Africa’s Middle Class Is Booming, While America’s Is Shrinking

A new study finds sub-Saharan Africa’s middle class is on track to nearly triple by 2030.

Middle-class children in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Courtesy

Aug 22, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

Here’s the latest piece of evidence that things in the developing world are much better than you think: A new study finds that the number of middle-class households in sub-Saharan Africa has tripled since the turn of the century and is on track to nearly triple again—to more than 40 million—by 2030.

The study, by South Africa–based Standard Bank, the continent’s biggest lender, examined 11 African countries, excluding relatively wealthy South Africa. It found that about 15 million of the 110 million households in Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia are lower middle class and middle class, consuming from $15 to $115 a day.

“Between 2000 and 2014, we’ve seen a tripling of middle-class households across these 11 countries,” Simon Freemantle, a political economist at Standard Bank, told Bloomberg. “It confirms that idea that Africa has structurally changed, that there has been real improvement in the last 10 years.” Some countries saw even stronger gains: In Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, the middle class has grown by 600 percent since 2000.

This is just the beginning. The Standard Bank researchers predict that the number of middle-class households in those countries will swell from today’s 15 million to more than 40 million by 2030. The growth is being driven by surging foreign investment, development of oil, gas, and other natural resources, and the gradual ebbing of violence and corruption in many places.

While things are looking up for the middle class on the world’s poorest continent, in the world’s richest country, the United States, things are moving in the opposite direction.

Here, as Pew Research puts it, “since 2000, the middle class has shrunk in size, fallen backward in income and wealth, and shed some...of its characteristic faith in the future.” By Pew’s definition—households earning between two-thirds and twice the national median income—the number of Americans in the middle class has dropped since 1971 from 61 percent to 51 percent.

Add that trajectory to the list of things that are worse in the U.S. than in the developing world—though you should probably think twice before you start hunting for a job in Lagos. Most Africans are still poor, millions of them extremely so. Still, that’s changing, and fast.