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A vulnerability approach to the definition of the middle class

  • Lopez-Calva, Luis F.
  • Ortiz-Juarez, Eduardo

Measurement of the middle class has recently come to the center of policy debate in middle-income countries as they search for the potential engines of growth and good governance. This debate assumes, first, that there is a meaningful definition of class, and second, that thresholds that define relatively homogeneous groups in terms of pre-determined sociological characteristics can be found empirically. This paper aims at proposing a view of the middle class based on vulnerability to poverty. Following this approach the paper exploits panel data to determine the amount of comparable income -- associated with a low probability of falling into poverty -- which could define the lower bound of the middle class. The paper looks at absolute thresholds, challenging the view that people above the poverty line are actually part of the middle class. The estimated lower threshold is used in cross-section surveys to quantify the size and the evolution of middle classes in Chile, Mexico, and Peru over the past two decades. The first relevant feature relates to the fact that the proposed thresholds lie around the 60th percentile of the distribution. The evidence also shows that the middle class has increased significantly in all three countries, suggesting that a higher number of households face lower probabilities of falling into poverty than they did in the 1990s. There is an important group of people, however, which cannot be defined as middle class from this perspective, but are not eligible for poverty programs according to traditional definitions of poverty.

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Paper provided by The World Bank in its series Policy Research Working Paper Series with number 5902.

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Date of creation: 01 Dec 2011
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Handle: RePEc:wbk:wbrwps:5902
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  1. Esther Duflo & Abhijit Banerjee, 2008. "What is Middle Class About the Middle Classes Around the World?," Working Papers id:1363, eSocialSciences.
  2. Ligon, Ethan & Schechter, Laura, 2004. "Evaluating different approaches to estimating vulnerability," Social Protection Discussion Papers 30159, The World Bank.
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  5. Ravallion, Martin, 2010. "The Developing World's Bulging (but Vulnerable) Middle Class," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 38(4), pages 445-454, April.
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  8. Sen, Amartya, 1983. "Poor, Relatively Speaking," Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, vol. 35(2), pages 153-69, July.
  9. Nora Lustig, Luis F. Lopez-Calva, Eduardo Ortiz-Juarez, 2012. "Declining Inequality in Latin America in the 2000s: The Cases of Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico," Working Papers 307, Center for Global Development.
  10. Cesar Calvo & Stefan Dercon, 2007. "Vulnerability to Poverty," CSAE Working Paper Series 2007-03, Centre for the Study of African Economies, University of Oxford.
  11. John H Goldthorpe & Abigail McKnight, 2004. "The Economic Basis of Social Class," CASE Papers 080, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, LSE.
  12. Milanovic, Branko & Yitzhaki, Shlomo, 2002. "Decomposing World Income Distribution: Does the World Have a Middle Class?," Review of Income and Wealth, International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, vol. 48(2), pages 155-78, June.
  13. Anthony B. Atkinson & Andrea Brandolini, 2011. "On the identification of the “middle class”," Working Papers 217, ECINEQ, Society for the Study of Economic Inequality.
  14. James Foster & Michael Wolfson, 2010. "Polarization and the decline of the middle class: Canada and the U.S," Journal of Economic Inequality, Springer, vol. 8(2), pages 247-273, June.
  15. Gaiha, Raghav & Imai, Katsushi, 2008. "Measuring Vulnerability and Poverty: Estimates for Rural India," Working Paper Series RP2008/40, World Institute for Development Economic Research (UNU-WIDER).
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