Before this election campaign even began, Canadians must have known they’d be hearing a lot about the middle class in the lead-up to Oct. 21. Make things better for the middle class, invest in the middle class, grow the middle class — all ultimately a bid to win the vote of the middle class.
The tactic worked for Justin Trudeau in 2015 and so, in nearly every appearance of this campaign, Trudeau has again spoken about improving the lives of “the middle class and those working hard to join it.”
The Conservatives are using the trope, too. The push from Andrew Scheer’s campaign is to make him the “average guy” — a guy like you or the guy next door. And so he talks about how he grew up in a “middle-class” household, and how he “gets” what the average Canadian is going through. (Read: unlike Trudeau, who grew up privileged).
But who exactly is the middle class?
“The more you go into it, the more you realize it becomes a dark and tangly mess,” said Doug May, professor of economics at Memorial University.
It is sometimes loosely described as those who are neither rich nor poor — or as individuals who are neither in the top 20 per cent nor the bottom 20 per cent of income earners.
There is no official definition.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines a member of the middle class as anyone who earns between 75 per cent and 200 per cent of median household income after tax.
Based on the most recent data available from Statistics Canada, in this country that means anywhere from about $45,000 to $120,000.
“It’s a huge range,” said Wolfgang Lehmann, chair of sociology at Western University. “I think, essentially, they’re talking about people who go and vote.”
“Middle class is, to me, the quintessential reflection of a polite Canadian. We’re not too rich, we’re not too poor. We don’t have any particularly radical views on anything. We pay our taxes, we own a home, we drive a car. We’re middle class.”
But at the same time, he says, middle class is no monolith.
“[They] don’t have all the same opinions and attitudes about taxation, they don’t have the same opinions and attitudes about immigration. There’s a huge range of needs and experiences.”
In 2015, Justin Trudeau spoke in an interview with Peter Mansbridge about “the middle-class tax bracket” as being from $44,000 to $89,000, and a “typical” family of four being one that earned $90,000 a year.
But where you live also makes a huge difference. A family of four earning that $90,000 in downtown Vancouver or Toronto could be living a very different life than one living in, say, Charlottetown or Regina.
Still, a poll done for Maclean’s in 2017 found that 70 per cent of respondents — regardless of demographic or where they lived — considered themselves middle class. The only exception was in Ontario, where the figure was 68 per cent.
To muddy it further, this is how Liberal Transport Minister Marc Garneau described middle class in the House of Commons in May of that same year:
“Middle-class values are values that are common to most Canadians from all backgrounds, who believe in working hard to get ahead and hope for a better future for their children.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking, well, isn’t that pretty much everyone?
At the time, Stephen Gordon, an economist at Laval University, told CBC News, “I’d put this [definition] in the ‘not useful’ category,” because it would be difficult to base policy on such a definition, especially if you were aiming to target economic benefits.
“It’s so broad that approximately every Canadian could be labelled as ‘middle class.”‘
The bottom line? It’s pretty much a personal definition. And politicians know that the greatest single chunk of Canadians believes the middle class is them. And every politician wants the biggest chunk of votes.
“So if you’re a politician,” said May, “whether you’re a Trump or you’re a Prime Minister Trudeau and you said ‘we’re going to grow the middle class?’ I’m with you.”