Lately, it has been a daily occurrence to read about it in magazines and newspapers, and listen to politicians and commentators talk about it on the television and radio: the Chilean middle class. It is the engine of the country, it will suffer the most from the tax reform and educational changes, and so on.
But what I want to ask is: Am I middle class? Are you? How do you define the middle class in Chile? And how do you know if you belong to it or not? Or, perhaps even worse, whether you are now one of the “rich”?
According to the online Economy and Business section of El Mercurio (Claudia Ramírez Friderichsen; August 26 2012): “Today I belong to the middle class, because I have to work hard to maintain a relatively comfortable life without all the frills”. This was the response of Carmen Urbina (46 years old) to the question of what class she belongs to and why. This answer could well apply to any and every Chilean. That is because 84% of the population – 14.2 million out of 17 million – consider themselves to be middle class.
What fascinates me is that 84% of Chileans consider themselves be middle class… Yes, it is fascinating! That means we are left with just 16% who are rich and poor, equivalent to 2.8 million people.
A friend of mine answered my question of “Who is middle class?” by saying “any family earning more than a million pesos a month”. Another friend responded by raising the amount to one and a half million a month…
But I have my doubts, which is why I did my own research. I spent three days in a row outside La Moneda Presidential Palace asking people, “Are you middle class?” The amazing thing is that in my highly personal and direct survey I received a wide range of replies. They varied from the most common “I don’t know, but I do know that I’m in a hurry” to “no, I’m rich, I have La Roja” (referring to the Chilean national soccer team) and “what’s it to you… ?”, as well as a couple of words that cannot be printed in this magazine… However, almost 90% responded “yes, of course”.
It seems that being middle class is not a question of family income, but actually more related to what you have (liabilities), what you do (assets) and what you think (cash flow). For example, is it necessary to have a car? Yes! Hopefully two, or a car plus a motorbike… What about a house? Of course! One storey or two? Two! Although, if you have a one storey bungalow which is 250m2, that counts… But, what type of car do you have? Can it be any old brand? NO! There are makes and models that are exclusively reserved for the middle class and others that are not. Now, once again, I am unable to discuss which brands are preferred by the middle class here, so as not to show bias for one or another, and in case it is not an American one!
Other aspects that “make the difference” are: quality of the children’s school; soccer teams, but total support for La Roja; taking vacations in summer and winter; not having more than CLP$500,000 in credit card debt; the ability to eat out once a month (and eating hotdogs does not count); having a purebred dog or two pedigree cats; drinking wine priced between $3,200 and $4,200 a bottle twice a week; having a bicycle for sports purposes and not using it as a means of transport; knowing how to use Transantiago in combination with shared taxis, buses and the Metro without getting completely lost; going to the cinema once a month, etc.
I then discovered that people are incredibly proud to declare themselves “middle class” without knowing if they are really “qualified” to do so. It is a question of mind set and personal desire. Well, if 84% of the population declares itself to be “middle class”, then of course we (yes, I am very middle class-ist) are all going to pay dearly for changes that we want to see so badly in our beloved Chile. But the good thing is that there are so many of us that the cost per person will not be so bad, and after all, I can pay for my part with one of my nine new credit cards…
(Constructive criticisms and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org).