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Tipping point

/ 05:16 AM October 26, 2018

The poor are no longer a majority.

It is a reality that is neither international headline news material nor a trending topic worthy of a hashtag. Nonetheless, it is a milestone for humanity, one that took place only after 10,000 years.

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Today, the majority of humankind is no longer poor or vulnerable to poverty, according to research done by Homi Kharas and Kristofer Hamel of World Data Lab. A little over 50 percent of the world’s population are now considered “middle class” or “rich,” they said. That’s around 3.8 billion people. This result was derived after the researchers classified the human population into four categories: the poor, the financially vulnerable, the middle class and the rich. One person is said to rise above poverty every second, while five people enter the middle class every second. Talk about social class mobility!

But who are the middle class? They comprise a sector of society that is often overlooked. The trials and tribulations of the middle class do not make for pressing concerns on the same level as issues affecting the marginalized do, such as hunger and scarcity. Neither are they considered influential nor powerful enough to outshine the upper class. Politicians do not address the needs of the middle class. Their lifestyles are not portrayed to be something aspirational.

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Yet here they are. Kharas and Hamel calculated that the middle class of China and India will account for $14.1 trillion and $12.3 trillion of the global economy by 2030. Around the same time, there will be 5.3 billion people considered to be middle class. That’s 1.9 billion people more from today.

That also means more people who can afford to drive their own cars, travel to international destinations, consume more home appliances, and indulge in recreational activities. The study also revealed that nine in 10 of the next billion middle-class consumers will come from Asia. China now ranks second in world wealth, followed by Japan.

This is nothing short of remarkable. For one, it seems largely true. With the advent of the Christmas season, shopping malls are already packed with early shoppers, roads are congested with brand-new cars, tourist destinations are overbooked, credit cards sell like hotcakes and social media is lit with posts of #blessed.

But, on the other hand, it seems like the figures contradict the facts. Local news speak of poverty-induced crime. The increases in the prices of consumer goods do not match the increase in income. For us in a developing country like the Philippines, poverty is right around the corner always, and tough times are never unexpected. While the world is getting richer, there remain much hunger and social inequality in our land.

Should both government and businesses shift their attention to the middle class?

The middle class demands more from public servants, but its desire for stability also makes its members less likely to rebel against their government. David Madland, writing in the Center for American Progress in 2011 in reaction to a speech by then US President Barack Obama urging support for a strong middle class, said: “The middle class promotes efficient and honest delivery of government services, as well as forward-looking public investments—in education and infrastructure, for example—that benefit all of society rather than only special interests. Such good governance sets the stage for economic growth. But when the middle class is weak, government tends to operate poorly as the wealthy use their disproportionate power and influence to secure special favors, wasting taxpayer dollars on narrow tax breaks, bank bailouts, special copyright terms, and giveaways of public resources.”

In an ideal society, there wouldn’t be such a thing as a middle class, of course, or any kind of social class for that matter. But it can also be argued that having no classes would break society down. Individuals naturally tend to group toward their own kind; the challenge is for society to find a way to balance competing interests and ensure an egalitarian environment.

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Once upon a time it seemed like we lived in a rigid, immovable world. But, if the World Data Lab survey is true, we may be at a tipping point in world history: Inequality has leveled out, wealth gaps have decreased, and class mobility is happening across the globe. Cheers to us, the middle class!

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TAGS: opinion, Philippines, Poverty, research, World Data Lab
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