By Latin American standards, Uruguay is a relatively egalitarian society with a large middle class. One factor that historically helped the country avoid social polarization was the broad provision of free public education by the state starting in the 1870s. Economic stagnation since the 1950s has reduced the opportunities for upward social mobility, but the incidence of extreme wealth and poverty still approximated the pattern of developed countries rather than that of the Third World.
Uruguay's upper classes consisted of ranchers, businessmen, and politicians. The middle classes include professionals, whitecollar workers, small businessmen, and medium-sized farmers. The lower classes consisted of blue-collar workers, domestic workers, a small number of peasants, and those forced to survive precariously in the informal sector of the economy.
Estimates of the proportion of different sectors of the population in each class are by definition arbitrary. The upper classes are conventionally held to constitute 5 percent of the citizenry, but the relative sizes of the middle and lower classes have been much debated. In the 1950s, mainstream sociologists estimated that the middle classes constituted as much as twothirds of the population. More radical writers in the 1960s suggested a figure as low as one-third. A reasonable figure, however, would be 45 percent, a proportion broadly consistent with the occupational structure revealed by census data. This left half the population in the lower-class category, although it must be stressed that class differences in Uruguay were far less pronounced than in much of Latin America.
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