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  • Chutes & Ladders:Middle Class in Motion
  • Featuring
    Tecee Boley on Liberia
    Aubrey Belford on Indonesia
    Bas Heigne on the Netherlands

As the global gap between the haves and the have-not grows ever wider, attention focuses on the top and the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum. But what about the middle? Creating sustainable development might ultimately hinge on how we understand "middle class," since achieving that vaguely defined status is now the ambition of billions of people. To find out what it means to be middle class, World Policy Journal chose to explore three countries at different levels of economic development—Liberia, with a per capita annual income of roughly $400; Indonesia, at around $4,000; and the Netherlands, at around $40,000. We asked writers in each country to profile its middle class—its aspirations, politics, and prospects.

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Marshall Hopkins

[End Page 21]

  • Liberia:Very Rich, or Very Poor
  • Tecee Boley (bio)

Monrovia—It is after 8 o'clock in the evening on the Barnersville estate, a low-income housing project on the outskirts of the capital of Liberia. The entire area is dark. A few candles illuminate small shops along the road. A path leads to Kollie Yard, a cluster of faded whitewashed houses surrounding a sand pit. The homes are modest; more than a hundred people share a common toilet. Saye Guinkpa has just returned home from central Monrovia, where he earns $250 a month working as a trainee at the Ministry of Justice. In a white T-shirt and khakis, the 30-year-old emerges from the two-room unit he shares with his girlfriend and two roommates. On the floor is a full-size mattress draped in a mosquito net. There is no electricity or running water. Guinkpa pays $15 a month for the privilege of living here.

With a degree in economics and accounting from the University of Liberia, Guinkpa earns more than four times what a policeman or entry-level civil servant can earn, and much more than the dollar a day that three out of four Liberians live on. Guinkpa says he was shocked to learn just how poor Liberia is compared to the rest of the world—a reality he only became aware of when he reached college. "It's why I decided to press on with economics," he says.

In Liberia, income disparities are so wide that, in a sense, there are only two classes—very rich and very poor, with a gaping hole in the middle. A recent report by the African Development Bank Group estimated that only 4.8 percent of Liberia's population can be considered middle class—the lowest percentage on the continent, among the countries for which such data is available. Only 15 percent of the workforce is formally employed, and 79 percent of those who are employed nevertheless do not enjoy a steady income, according to a recent Ministry of Labor survey. In this bifurcated socioeconomic landscape, people like Guinkpa are the closest thing there is to an emerging middle class—educated and employed, but hardly members of the elite.

While he enjoys his job and realizes he is fortunate, Guinkpa's lifestyle does not match Western notions of middle-class comfort. He doesn't have a television or a car. He wakes up at 5 o'clock in the morning to bathe outdoors with a bucket, in the privacy afforded by darkness. He spends half his income on shared taxis that take him to work downtown. A vacation is out of the question. His $3,000 annual salary may seem generous, considering that the annual average income per capita is $400. But in Monrovia, where an influx of foreign aid workers has resulted in double-digit inflation, the cost of living is high. Even the most humble roadside restaurant charges the equivalent of three dollars for a plate of food. "There's no room for saving," Guinkpa says. "It would mean I would have to starve."

Guinkpa aspires to become a financial analyst for the government, earning twice what he now takes home. He fears that, instead, he will have to work a lower-paying job...


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pp. 21-33
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