Besides existing ethnic and sectarian cleavages, Syrian society is also stratified along tense social and economic class divisions. The class structure is characterized by a high degree of maldistribution of wealth, meaning that much of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, while large numbers of people live in poverty. Moreover, there is a high correlation between wealth and sectarian-ethnic background. The upper income group is composed of Alawite high-ranking officials, military officers, Sunni landowners, small industrial business owners, and important merchants. The middle-income group comprises most Alawite and Sunni government officials, shopkeepers, professionals, and farmers. The lower income group is made up of Alawite workers, peasants (farmers who do not own all the land they cultivate), and employees.
Although the Ba'athist Syrian government has directed its welfare policies—such as land reform—at easing social problems, an estimated 20 percent of the Syrian population lives under the poverty line. In the last 30 years, the pace of change from an agricultural to an industrial economy and the accompanying migration of people to the cities has worsened income distribution and caused the mushrooming of high-poverty shanty-towns (poorly constructed temporary housing) on the edge of populous cities. To compensate for disparities in the distribution of wealth, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs has constructed blocks of low-income flats in these areas. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Social Welfare and Labor has been empowered to find work for and distribute cash allowances to the unemployed. The Ministry also encourages such youth activities as athletics, scouting, literacy campaigns, and the organization of cooperatives. The government gives substantial grants to private welfare societies in solving poverty problems. According to World Bank sources, however, the share of GDP allocated to the social security and welfare policies was barely 0.7 percent a year between 1992 and 1997.