The Pandemic Stalls Growth in the Global Middle Class, Pushes Poverty Up Sharply

Advanced economies also see a decrease in living standards

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a deep effect on the global economy. In January 2020, as reports of the novel coronavirus were emerging, the World Bank forecasted that the global economy would expand by 2.5% that year. In January 2021, with the pandemic still holding much of the world in its grip, the World Bank estimated that the global economy contracted by 4.3% in 2020, a turnabout of 6.8 percentage points.

The economic downturn is likely to have diminished living standards around the world, pushing millions out of the global middle class and swelling the ranks of the poor. At the same time, the path to a recovery is clouded with uncertainties.

A new Pew Research Center analysis finds that the global middle class encompassed 54 million fewer people in 2020 than the number projected prior to the onset of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the number of poor is estimated to have been 131 million higher because of the recession.

The drop-off in the global middle class was centered in South Asia and in East Asia and the Pacific, and it stalled the expansion seen in the years preceding the pandemic. South Asia, specifically India, along with Sub-Saharan Africa, accounted for most of the increase in poverty, reversing years of progress on this front.

As defined in this report (and in previous Pew Research Center analyses), people who are middle income live on $10.01-$20 a day, which translates to an annual income of about $14,600 to $29,200 for a family of four. This is modest by the standards of advanced economies. In fact, it straddles the official poverty line in the United States – about $23,000 for a family of four in 2020 (expressed in 2011 prices). By global standards, the poor live on $2 or less a day, or no more than $2,920 annually for a family of four.

The number of people in the global high-income tier (more than $50 daily) is estimated to have decreased by 62 million in 2020, erasing about half of the gain since 2011, with most of the change emanating from advanced economies. Meanwhile, the upper-middle income population ($20.01-$50 daily) fell by 36 million, while the low-income population ($2.01-$10 daily) is estimated to have increased by 21 million.

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