OPINION: Political showmanship does nothing for dwindling middle class

by | Apr 21, 2017 | Opinion

By: Hunter Crowther

What is ‘middle class’ and how does the government define it?

One of the often repeated phrases I hear from the politicians of Queen’s Park and Ottawa is middle class, and what to do with said middle class.

‘How to strengthen it,’ ‘how to grow it,’ doing whatever-adjective-fits-today to the middle class was, and still is, what resonates with voters the most. ‘Improving the middle class’ is a reverberation of the populistic undertones which overtook the global political landscape: and we still don’t know what the hell it means.

In a March 22 column, CBC’s Neil Macdonald wrote how he once asked several government officials and experts what Canada’s middle class means. He narrowed the responses into four answers:

• Any household with a family income of less than $150,000

• Any household with a family income between $27,000 and $118,000

• Anyone making more than the bottom 20 per cent of the population or less than the top 20 per cent

• The government doesn’t like to define it.

Let’s look at #2. Does that mean the middle class includes a single-mother renting a one-room walk-up who can only work part-time and relies on childcare, as well a married couple living in the suburbs with two cars and can afford to put their kids in organized sports?

A painfully condescending and particularly ignorant quote regarding the middle class came from federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, just a week after the Trudeau government was elected and introduced legislature aimed at, of course, supporting the middle class.

“When middle class Canadians – and those working hard to join the middle class – have money in their pockets to save, invest and grow the economy, everyone benefits,” Morneau said.

Et tu, Morneau? A week into the most anticipated Canadian government to take office in generations, and back to the well we go for oversaturated political jargon? How can we strive to join something we can’t define?

The rosey-red tinted sunglasses of Trudeaumania, a glimmer of the ‘Hope’ former U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was built on, skewed the vision of Canada’s future and has continued the trend of chauvinistic showmanship wrapped around a lack of commitment to an alleged middle class.

Oh, and that middle class legislation? The feds cut the tax rate for individuals making just under $45,000 to under $90,000. At most, an individual could save $670 a year (!). It’s not nothing, but it’s barely anything.

The National Post mentioned in a September 2015 analysis of Trudeau’s campaign, a married couple who earn $40,000 each would not be considered middle class, but if one spouse earned $80,000 and the other had no income, they’d receive the tax cut.

This is the Liberal government’s definition of the middle class. At least, the closest we’ve gotten to a Liberal definition of the middle class.

Forget about politicians, what we define as middle class is hardly perfect. I surveyed fellow Humber Et Cetera staff and asked what they would consider the average income of a middle class family (for this example, the average family has two adults and 2.5 children).

The answers ranged from $55,000 to $115,000, each person shrugging their shoulders when they handed me their answers on ripped pieces of paper. “It’s an impossible answer.”

An email with the same question to a colleague currently reporting in the territories gave a unique answer.

“It varies significantly, depending on province,” she wrote in her response. “I wouldn’t necessarily put an exact number on it. Socially, it’s when people can own a vehicle, are flexible enough to have vacation, health benefits from their full time job, an undergrad or at least training in a trade.”

She hit the nail on the head. The middle class isn’t an exact number, it’s a feeling. It’s knowing the bill comes at the end of the month and it will be paid. It’s comfort knowing your children are fed and provided for. The idea of the middle class was created after the Second World War, when industry thrived and someone could have a 30-year career with benefits, pension and vacation waiting for them out of high school.

Today, none of that exists. All the middle class is is a fallacious narrative played out on a political chessboard. Elected officials exploit it for votes, and its evolving definition is bordering on extinction.