Before the Industrial Revolution, wealth and status were mostly inherited, but post-industrialization socioeconomic changes have created a new social bracket — the nouveau riche — and improved intergenerational social mobility.
Non-Marxists have gradually shifted away from the ideological preoccupation with “class” to an exploration of “stratification” for describing people’s socio-economic status, and no longer take inheritance as a determining factor in social structure.
In other words, they believe that the status and wealth of this generation can no longer determine the success of the next. According to this thinking, the wealthy can buy beautiful homes, but their children — despite living in the same house — will not necessarily be rich. This is part and parcel of the American Dream.
Over 20 years ago, several British academics started to employ the term “housing class” to re-examine the impact of housing on social mobility. In South Korea, where housing prices have surged over the past decade, people are taking this issue very seriously. In the book Pudongsan Kyegup Sahoe (“Housing Class Society”), South Korean author Son Nak-ku — supported by a wealth of data — outlines how property ownership differentials affect household income, which in turn affects parents’ ability to pay children’s education fees and finally impacts their standard of education. Property ownership affects social class.
In Taiwan, where people attach great importance to home ownership, housing prices have risen in recent years. Ownership and inheritance of such properties have become key factors not only in familial relations, but also in the personal achievements of individual family members. The children of parents with more than one house get a better start in life than children of those who do not and are more favorably placed to accumulate wealth of their own.
South Korea’s experience is being repeated in Taiwan, but unfortunately, the issue is largely ignored and Taiwanese academics are not exploring the cause-and-effect relationship between accumulation of property, housing prices and social mobility with hard data.
Whenever the government attempts to suppress housing, prices increases and the real-estate sector cries foul, saying that such intervention will damage the economy. As the effectiveness of the new real-estate tax policy based on actual real-estate transaction prices is set to be tested, the governing and opposition camps have both been complicit in relaxing regulations.
While the rich make themselves richer by purchasing properties, the government is turning a blind eye to the links between real-estate ownership, home prices and social flexibility as well as the impact of this relationship.
If the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics analyzes and releases nationwide data on privately owned property, while the Control Yuan releases its data on property owned by officials, it will be possible to understand how many houses top officials and elected representatives own and what the value of those properties are.
Conducting research on the differences between the property owned by officials and representatives, and those owned by the general public can serve as the basis of a study on the nation’s political economy, because the elite who would be studied are the very people making decisions about how the housing market behaves.
If they do not want change, things will stay as they are — this is another facet of social class.
Hua Chang-i is a former professor in the Graduate Institute of Building and Planning at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Eddy Chang