Latin American Class Structures: Their Composition and Change during the Neoliberal Era

This article proposes a framework for the analysis of social classes in Latin America and presents evidence on the composition of the class structure in the region and its evolution during the last two decades, corresponding to the years of implementation of a new economic model in most countries. The paper is an update of an earlier article on the same topic published in this journal at the end of the period of import substitution industrialization. Relative to that earlier period, the present era registers a visible increase in income inequality, a persistent concentration of wealth in the top decile of the population, a rapid expansion of the class of micro-entrepreneurs, and a stagnation or increase of the informal proletariat. The contraction of public sector employment and the stagnation of formal sector labor demand in most countries have led to a series of adaptive solutions by the middle and lower classes. The rise of informal self-employment and micro-entrepreneurialism throughout the region can be interpreted as a direct result of the new adjustment policies. We explore other, less orthodox adaptive strategies, including the rise of violent crime in the cities and migration abroad by an increasingly diversified cross-section of the population. The impact that changes in the class structure have had on party politics and other forms of popular political mobilization in Latin American countries is discussed.