Middle-class Canadians: Just how stretched are you?

It's enough to make middle-class Canadians go dizzy.

One set of numbers suggests their wages are stagnating and they're mired in debt. Then another set comes along suggesting the net worth of those same Canadians has been rising quite healthily.

Politicians are hoping to spin those numbers to court voters, but trying to assess the true economic state of the middle class is not as simple as they might like Canadians to think.

"Two political parties are focusing very much on this," says Charles Beach, a retired economics professor from Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"You can see how the Liberal Party is focusing more on [how] incomes particularly in the labour market have just not been keeping up, whereas Conservatives are focusing more on 'Hey, look, net worth is going up.'

"They're both pointing to evidence which is true. It's out there, but it's selective."

Everyone can agree on what the basic evidence is, says Beach. It's provided by Statistics Canada, which offers up reams of data on incomes and how they've changed over the years, along with other information such as the net worth of Canadians.

Some people will opt for a rosier picture that real incomes are going up, but others will say if they are going up, it's only slowly "and it's because we're working harder to get it, so we're stretched to maintain the standard of living, to say nothing of getting ahead," Beach says.

Beach declines to offer any kind of opinion or assessment on what is a "very value-loaded" issue: "I just look at the hard evidence."

But he knows Canadians who consider themselves middle class have been saying they feel stretched economically, and he says "that's what the evidence shows." Real incomes have been rising, but very slowly, "and certainly very slowly relative to the generation I grew up in."

Statistics Canada data shows the median total family income for all family units rose from $52,600 in 1976 to $54,000 in 2009, he says. (All figures in 2009 dollars.)

But those incomes have been going up at a cost, he says, "of more people having to spend more time earning their income."

"That means less time to do other things — raise a family, find time for a vacation and things like this."

For all the attention that has been focused on the middle class and its plight, there is one particularly interesting question: just exactly who is in it?

"There's a lot of different definitions of who the middle class is," says Brenda Lafleur, an economist and program director with the Conference Board of Canada.

Some definitions look at median after-tax family incomes. Others look at income distribution.

Lafleur says there are a lot of misconceptions about who is actually in the middle class.

"I think somebody is probably middle class if family income is somewhere between $40,000 and $80,000," she says. "There's a lot of people above that that consider themselves middle class."

Lafleur thinks that could be a result of a "skewed view" we have of what it means to be rich, perhaps because of modern media, and a belief that the rich are like the Kardashians of reality TV fame or the Thomsons of Canadian corporate fame. People like the Thomsons "control a lot of the wealth, but that's a really small number," she says.

For a broader picture, Lafleur likes to look at the Statistics Canada data that divides Canadians into five income groups, from lowest to highest, and looks at what share of the total economic pie each represents.

"I like that because it shows you the shifts in the overall pool of income," she says.

"And what that shows us is that if you take that middle group, so the absolute middle in there, their share of the economic pie has been shrinking over time."

In 1976, their share was 17.9 per cent. By 1998, it was 16.6 per cent. In 2005, it had fallen a bit more, to 16.5 per cent. And in 2010, it was 16.2.

That decline comes at a time when jobs people traditionally considered middle-class have been disappearing.

"A lot of those middle-class jobs that were highly paid manufacturing jobs have gone and service jobs are taking over," says Lafleur.

At the same time, the economic share held by the top income group has grown, from 41 per cent in 1976 to 44.3 per cent in 2010.

"So if you're thinking about that issue of the middle class, the true middle class, [they] have been squeezed," says Lafleur.

That doesn't mean their incomes haven't gone up. This is all relative, Lafleur says. Everyone is better off in an absolute sense, but the top 20 per cent are better off in a relative sense.

"Nobody's getting poorer in the absolute sense. Even the people in the lower income groups, their incomes are rising in real terms, but again, when you look who's rising the fastest … it's the higher incomes that have the biggest growth rate."

Lafleur says in that sense, the middle income group is "kind of losing out in a relative sense overall."

But, she hastens to add, we're not at some sort of economic tipping point.

"We tend to have a kind of 'the sky is falling, the sky is falling' [impression], and a lot of that comes from the U.S.

"The United States is doing much worse than us. Their income inequality has risen quite dramatically."

While Canadian incomes have risen in absolute terms, Beach says in the U.S., total incomes for all family units, along with all economic family units, have fallen by seven per cent since 2000.

The state of the Canadian middle class was also drawn to the forefront late last month when a report from Statistics Canada said the 2012 median net worth among family units had risen 44.5 per cent since 2005, and was $243,800.

"You have to ask some questions of where that's coming from," says Lafleur, noting most of it is from property, with some from cars and some from pension plans.

"That's not money for today," she says.

"It's a paper wealth, for sure, but unless you have a plan to actually be able to convert that into a net increase, it doesn't mean much."

In the end, it's unlikely there ever will be widespread agreement on how the middle class is doing.

"Everyone can agree what the basic evidence is, but different people from different perspectives will draw different inferences from it," says Beach.

"That's always been the case. That always will be the case."