More than 9 out of 10 Canadians self-report has belonging to the middle class. It is no wonder, then, that politicians are constantly spouting off promises to that most coveted demographic group. But when we say “middle class”, what do we really mean? No one seems to have a concrete definition of what being middle class is all about. Is it income? Lifestyle? Or something else?
When we break down what being middle class really means, I believe it is fairly clear that there are actually two distinct groups in what we call the middle class, which I would re-label as working class and middle class. Income is obviously important when defining these groups, but I think there are several other more important factors to consider, including education level achieved, home/car ownership rates, type of employment, and many others. I’ve touched upon the working class and middle class in other posts, but I thought I should expand a little bit on it, especially with an election approaching that will be very much determined by the working class.
I understand that this may not seem like a big deal, but it really is. A white man in his sixties making over $90,000 a year does not need the same types of government assistance as an aboriginal woman in her early twenties making less than $30,000 annually, yet they remain part of the large group of “middle class” voters that politicians seek to appease nonetheless. To cut through some of the hooey we will see from politicians campaigning for votes this year, let us at least demand that they address the concerns of two major income groups, rather than just a wildly diverse “middle class” that is, in all fairness, doing fairly well right now, despite constant pleas for help. The middle class is fine. It is the working class that needs help, and until we can identify this class of Canadians as a separate group from the relatively wealthy middle class, they won’t get the help they need.
Income should not be the central measure of what defines working vs. middle class issues. I think the key factors are homeownership, car ownership, pension plan membership, and education levels; union membership, type of employment (full vs. part time), job tenure, and income also ought to be considered when defining the working class. A middle class person would own their home and a car, contribute to a pension plan, and have attended college or university, whereas a working class person would rent, be less likely to own a car, not contribute to a pension, did not attend college, and would also be more likely to work part time and “job hop” more frequently. If we divide the current middle class up along these lines, two very distinct groups emerge, each with different concerns.
About half of Canadians aged 25-65 have graduated from college or university. About 70% of Canadian households owned their dwelling, though single Canadians were far less likely to own a home than were couples. Less than 40% of Canadians are members of a pension plan, not including the CPP. More than 2/3rds of workers do not belong to unions, and a significant minority of Canadian workers work either part time or on a temporary basis. Additionally, personal debt levels (not including mortgages or student debt) is growing, with more than three quarters of Canadians in debt, with average debt levels around $16,000. Affordable shelter, a stable income, worker’s rights, and the possibility of advancement through education are all key issues that are left out when the working class is grouped in with the middle class. Consumer and student debt are also key issues for the working class and the young. Working class individuals ought then to be concerned about these issues. Higher TFSA limits, income splitting, and lower income taxes do not help the working class; subsidized childcare, affordable housing, union and pension coverage, and access to education do.
There is no shame in belonging to the working class, though the term has overwhelmingly negative connotations for us now, which is a large part of the reason we self-identify as middle class. But the reality is that different Canadians need different types of help from their governments, and it is time that we stand up and demand that one of the parties in the upcoming election pledge real help for the working class.
Hope you enjoyed this short article with a simple enough message. For more on the challenges faced by working class Canadians, check out our other articles on low income earners and on the minimum wage. If you’re looking for something else to read, check out our weekly recommended reading. I’ve got some more stuff coming up soon on Canadian politics, unions, and university education in Canada, follow doonpress on WordPress or Twitter to keep updated!