Mariam, married with five children, lived in a nice apartment in Kileleshwa. Her children went to a nearby school. Once a year, they took a bus to visit Mombasa to allow the children enjoy the Christmas vacation with their grandparents; a typical Kenyan middle class family.
Without notice, her husband of 20 years had ran off with a young girl from university and stopped supporting his family within a few months. After rent arrears accumulated and the children were kicked out of school, Mariam was forced to relocate to a cheaper one bedroom apartment.
She opened a kiosk with the little money that her brothers gave her and moved the children to a government school. Within months, she moved from the middle class to the lower income bracket.
Such is the predicament of the Kenyan middle class. They sit precariously on an economic precipice that could collapse any time. Many families have found their financial circumstances changed overnight because of death, loss of a job or abandonment. Is the Kenyan middle class so fragile?
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There are various definitions of what constitutes the middle class. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) says that less than 2.9 per cent of Kenyans earn more than Sh100,000 per month, 64.5 per cent earn between Sh20,000 and Sh40,000. A Kenyan writer described this class as a “floating class living two to three months away from poverty”. This means that if they lost their jobs, within two to three months, they would be destitute.
Amazingly, Forbes magazine stated that 65 per cent of all Americans cannot raise $500 in an emergency. A recent IPSOS survey was even more alarming, stating that half of Kenya’s households make less than Sh10,000 per month, 2 per cent make zero income and 1 per cent makes between Sh55,000 and Sh75,000.
Another 1 per cent makes between Sh75,000 and Sh100,000 per month. At least 24 per cent earn between Sh10,000 and Sh25,000, ten per cent earn between Sh25,000 and Sh40,000 and another three per cent earn between Sh40,000 and Sh55,000 per month. Clearly, the majority of Kenyans can be described as poor, rather than middle class by these definitions. Our stated national objective as envisioned by Vision 2030 looks more and more like a pipe dream.
Middle class families cannot sustain their lifestyles for long. Many are indebted either to online lenders, banks, chama’s, saccos or friends and family. The cost of living is rising faster than incomes, which means they are becoming poorer as the days go by. Most families now depend on two incomes and if one parent is unemployed, the family suffers. As more and more of the middle class are forced to hustle, many children are abandoning school too early and by so doing, further reduce their chances of financial growth.
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The personal and family stress of surviving in these tough times is taking its toll. The number of single parent families in the urban areas is reaching alarming proportions. Drugs and alcohol addicts have increased.
The middle class is under siege from all sides. There is a growing sense of despair in the middle class and a feeling that they and their children are condemned to a life bordering on poverty and loss of upward mobility. A recent Brookings study in the United States noted the same sentiments amongst the American middle class.
But all is not lost. Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda could truly be transformational for Kenya. The new infrastructure projects are changing Kenya for the better. Kenyans today pay roughly one third of their incomes for rent because the vast majority cannot afford a mortgage. With the proposed low cost and social housing projects, lower income Kenyans could hope to own a home and build equity for the future.
Every Kenyan knows that if you don’t have rent to pay you can somehow find food. Universal healthcare is a fantastic development if fully implemented and would spare Kenyans huge hospital bills. Most Kenyans cannot afford to be sick. Though free education has opened up education to all Kenyans, our public schools are not the best.
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In 1965, Lyndon Johnson transformed the US with his ambitious dreams of a “Great Society.” He introduced programmes to reduce poverty and crime, improve education, medicare, development of depressed areas, urban renewal and conservation.
There were parts of America that looked worse than the poorest parts of Africa. He changed America for the better. Uhuru has brought some fantastic ideas that rival the vision of the Great Society. For the sake of Kenya they must be implemented.
Mr Shahbal is Chairman of Gulf Group of [email protected]