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Surging BRIC middle classes are eclipsing global poverty

By 2022, those living in poverty will be a minority for the first time, as the global middle class – particularly from BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations – surges. Does new affluence signal shifting global power?

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"Volunteer organizations defending the environment or helping disadvantaged people are all set up and run by middle-class people," says Zhang Wanli of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

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Such activities are fairly localized, if only because the ruling Communist Party does not tolerate wider networks of citizens that might threaten its control over society. "We are a long way from a full-blown civil society," says Jie Chen, a professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia. "Maybe when 50 to 60 percent of the population is middle-class they may feel more confident."

Even if many middle-class Chinese are dissatisfied with government policies, they are currently "a force for stability," says Bruce Dickson, a politics professor at George Washington University in Wash­ington. "So many of them have benefited directly from government policies and they want them to continue."

On the personal level, though, the price of social and material success is high, says Helen Wang, author of "The Chinese Dream": "A lot of middle-class people in China are suffering from extreme anxiety … because of peer pressure to keep up with the Joneses, because of the high cost of health care for their parents and of education for their kids."

As many from China to Brazil improve their lives, global income and spending power are becoming more evenly distributed worldwide. But within individual countries, particularly in Asia, inequality is increasing because the rich are getting richer faster than the middle class can expand its share of the national pie. The growing middle classes could, however, pressure governments to adopt economic and social policies aimed at protecting them against inequality, inflation, and bubbles such as the real estate ones that have hit the US and Europe. On a more personal level, it could cause individuals to seek something more lasting than economic prosperity.

"Under the current social circumstances of big changes, people lack a sense of security," says Ms. Zhang, noting the rising popularity of religion in China. "It means they will have a greater desire and need for spiritual succor."

Peter Ford in Beijing, Ben Arnoldy in Delhi, and Julia Michaels in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

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