Chile’s Middle Class: New Political Use Of An Old Concept?

A new program the Piñera administration unveiled, called “Protected Middle Class,” has been criticized for its inaccuracy, specifically for the political use of “middle class.” Politicians used the term for years and turned it into an end in itself, rather than a development objective.

“It is precisely this broadness, that lack of definition, that makes the concept so attractive to politicians. As almost all of us consider ourselves to be (a member of the) middle class, when a politician mentions these magic words, we believe that they are specifically talking to us, when in fact they are speaking to almost the entire country. A very useful concept to win headlines or elections, but very impractical to design effective public policies.”

CNN Chile journalist Daniel Matamala summarized how national politicians commonly abuse the term, especially in the right wing. He was referring to the Piñera administration’s “Clase Media Protegida” (Protected Middle Class) program, with which the government aims to strengthen that socio-economic segment through measures regarding employment, health, housing and education.

When politicians talk about the “middle class” they are not referring to the meaning the concept had in the 20th century, when this group was a pillar of development in the country. Back then the middle class rested on foundations of rising wages, urbanization and the spread of accessible education.

Today, politicians are mainly referring to a widely popular social identity that involves membership of a social group that carries democratization and social progress.

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What Is The Middle Class?

The definition of the term is highly political and historically contested from different political and economic perspectives. According to the World Bank, middle class are “households that have a low probability of falling into poverty but are not rich,” with earnings between US$ 13 and US$ 70 per day (purchasing power parity of 2011). For the OECD, incomes between 75% and 200% of the national median enable middle class membership.

In the case of Chile, that translates to household earnings between CLP$ 587,000 (US$ 832) and around US$ 1.56 million (US$ 2162). The national median is around CLP$ 780,000 (US$ 1124), meaning the Chilean middle class is smaller than the OECD average (47% of the population versus 61%).

In a country whose economic structure has been radically transformed from low to middle income, the changed focus of politicians is understandable. Yet marginalized poor or working-class segments have not that much political weight, because their gains don’t resonate that strongly in society.

For most of the population, and the current political class, to be part of the middle-class means being able to participate in mass consumerism. As labor minister Cristián Monckeberg claimed, now the middle class can own “two apartments, a house on the beach, and land.”  A discrepancy of perception and reality that exemplifies the gap between the new and the classical conception of the middle class.

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Middle Class Or Mass Consumption?

If Chile is a middle-class country depends mostly on the perspective. If middle-class country means a big part of the population has access to a consumerist lifestyle, Chile is middle class. But if it means social security and access to welfare, like the classical social democratic middle class of the post-World War II order in the US and Europe, then it’s not. Perhaps citizens now own a car and have a fancy house, but if they lose their jobs or have a medical emergency all of that can go quickly.

On the other hand, Chile is economically highly unequal, with real wealth in real estate and business, beyond consumer goods, in the hands of a tiny elite. Additionally, about 30% of Chileans still live in poverty.

Nonetheless, Chile is not alone living this contradiction, but is part of a worldwide trend of middle class erosion under neoliberalism.

Hopefully, this new fetish is not just a propaganda message for electoral marketing, but based on a genuine interest to understand this sector of society beyond consumerism and protect it from the volatilities of the global economy. Otherwise, the notion of middle class will become an empty shell.

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