The contortionist middle-class

14 August 2017

In most ways, Lebanon’s middle-class looks like any other. It dresses in the latest Western fashion, lives a consumerist lifestyle, buys mostly imported goods, and occasionally goes out—to the cinema, the restaurant or the beach. Taken collectively, it helps shape the image of a middle-income country with a bustling services sector, which serves and is served by an educated workforce. Yet as is often the case in Lebanon, appearances can be deceiving. In this particular context, the image of a reliable middle-class is underpinned by a convoluted array of contortions on which citizens rely to maintain their standard of living—and which will quickly prove insufficient in the event of an economic shock.

The Lebanese middle-class has for years been struggling to get by, despite an eroding economy characterized by minimal growth (1% or less in 2016) and high unemployment rates, especially among its youth. Many households end up twisting themselves in knots. On one side, they count on multiple sources of income. To provide for themselves and their families, young men frequently combine a full-time job with a second occupation, resulting in hours that may climb upwards of 100 per week. Reliance on social support networks is widespread, with many depending on remittances from relatives abroad, intergenerational cash handouts, and borrowing money from friends. Personal loans are frequently used to plug income gaps, rather than fund exceptional projects; they are in such demand that banks casually advertise 15% interest rates.

On the other side of the balance sheet, many middle-class Lebanese square their budgets by finding loopholes and cutting corners. Some dodge electricity bills through the absence of a meter or by connecting illegally to the national grid. Others benefit from starkly under-priced lodgings due to the so-called “old rent” system, based on a law enacted at the end of the Second World War and extended in 1992: leases signed prior to that year have been frozen ever since, resulting in annual rents lower than what most people pay every month on the open market. Still others turn to political patrons to cover their hospital bills or grant scholarships to their children. Such distortions are rife, knocking off a household’s expenses just enough to maintain that middle-class standard. 

Official statistics are, in this field as in any other in Lebanon, impressionistic. Available figures suggest that one Lebanese employed in the private sector out of two earns less than 15 million Lebanese pounds, or $10,000, a year. That said, approximately 50% of the active workforce operates within the hazy boundaries of the informal sector, for which no reliable data exists. Likewise, statistics are elusive when it comes to civil servants, who are said to represent 15% of the total workforce.

If zooming out doesn’t help bring the picture into focus, zooming in does, however. To this end, Synaps spoke with a variety of middle-class Lebanese, pulling out several (real and nonetheless) archetypical profiles that will be recognizable to anyone living in Lebanon.

Fadi

Fadi (all names have been changed) works a total of 65 hours per week, between his factory job and his second, part-time occupation as building receptionist or natur. With an aggregate monthly income of $1,500, he manages to provide for himself and both his parents, who reached retirement age without being able to claim a pension. “We live in a recent building about 20 minutes from Beirut, so there is no electricity or water meter,” he explains. “But I already pay a lot for the generator,” which is an essential supplement for power cuts. Fadi is in his late 30s, although he says he likely will not get married. “I can’t afford a Lebanese wife. She would expect higher living conditions than I can bear. I was thinking I might marry a Syrian woman. She won’t be as demanding as a Lebanese one.”

Alya

Alya lives with her sister in the Southern suburbs of Beirut, or Dahiyeh. The two women bring in combined salaries amounting to $1,100 per month. Their brother pays their rent, which totals 2 million Lebanese pounds—or about $1,300—per four months. On top of their yearly $1,390 health insurance plan, they spend an average monthly $247 on non-reimbursable health expenses. They consider themselves lucky, because their brother also sends regular remittances to close the gap between a total income of $1,433 and their estimated $1,680 expenses.

Rim

Rim’s son works in a private company: his monthly pay of $1,000 is the only salary in a household of five. But Rim can count on an additional $1,500, received from two of her children settled abroad. She enjoys the benefit of an old rent that allows the family to live in Beirut for only $800 a year. They also cash in on her husband’s insurance plan, paid for by his last employer, a large multinational company, before he retired. There is little breathing space between a $2,500 monthly income and the family’s $2,309 expenses, so whenever Rim plans on a larger investment, such as new curtains for her living room, she uses a credit card her son gave her. 

Paul

Paul is relieved to have found a better second job. He used to be a bartender in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood; after a couple of months working without being paid, he quit. Today, Paul works as a waiter in a café in the daytime, and at night in a fancy nightclub. He spends a combined 100 hours per week on the job, for a total salary of $1,700 per month. To support his parents, who live with him, his brother sends $300 every month from the Gulf. Currently, the household breaks even, but until recently Paul regularly borrowed money. Most often, he would go to friends for a few hundred dollars here and there. Once he turned to a bank to cover his father’s hospital fees, and he still pays a monthly installment for that personal loan. “That was a bad decision,” he feels, “because a $7,500 medical bill turned into a $12,000 reimbursement, with interests and banking fees.”

Unsurprisingly, these and other respondents all know the detail of their own budgets well. Indeed, they display a fine-tuned budgetary discipline that reflects their nonexistent room for maneuver, imposing constant trade-offs between the different kinds of consumption associated with the middle class. Beyond the obvious impact on these individuals’ lives, this dynamic also has immediate political consequences.

Indeed, in terms of economic policy, Lebanon has placed itself in a catch-22. Its current model, based on spiraling public debt, is dangerously unsustainable, as elaborated elsewhere. Current dynamics will, in all likelihood, eventually provoke a devaluation of the Lebanese pound, with dire ensuing effects on the purchasing power of a population that consumes primarily imported goods—not least foodstuffs and medicine. Whatever reforms are being tabled, such as increasing VAT or suppressing the “old rent” system, will do little to stave off a structural crisis, while increasing pressure on those Lebanese who genuinely need every hard-earned dollar. More ambitious changes, such as ramping up tax collection, or turning the electricity sector from a wasteful and corrupt patronage mechanism to a streamlined service provider, would also ratchet up—at least in the early stages of a transition—the already intense economic stress many are subjected to. 

In sum, the middle-class workforce that fuels Lebanon’s economy is stretched dangerously thin, to the point where any major shock could cause disastrous consequences. Many talented young people looking for opportunities abroad claim they would stay if only they could make a living; by the same token, many employees who remain assert that they will be forced to leave if things get even marginally worse. Any successful policy-making must factor in, therefore, its impact on standards of living, and devise accompanying measures to cushion the blow.

Lebanon is fortunately endowed with international partners who collectively invest hundreds of millions of dollars in development programs—some of which could be rewired to provide such accompanying measures. As things currently stand, the impact of these programs is in any event dulled by Lebanon’s desperate need for structural economic reforms. Linking development work to economic progress offers a sensible way forward, removing some of the concerns of the ruling elite—afraid of a backlash within their popular base—and presenting donors with better returns on investment. “Making ends meet” is Lebanon’s challenge for the period to come. But it can’t rest solely on individuals twisting themselves into the most extraordinary positions. 

Rosalie Berthier

Illustration credits: Victorian contortionist, unknown artist / public domain..


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