Taoiseach said that:

Over 70% of people describe themselves as middle class and middle-Ireland is even broader than that.

Asked where he arrived at that figure, Varadkar said it was “a standard statistic if you ask people”.

An Taoiseach also claimed that other polls have shown that over 60% of people see themselves in his categorisation of “people who get up early in the morning”.

Given that Varadkar’s first claim has gained the greatest attention, we’re going to take a look at that one.

leo Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Tonight with Vincent Browne. Source: TV3 Player

The claim

Over 70% of Irish people see themselves as being middle class.

Firstly, although it is pretty clear, it must be pointed out that this FactCheck will not be dealing with the number of people who are actually middle class in this country.

It will also not be dealing with exactly what it means to be middle class. This division of society, and who exactly encompasses it, varies based on who you ask. 

In the US, it even varies state by state.

In the exchange between Browne and Varadkar, Browne argued that is was primarily decided by an individual’s income while Varadkar said it was about more than just income.

Even if it were about income alone, there is a debate about what would constitute someone on middle income.

Previously on TheJournal.ie, we looked at who represents the “middle” in Irish society and teased out that it can be advantageous for politicians to keep such definitions deliberately vague.

A paper jointly authored by academics from Queen’s University Belfast, UCD and the ESRI written in 2015 sought to look at the concept of a ‘squeezed middle’ in Irish society.

As part of their work, the authors categorised households based on income in 2011 and estimated that 53% of households were either ‘upper middle class’ or ‘middle income class’.

Again though, this is based solely on income.

But what of the claim itself?

FactCheck made a number of requests to the Department of An Taoiseach for a source or sources for Varadkar’s claim but did not receive a response.

Speaking to reporters however, An Taoiseach outlined who he was referring to and also spoke about the reaction to what he said:

A lot of people have identified with what I’ve said. Perhaps more so than the talking heads quite realise. I imagine at some point somebody will do an opinion poll and ask people whether or not they consider themselves to be middle-Ireland or middle class and I don’t think the figures will be that far off the kind of figures that I used – around 60 or 70%.

“I think what’s probably important to say – this is very much my own political philosophy. When I talk about middle-Ireland and middle class, I don’t think that is defined solely by your annual income and, in the conversation I had with Vincent Browne for example, he was very much trying to define middle class or middle-Ireland as income. I don’t think it’s just about your annual income.”

1/9/2009. Ali Comes To Ireland Measuring class is a controversial task. Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

It’s clear from Varadkar’s comments above that the Taoiseach feels being “middle class” is about more than just income. He describes this as being part of a personal “political philosophy”.

In addressing the 70% remark, however, Varadkar does not provide any source for this claim and instead suggests that he will be proven correct in a poll “at some point”.

It seems, therefore, from his comments that Varadkar did not have a specific source in mind for the claim.

He also seemed to row back on a hard number, saying the figure would be “around 60 or 70%”.

But what is out there? 

Polls in the past have demonstrated that the number of people who consider themselves middle class is often greater than those who are, based on income.

Only last month it was shown that 70% of Americans see themselves as middle class. This is despite the Pew Research Center estimating that about 50% of Americans actually are middle class when defined by income brackets.

Whether or not Varadkar took his figure from this survey is unclear, but it is striking that the number is exactly the same as the one he quoted to Browne in the interview.

Without an Irish version of the survey however, it is difficult to make a firm verdict on Varadkar’s claim and therefore it must be rated as unproven.

This is because the evidence available is insufficient to support or refute the claim, but it is logically possible.

Varadkar practically admits this himself by saying that he feels that his claim will be shown to be correct when research is actually carried out.

Verdict: Unproven

Aside: While the verdict remains unproven, TheJournal.ie published a poll on this question last week.

The self-selecting nature of this poll makes it clearly unscientific and far from trustworthy enough to cite, but it is worth noting that 64% of people who answered it viewed themselves as middle class – not far off Varadkar’s original claim and within the two figures he later cited.

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Read: FactCheck: Did the government really save €500 million due to reported welfare fraud last year? >

Read: ‘People on low pay are not middle class’: Leo faced tough questions from Vincent Browne last night >

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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