American Elephants

The Phenomenal Growth of the World’s Middle Class May be the Most Important Story of our Time by The Elephant's Child

In America, we usually don’t talk much about the Middle Class — we just assume that most everyone is in it. Except for a surprising number of billionaires, there isn’t much difference between being middle class or being wealthy, and most people simply described themselves as being middle class without giving it much thought. Historically, 85 to 90 percent of Americans have self-identified as middle class. Sixty percent is more usual today.

Gallup surveys show that only about 2 percent of Americans self-identify as “Upper” class. And we have lots of articles about the “shrinking U.S. middle class”, from the media or politicians. They usually forget to mention that the middle class in America is shrinking because more people are getting wealthier. (Economics is not a strong point for the Left)

But reaching the middle class is not just a class designation. Nor is it a matter of money. A family of five in Burundi, living on $324 a year would qualify, according to Gapminder foundation, as would a family of five in China who were clearing $121,000 annually.

As a life experience, reaching the middle class is transformative. The quality of life between poverty and middle-class is stark.

Anna Rosling Rönnlund, the founder of Gapminder’s Dollar Street project, said perhaps the most telling sign of people reaching the middle class is the presence of store-purchased hygienic items.

“The most striking thing is so many of the people we visited so far actually have a plastic toothbrush,” Rönnlund told the Post. “It’s the same with soap. Almost everyone in the world has access to some kind of soap. The poorest buy a tiny fraction of a soap bar or make it themselves. When you come to the middle, you see people buying locally produced, big bars of soap.”

From a global pespective, living in the middle class means having some luxury items most Americans think are basic essentials. Things like access to transportation, air conditioning, electricity in their homes and running water.

What hasn’t been much noticed is that worldwide, poverty is declining and more people are joining the middle class. We have better data on global poverty from the World Bank. Global extreme poverty has declined from 44% to less than 10%. This is a very big deal indeed.

The decline in world poverty has occurred during the Pax Americana, a period notable for the relative peace that began with the Marshall Plan to rebuild a destroyed Europe, the defeat of socialism and a huge expansion of freedom and trade and connectivity.

And then there was our great Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” in agriculture in third-world countries, who saved a billion people from starvation. He remains better known in India, Pakistan, Mexico and China than he is here. With his pioneering techniques, grain production jumped from 692 million tons in 1950 to 1.9 billion tons in 1992.

A slight rise in atmospheric CO² (a natural fertilizer for plants) has meant better plant growth all over the world, and fewer people going hungry. The ability to genetically modify food crops to use less water, or to resist noxious pests, or in the case of “golden rice” to add a gene for the production of carotene. In many ares of Asia, vitamin A is devastatingly rare in the diet of  children causing blindness and altered immunity. Rice is the dietary staple, adding it to rice can save children’s lives and vision. The tinfoil-hat crowd does not understand that genetically modifying a food crop to resist drought, or in this case to produce carotene, is perfectly safe. They could more profitably turn their attention to the folks that are trying to bring back the woolly mammoth (in Russia) or bring back some kinds of dinosaur. That might be something to worry about.

For most Americans, becoming a member of the Middle Class is sort of expected, at least when the economy is performing as it is supposed to. For many people all over the world, it is only a vague idea to be dreamed of, yet day by day it is becoming reality for more and more of the world’s people.

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