Middle classes in Latin America (3). Appetite for progress in Argentina

The challenge of the Macri administration is to steer reforms that meet the expectations of progress of those who, today, are the victims of a failed model of social inclusion. Español

Liliana De Riz
20 April 2016

In this Nov. 2, 2015 photo, children walk back from school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

Mauricio Macri, leader of the Republican Proposal (PRO), a new Argentine political force founded in the last decade that is neither radical nor Peronist, became president at the December 2015 runoff election. The triumph of the Let's Change coalition, which grouped the Radical Civic Union (UCR ), the PRO and the Civic Coalition (CC), left no doubt that a new era was about to start in Argentina. PRO’s María Eugenia Vidal became governor of the province of Buenos Aires and this was a prelude for the new times coming: after 28 years in power, Peronism lost this strategic province. Today, the Justicialist Party (PJ) has many representatives, but few resources. The elections of 2015 set in motion a change in the Argentine political system. The PRO, the PJ and the UCR are no longer what they used to be, foreshadowing a new party system dynamics.

The election results brought about significant new developments, among them a dispersion of the vote of both segments of the middle and affluent classes, and the poor. Politics in Argentina is now less conditioned by social structure than in previous decades. The social profile of the country has changed over the last few years. Economic growth and social and consumer stimulus policies swelled the ranks of the so-called emerging middle class. Between 2004 and 2012, the middle class grew at the expense of the lower class, which lost 10 share points in that period, falling from 55.4% to 45.2% of the population. Since 2012, however, this expansive trend of the middle class has been reversed. In 2015, the lower middle class fell from 30.9% to 30.3%. Inflation and recession were responsible for this, affecting all the middle strata, and increasing poverty. The lower class included, in 2015, almost half of the population (47.5%), while the lower middle class (30.2%) and the standard middle class (16.8) accounted for 47%. The upper and upper middle class amounted to 5.5%, according to estimates by various consulting firms and recent studies, for the country lacks any reliable official statistics since 2007. According to Palomino and Dalle, the "lower middle class ", which would account for the bulk of the emerging strata, is composed of micro-entrepreneurs, self-employed own-equipped professionals, technicians, teachers, health workers and clerical workers.

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The "new" middle classes have emerged on the edge of the world of poverty, with which they share some traits such as suburban residence and little education. But the way they relate to the state is far from the poorest sectors’ characteristic dependence on subsidies. It has nothing to do with the selective disregard of those who can afford private basic services such as health and education either.

Much of the income of households is the flipside of public spending, if it is not saved - in Argentina, two thirds of the sectors in the upper half of the stratification scale do not save at all, according to the Pontifical Catholic University (UCA) barometer of social debt, 2013. Income falls because the country and employment grow less, and inflation does not decelerate, so that these households fall back into poverty. These are vulnerable sectors, and their inclusion is subject to the economic cycles. Being more unprotected against insecurity than the typical middle class, it is not surprising that they are sensitive to discourses exalting efficient management and firm action against insecurity. Although they do not affiliate to parties, they tend to "take sides" for non-ideological leaderships. Its members include those aspiring to a different future and striving tirelessly to move up the social ladder, and those who want to preserve what they have gained by demanding "never anything less". The former, the aspirational ones, changed their vote at the last elections; the latter, the reclaiming ones, for which the future is a threat, supported the ruling party. This stratification of the vote happened also among the poorest strata of the social pyramid. It is increasingly untrue that Peronism wins among the urban poor and in the poorest provinces. The results of the 2015 elections show that, from Buenos Aires to Jujuy, both the PJ and the UCR and the Socialists govern provinces and municipalities regardless of how many poor, middle class and working class live in each constituency.

High inflation, an economy in recession for the last four years, and a lower per capita income than in 2011, is hitting the emerging middle classes. They are a new social category, and it is therefore difficult to speculate on their political behaviour. The triumph of Let's Change, however, gives us some clues. A majority of people cast their vote to promote more and better management in the municipalities, the provinces and the nation. Politics as the proper setting for solutions to the problems was the axis of Macri’s campaign. Whereas Kirchnerism placed the future in the past, in the golden years of the 1940s Peronism and, for some, in the revolutionary utopia of 1973, Let's Change projected a future of progress, in stark contrast with the conservative utopia of stimulating consumption, but not modernization. Under Kirchnerism, there was indeed some social reparation, increased spending on education and healthcare, and pension coverage was extended, but the reform of the education, health and pension systems was not undertaken. The challenge of the new administration will be to steer reforms that meet the expectations of progress of those who, today, are the victims of a failed model of social inclusion. If it were not for this hope, social unrest would surely open a new scenario of instability.

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