Greece, Argentina, and the Middle-Income Trap

SANTIAGO – Aside from an established tradition of bad macroeconomics, what do Greece and Argentina have in common? One answer is that they were the world’s longest-held captives of the so-called middle-income trap – and remain within its reach to this day. With countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin American fearing that, having reached the international middle class, they could be stuck there, Greece and Argentina shed light on how that might happen.

A recent paper by economists from Bard College and the Asian Development Bank categorizes the world economy according to four groups – with the top two categories occupied by upper-middle-income and high-income countries – and tracks countries’ movements in and out of these groups. Which countries were stuck for the longest period in the upper-middle-income category before moving to high income? You guessed it: Greece and Argentina.

Correcting for variations in the cost of living across countries, the paper concludes that $10,750 of purchasing power in the year 1990 is the threshold for per capita income beyond which a country is high income, while $7,250 makes it upper-middle income. (These thresholds may sound low, but the World Bank uses similar cutoffs.)

By these criteria, Argentina became an upper-middle-income country all the way back in 1970, and then spent 40 years stuck in that category before reaching high-income status in 2010. Greece joined the international upper middle class in 1972, and then took 28 years to reach the top income group, in 2000.