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Stabroek News

Our 'poor' middle class
published: Monday | February 4, 2008

Garth Rattray

I already publicly opined tha investment 'schemes' flourish because most Jamaicans desperately need augmented incomes and economic security. Regulated financial institutions are failing miserably when it comes to sharing some of their multibillion-dollar profits with the people that ensure their success - our hard-working and trusting citizens. Between bank charges, low saving rates, high lending rates, taxes, add-on fees, steep annual inflation rates and our precipitously falling dollar, God bless the real interest that we receive on our savings and so-called 'high-yield' accounts. Should the vicissitudes of life prove unkind, no one can survive for any appreciable time on that pittance. One major illness can pauperise anyone.

I was therefore taken aback by the headline 'Greed, not need: Study says middle class populates cash schemes' published in the Sunday Gleaner of January 13. I visited the office of the organisation that carried out the in-depth study, the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), and was relieved to learn that they were not responsible for labelling our middle class as 'greedy'. Obviously, the middle class has somehow got a bum rap (undeserved blame, bad reputation) and we certainly don't deserve it.

The middle class

The middle class falls between the wealthy upper class (elite) and the lower class (unskilled labourers). Some divide the middle class into two parts; others divide it into three. It runs the gamut from the upper-middle class to the lower-middle class and incorporates some self-sustaining business owners, university/college lecturers, professionals, managers, entrepreneurs, large farmers, some politicians and bureaucrats, small business owners, teachers, small farmers, white-collar office workers, most civil servants, technicians and merchants - to name a few. Some sociologists also include blue-collar workers and skilled labourers (members of the working class) into the middle class. The middle-class is fluid; with changing fortunes, members may move between lower-middle to upper-middle class and/or back again.

Here in Jamaica, in spite of their educational background and class status, many middle-class workers (the bulk of our working, income-generating society) are not able to live comfortably and have little hope of improving their lot. Not surprisingly therefore, some of our skilled people (young and old) fulfil two definitions of the word 'poor' - having little or no wealth with few or no possessions, and deserving of pity. Many teachers, nurses and office workers are living from hand to mouth and must scrimp and save to subsist.

Bearing the burden

As usual, the middle class bears the brunt of the economic burden of our country. And, in this overtaxed, high-priced, high-inflation rate society of ours, they must seek a viable buffer to our country's financial woes. As stated before, saving in recognised institutions cannot provide appreciable asset growth or even real financial security - our dollar is too weak and our inflation rate is too high. Limited opportunities for high-end employment have forced the stressed-out middle class to seek sources of passive income in order to survive economically. Consequently, many risk some of their savings (in high-risk, high-yiel investment entities) to earn enough to pay skyrocketing utility bills, rent/mortgage, to eat properly, to provide better health care, to pay insurance premiums, to pay off loans, to feed, clothe and school themselves and their children, to spend and deposit in low-risk, regulated institutions like the banks.

Try as I might, I can see nothing greedy in that. Granted, there are some that are economically well off yet (opportunistically) jump on the gravy train of these high interest bearing entities; however, they are not the norm.

Next week: Of dreamers and 'schemers'.

Dr Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice;

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