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You can get a very different picture of the world depending on which definition of middle class you use. A 2009 analysis by economist Martin Ravallion, then at the World Bank, now at Georgetown, found that between 1990 and 2002, 1.2 billion people in the developing world became middle class as defined by the $2-a-day threshold, while only 80 million, or 7 percent, became “Western middle class,” meaning they would not be considered poor by U.S. standards. (The current U.S. poverty line is $11,490 per year for a single person.)
It’s not surprising that countries—and the multilateral bodies that represent them or take credit for helping them—are eager to use the most generous numbers. “Developing countries that are growing fast take pride in that they’re getting richer and contributing more to growth at the global level,” Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, told Slate. “Part of the discussion for them is, ‘We also have now a middle class. We’re not just poor countries.’ ”