Middle-class morality

PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS

A student of Economics asked, “How do you think the election (results) will affect the middle class? They say when the economy declines the middle-class shrinks. Although I’m already assuming the economy will decline.” She had read and reacted to my July 11, 2021 column piece in BusinessWorld, “The Middle Class burden” (https://bit.ly/MiddleClassBurden071021) where I wrote of the decline of the economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic restraints and seclusions, burdening the middle class more than the rich or the poor.

Yes, a downturn in the economy affects the middle class the most among the social classes. And the shrinking of the middle class compounds the decline of the economy further. But before that, the middle class primarily spurs economic growth: A strong middle class provides a stable consumer base that drives productive investment and is a key factor in encouraging other national and societal conditions that lead to growth. The Philippine economy expanded by 5.6% in 2021 as loosened pandemic-related restrictions buoyed business activity at year-end (https://asia.nikkei.com, Jan. 27, 2022). The Filipino middle class is about 44% of the population in this consumption-driven economy that looks to the services sector manned mainly by the middle class. About 13% of middle-income households had a member working as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) contributing $31.4 billion in cash remittances last year, providing strong backing to the Philippines’ economic recovery from the pandemic (Ibid.). The middle class pays taxes on at least 30% of its income.

The Philippine Statistics Office shows that as of 2020, there are 46 million Filipinos (about 12 million households) who are “Middle Class,” with a range of monthly family incomes from P23,381 (Lower Middle Class) to P46,761 (Middle-Middle Class) to P81,832 (Upper Middle Class) peaking at P140,284 which is the maximum before the next “Upper Income but not Rich” income class. The Middle Class would be 43.5% of the total population of 105.76 million per the PSO. The Low Income but not Poor would be 38.4% of population, and the 17.7 million Poor (earning below the P11,690 poverty level) would be 16.7% of population.

Note that among those considered middle-class households, 63%, or 7.6 million households, belong to the lower middle-income group. About a quarter are middle-middle class and a tenth in the upper-middle income class. How perilously easy it is for the middle class to tumble down like lightly stacked domino chips to the dismal “poor” level! And that is why the middle class is the most worried, as they are most affected by a decline in the economy.

The 2018 Family and Income Expenditure Survey conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) showed that in 2015, half of the middle-income persons aged 24 years and above attained education beyond secondary education. About 25% of middle-income persons work in wholesale (buy and sell) and retail trade (sari-sari and small stores), while nearly a fifth work in small transport (tricycle, jeepney, or bus). About 16% of this income group work in government, mostly as clerks or public-school teachers, and only 11% of them derive incomes from agriculture, and most of them belonged to the lower-middle-income group. About 13% of middle-income households had a member working as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) with most of them belonging to the upper-middle-income group.

Three in five urban households are middle-class, but only 3% are high-income. The majority of them reside in Metro Manila followed by the Calabarzon region and Central Luzon, while a little more than half are spread across other regions. The middle class is comfortable, and happy with themselves for what status and stability they have achieved for themselves through plain hard work and perseverance.

Sociologists have pointed out that this feeling of achievement and the accompanying fear of losing social and economic status characterizes the middle class. The rich, by their entrenched most superior position of vast resources, are confident and secure; the poor, by their pitiful lack of resources and opportunities are mostly resigned to their status and can only dream of miracles. But the middle class can stay in place only by working hard; rise by working harder; or sink by not working enough. Worse, the middle class can sink by other “macro” forces like a downturn in the economy, with inflation, increase in cost of living, taxes etc. Or, be intimidated by a more than two-year-long COVID pandemic that refuses to go away yet.

The natural defense mechanism for the middle class that has developed in the regime of capitalist economies is the iconic “Middle-Class Morality” — a working cliché passed down from English linguistic tradition believed to be initiated by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw in his 1938 play, Pygmalion. Shaw portrays through parody, the elitist middle class as having some of the highest levels of morals and work ethics as the discipline to guard their status. “The term ‘middle-class values’ is used by various writers and politicians to include such qualities as hard work, self-discipline, thrift, honesty, aspiration, and ambition” (Daily Express, May 10, 2013).

Perhaps G.B. Shaw went overboard to caricature the social-economic middle class in his Victorian-Edwardian time, those plebeians who wanted to act, talk, and even dress like the rich, but snorted at the lack of finesse of the poor like the Cockney Eliza, and the lack of moral values of her bum-father, Alfred Doolittle. With the stereotyping by Shaw, many have disparaged and mocked this so-called middle-class morality as a holier-than-thou demeanor that hides base instincts for economic survival and collective power. But the collective mobilization and angry protests of the middle class in Pakistan ousted the eight-year dictator Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and had him executed in 1979 for transgressions of human rights and corruption. “Bhutto fell due to middle-class morality,” Political Science professor K. Husain said (https://nayadaur.tv, Dec. 19, 2018).

It was Filipino middle-class morality that roused the groundswell for the EDSA People Power Revolution and ousted the dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, Sr. in 1986. “Tama na, sobra na!” (Enough is enough!) Filipinos were shocked and angered to the extreme by the cold-blooded assassination in public of oppositionist senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. on Aug. 21, 1983. Strangely alarming is the obvious parallel fate of Marcos Sr. and Bhutto at the judgment and action of middle-class morality.

But after a passionate climax, there is the languid stupor of relaxation. The Filipino collective consciousness thereafter might have been complacent and forgiving of the seeming relaxed standards of morality in government, as there might have been even in personal life. Or, new standards were evolving, not for the better. Why were some 12 coup d’états attempted against President Corazon Aquino, an icon of Philippine democracy at EDSA I? What did middle-class morality actively do to chasten the few military men who wanted to rule the country their way? No collective mobilization? But as should be, the justice system punished the putschists — until they were pardoned by the next president, Fidel Ramos.

It would be un-Christian to say that the pardoning was perhaps the figurative turning point in the degrading of EDSA I, but the coups certainly urged the lowering of the strict standards of middle-class morality for integrity and democracy — after all, the middle class led the EDSA People Power Revolution.

And now, 36 years after EDSA I, the son and namesake of the ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. is presumptive president of democratic Philippines, voted in by some 31 million Filipinos on May 9, 2022.

What was your question again, dear student? “How do you think the election will affect the middle class?”

It will depend on Middle-Class Morality.

Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.

ahcylagan@yahoo.com