Last September, the Brazilian government released a study, Vozes da Classe Média (Voices of the Middle Class), noting that 53 percent of Brazilians are currently in the middle class. Of these, 80 percent are Afro-Brazilian. The data was covered extensively in the Brazilian press and sparked a debate about the extent to which Brazil’s recent economic growth has generated an improved standard of living for its overall population.
On one side, optimists celebrated the data, which showed improved social mobility for about 30 million people.
The Brazilian middle class is the third fastest growing in the world, trailing only India and China. Brazil’s middle class is urban, concentrated in the southeast (45 percent) and fascinated with technology. According to the Voices of Brazil study, if this social class were a country, it would be the twelfth most populous country in the world with 104 million people, just below Mexico.
On the other hand, skeptics said that Brazil’s middle class was different from the middle class in countries like the United States, where the middle class not only consumes goods and services but is also educated and enjoys an overall strong quality of life. Brazil’s historical lack of investment in education, its violence and its high levels of corruption have been barriers to complete social growth.
Thousands of people took to the streets across Argentina on September 13 to protest generalized insecurity, heavy handed state intervention and a looming threat of constitutional reform that could pave the way for the re-election of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2015. Temperatures have hit a boiling point after a very long simmer heated by years of government-denied inflation, nationalizations, import restrictions, and now talks of constitutional reform.
It is often said that Argentines yearn for and lament the passing of the belle époque, a period at the turn of the last century when Argentina was considered one of the richest, fastest growing countries in the world. Their lingering arrogance as a European-like exception on a “lost continent” in the late 1980s and 1990s quickly crumbled with the 2001 economic meltdown and historic $100 billion default.
Today´s protests are reminiscent of the cacerolazos—or pot banging—that took place before Argentina crashed in 2001. After hitting rock bottom, things began to pick up for the country in 2003 thanks in large part to high commodity prices and an accompanying export boom led by soy.
The presidential power couple, Nestor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, were politically compensated for the comeback and amassed considerable power and wealth during the first decade of the millennium. It now appears the credit was misplaced as Argentines once again pine for economic stability, safety and security, and rational governance –despite continued strong commodity prices!
Many hopes and assumptions are pinned on the middle class in developing countries, not least in Latin America. The Economist has praised its growth; economists and statisticians have struggled to define and measure it; and many have hailed it as the answer to the region’s political and developmental ills.
But for all this talk, we really don’t know much about this middle class. Who are they? Where do they work, and what is the nature and stability of that work? Do they have access to basic public goods such as health care, pensions or insurance? And now how have they been affected by global economic and financial crisis?
Many observers impute to this vague, amorphous category of the emerging economies’ middle class a whole set of assumptions based on concepts of the European or the United States middle class that drove economic development and ushered in an era of political stability. The truth is, though, that Latin America’s nascent middle class is more inchoate, informal and fragile than most people realize. We’re not talking here about Father Knows Best.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.