As you may have noticed during the recent presidential campaign, the United States is obsessed with the notion of the American middle class. It is a trope in our politics, in our sitcoms, and in our literature.
But how do we define the middle class? Is it just about income, or is it about security? Education? A certain cultural attitude? And how do we have to rethink that definition if we extend this conversation to other parts of the world?
There is a middle class emerging in Latin America — far south of the white picket fences and the syndicated episodes of "Leave It To Beaver." Recently Americas Quarterly devoted an entire issue to this subject. But who is this middle class? What do they want? And what will this group mean for the world market?
Answering these questions, and more, are Christopher Sabatini, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, and Jamele Rigolini, senior economist at the World Bank.
"We just completed a big report analyzing the middle class in Latin America, and I think it's important to start with a definition: For us, the middle class are people who are not rich, but not any more vulnerable to poverty," Rigolini explains. "According to this definition, we saw the middle class in Latin American increasing by 50 million in the last ten years, so it's a pretty impressive number."
"I think the real surprise is Brazil," Rigolini says. "But it's actually a phenomenon that we observe more or less with regularity all across the region."
The picture is not entirely positive though. "Since the time of Socrates, people have argued that without a middle class, you can't have democracy," Sabatini says. But in Latin America, the new middle class seems to dispute this point. If anything, there are declining levels of participation in government. "People really don't have much trust in the state, after centuries of a state that didn't provide for them."
The big determining factor in whether the middle class will continue to grow and prosper is whether social programs will be created to sustain it. The current social programs in most of Latin America are designed to aid the poor, but a middle class requires healthcare, and good public education.