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Latin America's middle class grows, but with a tenuous grasp on status

Although 56 million households have joined Latin America's middle class, many lack the benefits and job security to ensure stability.

Latin America's middle class: Job promoters hand out flyers along a main street in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 25.

Paulo Whitaker/Reuters/File

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With a regular salary as a beauty salon manager, Edgar Ladino supports his two children, leases a compact car, and is able to make rent payments on time.

“It’s not my dream job, but it’s OK,” he says with a shrug, sipping a latte at a Bogotá shopping mall.

Mr. Ladino may not love his job, but it has landed him a spot in the burgeoning Latin American middle class. Millions across the region are finally setting up new companies, buying cars and homes, and helping to further stabilize democracies. In the world’s most unequal region, their rise has dominated policy documents, academic papers, and press reports.

Fifty-six million households have joined the Latin American middle class in the past decade and a half, according to new analysis by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), which studied 10 countries in the region representing 80 percent of the population. The growth mirrors trends in the rest of the world, the group says, with 1.3 billion people today calling themselves middle class.

But behind good news lies a troubling reality. While new members of Latin America's middle class might be better off than their parents, the benefits often taken for granted by their Western counterparts remain far from their grasp. Many are barely holding on to their new status, with insecure jobs and poor access to quality education for their children. In most cases, they are more likely to fall into poverty again than rise into affluence.

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