The middle class may be a ‘myth,’ but it makes for a great political talking point

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew

A new report that suggests Canada’s middle class is little more than a myth does not appear to consider one key point: the value it holds as a political talking point.

According to a Conservative government report obtained by the Canadian Press, Canada’s middle class is a “myth more than a reality.” The document, prepared in October, says the wages of middle income workers were stagnant between 1993 and 2007, leaving families "increasingly vulnerable to financial shock."

In reality, does this report hint at anything the public wasn't already aware of?

The middle class is shrinking; the extremes of wealth and poverty continue to polarize. Cost of living skips ahead faster than salaries increases can dream of. Debt abounds.

But the perception of middle class-dom remains an attainable goal and a point of self-identification for many Canadians. At this point, the middle class is more of a political talking point than a tangible target.

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Indeed, the report itself notes, "In Canada, political parties are making the middle class a central piece of their agendas."

The vagueness of the term "middle class" is a political boon. It inspires images of an average Canadian family, living a modern and accessible life grounded in hard work and personal comfort. The white picket fence imagery is enviable. In reality, the concept is harder to pin down.

Statistics Canada has identified the country's median family income as $76,000, but colloquially the idea of "middle class" is further reaching. According to an Environics poll, nearly 60 per cent of respondents identified themselves as being in the middle 20 per cent of earners.

From a political standpoint, however, the allusion of the middle class still holds a distinct value. Those below that economic line strive to be part of it; those in the middle class strive to tread water, or advance to “upper middle” status.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, as the best example, has made rescuing the middle class a key tenet of his party's direction.

During Liberal convention this weekend, Trudeau said:

We need to ensure that governments keep costs as low as possible, especially for the middle class. The middle class is already having a hard time making ends meet, and struggling with debt. Tax increases for them are not in the cards, not on the table.

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Canadian Press research notes that Trudeau has mentioned the middle class in the House of Commons 52 times since Jan. 1, 2013. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has used the term it nine times, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said it twice. The Conservative’s recent budget didn’t mention the “middle class,” but did make references to “middle income” three times and discussed the budget’s impact on a “typical” Canadian family.

In fact, when the federal budget was released recently, keen-eyed observers noted a particular change in tack from previous budgets. The imaginary family used to identify typical Canadians had received a whopping 20 per cent pay increase.

The made-up family this year was earning a combined income of $120,000 – the woman earned $72,000 and the man earned $48,000. In each case, the figures were 20 per cent higher than the fictitious family from two years ago when the woman earned $60,000 and the man earned $40,000.

A 20 per cent increase to the salaries of the average Canadian family seems suspiciously rosy. The recently-obtained internal research document suggests middle-income families have seen their earnings increase by an average 1.7 per cent over the period of 15 years ending in 2007.

Then there was the global recession in 2008. But at some point since then, apparently the average imaginary Canadian family became exceptionally upward mobile.

If it is a matter of fluffing the budget’s boon to middle-class Canadians, its authors can be forgiven. There are points to be scored by appealing to middle-class Canadians, even if the existence of such a class is more myth than reality.

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