To engender real economic development, a middle class is an important ingredient. A middle class is basically defined as the socioeconomic group between the working class and the aristocracy or upper class. Such a definition is not very helpful in understanding what a middle class is, and how it can be an important contributor to economic development. The term varies significantly between cultures, and what is often misunderstood is that it is not simply defined in financial terms (a problem for the Philippines where almost everything is defined in financial terms!).
To take the financial definition, middle class is comprised of people who have discretionary disposable income and therefore have the ability to make choices about their lifestyle and children’s upbringing, as they have enough money to cover their basic needs for food and shelter. About 33 percent of income as discretionary is a rough criterion.
But to be middle class is defined on more measures than purely money. There are middle class values which include education and knowledge attainment, a sense of entitlement for one’s position in society [a type of self-confidence], an appreciation of morality, art and culture, the type of people who are “friends” and, most importantly, the way in which children are brought up. All this could be termed human capital to differentiate it from the money measure.
So how does this fit with the Philippines? The Economist has reported that Asia has a very large and fast growing middle class, but this seems to have been measured mainly in financial terms rather than taking too much account of the human capital aspect. To be able to amass money is in itself not a measure of a growing middle class, unless you have sufficient savvy to know how to use it to the betterment of society, for your own children and other future generations. Alas, the Philippines tends to measure everything in terms of money; with one third of the working population earning its living of necessity overseas and more than 28 percent of the population below the grinding poverty line of $1.25 a day, do we just categorize everybody outside these two groups as middle class? I don’t think so. There have been reports of newly enriched Chinese tourists letting children defecate on the floor of airports in Taiwan, within a few steps of a public toilet—is this middle class behavior? They obviously have the money to travel abroad, but lack the ability to behave in a civilized manner.
Middle class values include the type of parenting that encourages children to gain self-confidence, to question (and expect to get proper answers and explanations) and to adopt their parents demonstrated middle class values. Children in middle class value terms should go to college so that they can be educated to get what are perceived as secure professional jobs; doctors, priests, architects, lawyers, etc., in order that their future is secured and that such education, together with the values instilled into them by parental example and through a developed sense of entitlement, they will appreciate what is important for the futures of their own children and thus understand the necessity for and benefits of inclusive economic development.
As long as the Filipino continues to be enamored by the idea of “businessmen” making as much money as possible with as little effort as possible and with little respect for morality or social consciousness, while well trained professionals are held in much lesser regard, then it will be very difficult to develop that fundamental ingredient of national development—a large and influential middle class.
It is also worth noting that a large and influential middle class will have adequate knowledge of the issues at election time to vote for politicians who would do the things that middle class values would define as important . . .
Mike can be contacted at email@example.com