Middle classes in Latin America (2). Myths and realities

The "half-way classes" that have emerged in Latin America are vulnerable, proud of their own popular and ethnic culture, democratic, and ready to protest to press for their demands. Español

Cecilia Güemes
19 April 2016

Corrientes Avenue is illuminated by car lights and neon signs in Buenos Aires, Argentina. AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

There are four half-truths that in recent years have spread widely in academia, the press, and in daily conversation regarding the middle classes in Latin America:

1) The middle classes have increased dramatically in the last decade.

2) There are notable differences between the traditional middle classes and the new middle classes, or emerging middle classes.

3) The middle classes' dissatisfaction with public services and their social demands endanger support for democracy.

4) The middle classes have been central figures in citizen protests.

It is necessary, however, to qualify these half truths somewhat and reflect upon them.

The first statement implies a certain pride for governments in the region. According to World Bank statistics for consumption in 1995, two out of ten people could be considered middle class, while by 2009 the ratio had increased to three in ten (with consumption between US$10 and US$50 per day). The middle classes have experienced significant growth and this is not only attributed to a favourable economic climate in the region, but also to conditional cash-transfer social policies that governments developed.


Source: World BankHowever, the exultation with which the emergence of millions of people from poverty was announced hid the vulnerability of the emerging middle class, the persistence of painful inequality, and the differing future and integration opportunities that this new social group has. Those who belong to what we term the emerging middle class are pleased as they gain symbolic social identification and integration, but in some countries they do not enjoy the basic rights of the traditional middle classes, such as health or education, nor the sufficient capacity to save money to weather any change of cycle.

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Secondly, linked to the previous point, the objective differences between the traditional middle class and the new middle classes are clearly evident in terms of income and distance from the poverty line. In the case of the former, the head of the family has a non-manual occupation and total household income ranges from the poverty line figure to four times this figure. In the case of the latter, its members have a manual occupation that is more dependent on self-employment, or are employed without a contract or social security coverage, and have a per capita income above the poverty line, but below the threshold of $10.

Sociologists and observers also highlight differences in terms of attitudes and aspirations between the older and newer middle classes. The traditional middle class - employees in non-manual jobs, city dwellers, westernised, living in traditional neighbourhoods close to the upper classes - contrasts with the other  group: manual workers, with westernised tastes but tempered by an emphasis on cultural heritage, where the racial component is more present and with more socially conservative values (in relation to abortion, divorce, contraception use, etc.).

However, in terms of perceptions towards institutions and government performance, the differences are practically imperceptible. Both groups distrust institutions, are dissatisfied with public services, consider the government inefficient and corrupt, and are worried about citizen insecurity. In 2015, confidence in Congress rated 29% for the self-declared traditional middle classes, and 27% for the lower-middle class, while confidence in Government averaged 35% and 34%, and social or interpersonal trust at 18%, and 16.6%, respectively.

According to data from Latinobarómetro, satisfaction with public services in 2015 was nearly always less than 50%. Of particular concern is the dissatisfaction with fundamental institutions upholding the rule of law. On average, 66% of the traditional and emerging middle classes are dissatisfied with the functioning of the police, and 67% with the operation of the law courts.

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Thirdly, taking into account the dissatisfaction of the middle classes with public services and state performance, it is feared that the demands of the new middle classes will endanger democratic stability and detabilise the system itself, and the governments that support it. Here it should be pointed out that support for democracy over any other form of government is at 64% among the traditional middle class, and 65% among the self-declared lower-middle class, while satisfaction with the functioning of democracy is at 42%, and 41%, respectively. These are values that have not markedly changed over time, taking into account Latinobarómetro results from other time periods.

Thus, contrary to projections, statistical models that we have developed demonstrate that satisfaction with democracy is not significantly affected by discontent and poor opinion of public services. By contrast, the main factor that seems to affect satisfaction with democracy is trust in government and the perception of inequality. So, the performance of government would not decisively affect citizens' satisfaction with the regime. Instead, what would affect it would be the perception that society is inequitable, or that government cannot be trusted.

Fourth, and linked with the above, it is considered that the middle classes have a leading role in social protests, demanding rights and resources to consolidate their status.

However, research findings indicate that feeling middle class is not a differentiating factor in terms of mobilization. Feeling upper-, medium- or lower-middle class does not lead to more or less participation in social protests. Education levels are however significant to explain non-formal political participation. Higher levels of education increase the likelihood of joining in a protest. This could indicate that education contributes to a better understanding of citizens' rights and claims.

On the other hand, trust in political parties and the government is relevant in explaining participation in protests and authorized marches. Thus, the hypothesis that social protests can be explained as a result of the middle classes wanting to consolidate their earned status does not seem to be supported by evidence, and instead the idea that the middle classes do not seek to destabilize governments, nor are they against the system, but use protests as a means of communicating with the institutions appears to be founded on more solid ground.

In short: the middle classes or "half-way classes" that have emerged in Latin America are vulnerable, proud of their own popular and ethnic culture, democratic in their thinking, and willing to protest to communicate their demands.

Translated from Spanish by Katie Oliver, member of Democracia Abierta's Volunteer Program

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