54 million people fell out of the global middle class last year as the K-shaped recovery went international

Brooklyn food pantry coronavirus
People line up outside a food pantry in Brooklyn on Nov. 12, 2020.

  • Roughly 54 million people fell out of the global middle class during the pandemic recession, Pew data shows.
  • About 152 million people sank into the lower-income class or into poverty, reversing years of improvement.
  • Poorer economies saw the biggest losses, adding to the global recovery’s K-shaped trend.
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As economies turn toward reopening and recovery, the coronavirus’ economic toll is coming into focus. The picture is incredibly bleak.

The distribution of COVID-19 vaccines presents a clear end to the pandemic, but new data from the Pew Research Center suggests that returning to pre-pandemic unemployment levels is only the first step toward a full rebound. The firm estimates that 54 million more people fell out of the global middle class in 2020 than would have had the pandemic not emerged.

The classification includes people who live on $10 to $20 a day, or those who earn roughly $14,600 to $29,200 a year. That spread straddles the US poverty line and is well below median earnings in advanced economies.

That decline would’ve been larger had China, which is home to more than one-third of the world’s middle class, not avoided a recession, Rakesh Kochhar, senior researcher at Pew, said. Still, growth in that country has slowed significantly as it faces obstacles to vaccinating its huge population.

Separately, about 152 million people fell from the global upper and middle class into the lower class and poverty. Pew’s definition of global poverty encompasses those living on less than $2 a day, or earning less than $2,920 a year for a family of four.

Like other aspects of the economic downturn, the pandemic’s negative effects have driven an uneven, K-shaped recovery. Middle-class dropouts were most concentrated in South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific, as those regions saw growth in that cohort stall well before the pandemic hit. The increase in those classified as “poor” was primarily seen in India and Sub-Saharan Africa, reversing years of progress and plunging the regions into new economic pain, Kochhar said.

The regional disparities reflect observations made by the International Monetary Fund in its latest economic projections. The organization expects emerging-market and low-income economies to “suffer more significant medium-term losses,” as they lack the fiscal firepower to power a stronger recovery. Countries with large dependencies on the tourism industry also risk prolonged downturns, the IMF said.

“Recoveries are diverging dangerously across and within countries,” wrote Gita Gopinath, chief economist for the IMF.

At the same time, data collected by Bloomberg show wealthier countries vaccinating 25 times faster than the world’s poorest nations. Advanced economies snapped up doses throughout the fall, creating a shortage that further inflames the recovery’s K-shaped trend.

To be sure, the pandemic only exacerbated trends seen for many years. Most of the world’s population landed in either the low-income or poor groups before the health crisis, while high-earners made up the smallest group. Yet the virus’s damage to service jobs, which are primarily staffed by minorities, low-earners, and women, widened the gaps.

That’s not to say progress can’t be made. The global middle-class population grew by 54 million people annually on average from 2011 to 2019. The pandemic only erased a year of gains at that pace.

Poverty, however, jumped by 131 million people in 2020 after falling at an average annual rate of 49 million people, according to Pew. The setback signals that, at the pre-pandemic pace of improvement, it will still take years to rebound.

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The IMF lifts its global growth forecast with vaccination and stimulus likely to be a shot in the arm

Kristalina Georgieva
IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva speaks at a press conference in Washington D.C., the United States, on March 4, 2020.

  • The IMF will lift its forecast for global economic growth in a report set for release next week.
  • Vaccination and new US stimulus were grounds for the upgrade, the IMF’s managing director said.
  • Still, developing economies are recovering far slower than advanced countries, she added.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The International Monetary Fund will lift its projections for global economic growth in the wake of encouraging vaccination trends and major new stimulus in the US, Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said Tuesday.

The IMF will roll out an upgraded set of forecasts for this year and for 2022 next week when it publishes its World Economic Outlook report, she said. The organization’s January estimates saw global output growing 5.5% in 2021 after a forecasted tumble of 3.5% the previous year. The months since have seen COVID-19 cases fall from their peaks, vaccine rollouts begin, and $1.9 trillion in new fiscal support from the Biden administration.

The developments all stand to boost global economic recoveries through the summer, Georgieva said in prepared remarks.

“This allows for an upward revision to our global forecast for this year and for 2022,” she said.

Without “extraordinary effort” from essential workers and scientists, the global recession seen through most of 2020 would have been “at least three times worse,” the managing director added.

The news isn’t all good. Georgieva highlighted that, despite the broadly improved outlook, the global recovery remains uneven and gaps between countries could widen in the coming months. The US and China are likely to reach pre-pandemic levels of gross domestic product by the end of the year, but “they are the exception, not the rule,” she said.

New virus strains in Europe and Latin America are fueling high uncertainty about the region’s prospects. Emerging and developing countries also endured a 20% drop in per-capita income, roughly twice that seen in advanced economies. The plunge leaves emerging countries with a much harder climb back to pre-crisis health.

“They already have more limited fiscal firepower to fight the crisis. And many are highly exposed to hard-hit sectors, such as tourism,” Georgieva said

One upgrade among many

The IMF joins a handful of other institutions turning more bullish toward the US and global rebounds. Fitch lifted its own forecast for global expansion on March 18 to 6.1% from 5.3%, similarly citing stimulus and progress toward reopening. The estimate implies the strongest year of global growth since at least 1980.

US growth will outperform slightly at 6.2%, Fitch said. That’s up from the previous estimate of 4.5%.

“It still looks reasonable to assume that the health crisis will ease by midyear, allowing social contact to start to recover. But immunization delays or problems remain the key risk,” the firm said.

Wall Street giants have also boosted their estimates in recent weeks. Morgan Stanley is among the most bullish, lifting its US growth estimate to 8.1% in 2021 from 7.6% in an early March note. The forecast also calls for US GDP to reach pre-pandemic levels by the end of the first quarter.

Bank of America raised its 2021 US growth estimate to 7% from 6.5% on Thursday, marking its fourth upgrade this year alone. The revision was entirely linked to Democrats’ new stimulus measure and the “exceptional consumer spending” seen among those receiving relief checks, the team led by Michelle Meyer wrote.

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