Newspaper article The Canadian Press

As Canadian Politicians Focus on the 'Middle Class,' Who Are They Talking To?

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

As Canadian Politicians Focus on the 'Middle Class,' Who Are They Talking To?

Article excerpt

Defining the so-called 'middle class'


OTTAWA - Canada's middle class is the darling of doting politicians everywhere -- the focus of a growing list of election promises, the subject of endless speeches, the precious vote-rich prize whose support can make or break a political party in this year's federal election.

The importance of the middle class is not in question. But its membership certainly is. Who belongs to this club anyway?

Politicians and economists often have different definitions of the middle class, a demographic Canadians will hear more and more about as the October election date approaches.

"One of the troubles with the term middle class is it's so elastic and there's not a clear-cut definition," said Charles Beach, an economist and Queen's University professor emeritus.

In research literature, Beach said there are two different arbitrary yet conventional definitions of the middle class.

One ranks family incomes from poorest to richest and then isolates the middle 50 per cent. The other method, Beach added, orders all family incomes from lowest to highest, selects the middle income (the median) and then includes everything from between 50 and 150 per cent of that number.

But when it comes to politics, Beach describes the term "middle class" as a convenient phrase politicians can sculpt any way they like to relate to a large segment of the population, particularly since surveys have shown most Canadians consider themselves part of this group without quite defining what it is.

Politicians have recently offered clues on who they believe fits into the middle class, to varying degrees of detail.

Federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver suggested recently that families with kids that have pre-tax, annual incomes of about $120,000 were part of the middle class.

The Opposition New Democrats' definition focuses on the middle 60 per cent of income earners, while the Liberals describe the segment as the largest group of Canadians whose earnings allow for things like decent housing, education and retirement.

Economists feel more comfortable sticking to statistical models, but even those within the research community have different methods of characterizing it.

An internal Finance Department document produced for Oliver shows that differences exist between political and statistical interpretations of the middle class.

The July memorandum, signed by deputy minister Paul Rochon, defines the middle class as a narrow, 20-per-cent slice -- or the middle fifth -- of all Canadian households.

In its example, the department described middle class as households where members 16 and older took home an average 2010 income between $34,400 and $44,900, after adding government transfers and deducting taxes.

The department, which included its interpretation in a broader document exploring the "economic situation of Canadians in middle-class families," acknowledged the subjective nature of the term.

"There is no consensus definition of 'middle class,' nor is there an official government definition," said the memo, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Major political parties have already made the middle class a focus of their pre-election discourse.

"If you want to fight for the middle class, you do it by putting more of their money back in their pockets," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at a Jan. …

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