Lets be clear on what the “middle class” is

Global Development

Key Points

  • A number of world leaders, including the Australian Prime Minister, have claimed that millions of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty and are now living in the “middle class”.
  • However, there is no universally accepted definition of “middle class” and the use of this term is often very misleading. The “middle class” in developed countries, such as Australia, have substantially higher living standards than the vast majority of people in developing countries.
  • While there have been large reductions in extreme poverty over the last twenty years, 93% of people in the developing world still live below the United States’ national poverty line of less than US$13 a day.

Background

Earlier this year, the Australian Prime Minister claimed that hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from extreme poverty to “middle class” and there are now almost two billion people in the global “middle class”. Statements such as this do not represent how the notion of “middle class” is typically understood in the developed world.

The lowest possible standard of middle class in a developed country is living above the United States’ national poverty line (defined as $13 a day (2005 US PPP)). According to the latest World Bank data, 93% of the developing world’s population live below this line. As the chart below shows the huge decline in people living in extreme poverty has not been matched by a decline in the share of people living below the United States’ national poverty line.

From Poverty to Middle Class

The incredible reduction in the population living below the extreme poverty line (shown in the chart above) should be celebrated. However this should not be misrepresented to suggest most of these people live in “middle class” by any developed country standard.

Sources:

World Bank 2014 <http://iresearch.worldbank.org/povcalnet/index.htm>

Australian Government 2014 <https://www.pm.gov.au/media/2014-01-23/address-world-economic-forum-davos-switzerland-0>

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