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What is 'middle class'?

Por Vincent Bevins
22/03/13 12:57

Diogo Martins Pauta lives in a Rio favela. People like him are transforming Brazil, but depending on where you’re from, he may not be your mother’s idea of “middle class.”

Anyone reading on Brazil in the last half-decade has heard about the rise of the ‘new middle class’. It’s one of the favorite topics amongst us foreign correspondents, the latest installment on which I did last week.

But this can be an extremely confusing discussion, since we are often dealing with three, or maybe even four, very different definitions of the term. The way the British mean ‘middle class’ is different from the American definition, and the colloquial Brazilian use of the term ‘classe média’ is closer to the British version, but the discourse in Brazil around “Class C” and the ‘new middle class’ is based on something more akin to the US version, but not quite. Confused yet?

We need to unpack the definitions, but by way of an advance summary, what we have mostly been talking about recently in Brazil is an expansion in the middle-income segment statistically speaking, not a new cultural class or the rise of millions into some international standard of comfort. OK, so -

Middle class in the UK/Europe

When you call someone ‘middle class’ in British English, you are calling them culturally bourgeois, or in over-simplified cases, well-off or just rich, and acting like they were raised that way. This, of course, has to do with history.

Before the rise of capitalism as we know it, we had two major classes in the West. The European ‘upper class’ – the aristocratic landed gentry – and the poor peasants. Then came the urban hustlers and bustlers, the money-hungry traders, the new capitalist class often referred to as the bourgeoisie, which overthrew the feudal order and created a state and world in their own image.

When they arrived on the scene, they were called ‘middle class’ because they fit between the aristocracy and the poor, but since then they won the battle handily and have been running things around the world for a long time. They’re still called ‘middle class’ in Britain, but this is the dominant, well-off class, the bankers, lawyers, and university professors. And they’re associated with liberal values. They’re the kinds of people that might do yoga or speak French. The elements of the class are mainly qualitative and cultural, maybe even quasi-hereditary: you can be born ‘middle class’ even if your parents happen to not have any money at the time. This is class in the old-school sense.

And apart from the miniscule and largely irrelevant aristocracy, there are two classes in the UK: the middle class and the working class. It doesn’t matter how many people there are in each, it matters what their characteristics are.

The middle class in the US

When you hear ‘middle class’ in the US, it has nothing to do with any of that. It is quite simply the statistical middle of wealth distribution. Most Americans tend to think of themselves as ‘middle class’ if they are not in the richest or poorest segment of the population. But it’s all quantitative. It has nothing to do with some kind of external standard, it’s all just calculated in relation to how much money everyone else has.

One really easy way to get at the middle class in the US is map the distribution of wealth, chop off the top 25% and call them ‘rich’, set aside the bottom 25% and call them ‘poor’ and there you go, the other 50% is the middle class. They’re called that because they’re in the middle.

To do a better job, you can also analyze how many people sit around the median, to see how much the middle class dominates society, how ‘strong’ it is, and you may draw a line somewhere else. But the middle is always in the middle.

Crucially, then, you could have a ‘middle class’ which is very rich by global standards (as it is), or you could have a ‘middle class’ which is all very poor, if that’s the way things are going in the US at the time.

Brazil’s classe média - old school version

So what then do Brazilians mean when they say they are ‘middle class’? Traditionally, they have meant well-off and comfortable. It’s closer to the British/European version, but with a different history. To simplify again, you could say that what they really mean is also “bourgeois,” and the concept is economic, cultural, and sometimes even racial. The standard is also international, rather than being derived in relation to the rest of Brazil. If they can afford to live more or less like the middle class in Italy or those in Hollywood movies, that’s ‘classe média.’

For example. It’s quite common to hear people who have grown up in families with two cars, a maid or nanny or two, and a monthly household income of 10,000-30,000 reais, call themselves “middle class.” It’s common to hear 25-year old professionals who could never imagine living alone on less than 3-4,000 a month call themselves “middle class.”

To an American, this sounds absolutely ludicrous. These people are rich. The average monthly wage in Brazil is 1,300 reais. If you are earning triple that in your first job out of college, or if your family is earning 10-15 times that, you are a rich Brazilian as far as the US definition is concerned.

Neide and Elisangela used to be domestic servants, but now have their own place and make around r$900 a month. This puts them a little below the national average.

It’s worth remembering, as always, that despite its advances, Brazil is still one of the most unequal societies in the world, and many well-off Brazilians are bizarrely disconnected from the reality of average people.

But it’s not just that. Those Brazilians are using the older, colloquial meaning of the phrase, something that has nothing to do with the now-famous ‘classe C.’ This leads to a lot of confusion. Someone just told me she thought she hadn’t yet reached Class C, even though she makes 3,500 reais a month (By some measures, this is more than 10 times what she needs to enter the ‘new middle class’).

And then you have this very odd article from O Globo last Friday, which asks how it is possible to be middle class without enrolling your children in private school or purchasing a private healthcare plan. Setting aside what is obviously absurd to foreigners (if your version of a middle class society means that 100% of people need to pay for private education, you’re doing it wrong), the two concepts of middle class are constantly tripping over each other. So what then has everyone been talking about?

Classe C – what’s really been happening in Brazil

In Brazil, there has long been another way of calculating social class based purely on numerical income. It’s the so-called A-B-C-D-E system, in which you drop people into one of five slots based on how much they earn a month.

Until recently, no one was really using this measurement except social scientists, market researchers, and advertising companies. The middle here – B, and especially C and D – would have never been considered ‘middle class’. But there’s a very good reason this conception has been coming up so much recently: it’s here that history is happening.

Over the last decade, around 40 million people have risen out of poverty in Brazil. Now, more than half of the population sits in the middle of the income distribution. While D and E used to bulge, now it’s C and B.

The people that have recently entered the middle of the income distribution make up what is probably the most transformative element in Brazil’s society at the moment.

Suelen on TV’s “Avenida Brasil,” the novela which portrayed the ‘new middle class.’ Of course, though, all of the actors were white and all the writers were born very rich.

They have powered a consumption boom, are changing relations between rich and poor, and have even made their mark on television entertainment. They are demanding more rights than ever as consumers and citizens. I might even say they are the ones truly bringing Brazil into its own as a modern and globally significant country.

But they have only just barely risen out of poverty. To the extent that they are ‘middle class’ rather than poor, this just means that they have enough income that they get to make some decisions about it. Instead of dedicating it all to basic needs, they get to spend some on a tv, or dishwasher, or a nice phone, or maybe the movies.

But they still work very hard, often live in very difficult circumstances, and are just beginning to claw their way up. Many live in favelas.

By the standards of the US or Europe, these people would certainly be considered poor. The broad definition of the middle class in these terms is a per capita monthly income between R$300 and R$1000. That’s just $150-$500 US dollars.

One friend of mine, from a favela in Rio, complains bitterly that she and her family are now considered ‘middle class’ while they face exclusion, hardship, and even open prejudice and racism every single day. The government is right to include her in the demographic middle class. But she’s also very right.

The creation of the ‘new middle class’ has been a revolutionary process for Brazil.  But compare their lives to those that consider themselves ‘middle class’ in the old-school sense, and it becomes very obvious that there’s still a long, long way to go.

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  1. Doreen comentou em 29/03/13 at 2:54

    I blog frequently and I truly appreciate your content. The article has truly peaked my interest. I am going to book mark your website and keep checking for new information about once per week. I subscribed to your Feed as well.

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