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Where from here? The Latin American middle classes facing stagnation

What will be the effect of the economic slowdown in trust in institutions and political behaviour of Latin American emerging middle classes, after 10 years of “leftist” governments? Español

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Ludolfo Paramio Cecilia Güemes Francesc Badia i Dalmases
12 April 2016
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People walk through the Oscar Freire street shopping district in Sao Paulo, Brazil. AP Photo/Andre Penner

Latin American middle classes in recent decades

According to CEPAL (Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) calculations, between 1990 and 2010 the middle classes in the region increased by nearly 70 million households. In recent years social policies have been characterised by a targeting of lower income groups and public policy priority has been the expansion of primary education, with the goal of achieving universal reach.

Given that the middle classes are characterised by their efforts to consolidate their social status and not only their income level, it can be assumed that access to education is central to their family plans. However, access to primary education, which has been a key factor in many cases to escape from poverty and to lead therefore to the so-called emerging middle classes, may be insufficient if the access to quality secondary education and higher education for the youth of these new middle classes is not guaranteed.

The hypothesis is that the numerical growth of the new (emerging) middle classes will pose new demands for public policies both to expand access to quality secondary and higher education, and to introduce social policies that benefit not only the poorest groups, but also these emerging groups. The aim of this is to prevent the new middle class losing purchasing power. By moving from the lower-income bracket to the middle class, they no longer to receive the cash transfers attendant in the prior targeted policies, and as a result, it is important to develop universal welfare policies or design strategies that include support for these groups; otherwise, they will be unable to maintain and consolidate their new status and their becoming middle class, beyond a symbolic conquest, will entail instead a waste of money and increased costs for families.

Through a comparative study of several national cases, we have sought to determine (1) the problems that the emerging middle classes face in consolidating their status, (2) the limits in this regard of current public policies, and (3) conflicts which may give rise to claims of these social groups.

Series: Where from here? The Latin American middle classes facing stagnation

The aim of this series is to analyse and discuss the electoral political behaviour of Latin American middle classes in a context of low economic growth or recession.

The suggested hypothesis is that the protests evident in Latin America in recent years in search of improvements in public services were employed in recent months by political opposition to delegitimise governments that have presided over the rise of the emerging middle classes.

Confronted with this, the problem would be twofold: (1) the absence of credible programmes to restore growth that would maintain and expand support for the emerging middle classes, and (2) as a result, the entry into a spiral of dizzying political consumption or new polarisations, with serious risks of civil conflict.

As suggested at the beginning, the emergence of the new middle classes in the region was associated with the long period of regional growth beginning in 2003 as a result of the sharp rise in commodity prices and the high volume of exports driven by demand from the Pacific, particularly China. This economic growth continued at high rates despite the impact of the global crisis in 2009, and only since 2014 has a sharp slowdown become evident.

Faced with the economic slowdown, expectations and social demands are not adjusted but instead maintained and this  generates enormous difficulty for  the State, both when making public policy (with fewer financial resources) and in managing citizens' expectations. The articles in this series reflect on the effect of the economic slowdown in these emerging middle classes' political behaviour, support for governments and trust in institutions after 10 years of “leftist” or “change-orientated” governments in the region.

The issues and cases to be considered over the course of the series are the following:

  • Middle classes: rise and fall? Dynamics of the middle classes in Latin America in recent decades in changing economic contexts. Political challenges ahead.

  • Latin American middle classes: half-truths about their growth, characterisation and internal differentiation, attitude towards democracy and participation in social protest.

  • The middle classes and sentiment, a political communication analysis. The use of social networks and new communication channels by millennials and political actors.

  • Argentina: the vulnerable middle class, between aspirational and vindictive. The middle classes'appetite for progress in a context of reform and promises for change

  • Political tolerance and institutional legitimacy of the middle classes in Bolivia: citizens' attitudes to governments
  • Bolivian middle classes: social policies and values

  • Colombia: the post-agreement,rhetoric of expectations for growth: readings from the middle class

  • Venezuelan media sectors facing economic collapse. Postchavismo challenges and the opposition's extension of support among the lower-middle and lower class sectors

  • Evolution of the middle classes, their involvement in different kinds of social protest and government crisis in Brazil

The series is being published in the framework of an editorial partnership between the Centre for Social and Human Sciences at the Spanish National Research Council (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) and DemocraciaAbierta.

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