Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

William Watson: Middle class doesn’t need help of politicians

As the saying goes, God must love poor people, He created so many of them. The Almighty might still love the poor, but these days, politicians love the middle class.

As the saying goes, God must love poor people, He created so many of them. The Almighty might still love the poor, but these days, politicians love the middle class.

Justin Trudeau wants to be prime minister so he can help the middle class, though he concedes he is not one of them.

Stephen Harper is often condemned by Toronto elitists for being much too middle class.

The NDP has always claimed to side with “working Canadians” — as if to imply large numbers of Canadians loll about instead — but it would be shocking if, in its push to form a government, that stance doesn’t change to helping the middle class.

In short, everybody in politics wants to help the middle class.

The reason, of course, is that there are so many of them. And, dutiful as their middle-class values make them, they vote. Beyond those two attributes, just what does “middle class” mean?

To a lot of people, middle class denotes lifestyle. It conjures up the image of a Leave It to Beaver house, car and suburbia. In fact, Beaver’s house was grander than most middle-class people had access to in the 1950s. The Cleavers were clearly upper middle class.

By these ownership standards, our middle class is doing just fine. Close to 70 per cent of Canadian families either own their own homes or are on the way to doing so, which is higher than in the U.S.

As for car ownership, the idea that it’s a middle-class thing is not so crazy. A 2012 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace study uses the number of privately registered cars in a country as an index of how big its middle class is. By that measure, we also do well.

As of 2009, Statistics Canada reports, there were 19.9 million registered vehicles in Canada weighing less than 4.5 tonnes, versus 33.7 million people (also weighing less than 4.5 tonnes), which translates to 590 cars per 1,000 people. That’s not as impressive as the U.S. number — 797, according to the World Bank. But it’s up there internationally.

Can we be a little more precise about the middle class?

In 2010, Statistics Canada tells us, the median income of families in Canada was $55,400. Suppose we choose arbitrary end points and say everyone with an income between $30,000 and $75,000 is middle class. How big a middle class does that give us?

In 2010, 39.5 per cent of “family units,” which actually includes unattached individuals, fell in that range. That compares with 41.7 per cent in 1976. (Because of inflation since then, in 1976 you only had to earn between $7,898 and $19,744 in the dollars of the day to qualify for this range.)

So by this definition, the middle class has shrunk by a little more than two percentage points. Though hardly a drastic change, it will worry anyone who thinks the middle class is crucial to democracy, civilization and their getting elected.

However, this decline has a silver lining. The middle has been declining mainly because the top has been growing. The share of family units with incomes greater than $75,000 has risen from 30.6 per cent in 1976 to 36 per cent in 2010.

It’s easy to understand political concern for the middle class. But in fact, God made so many middle-class people they can probably — and might prefer to — take care of themselves. The people governments should be worrying about are the poor. And in fact, as other Statistics Canada data show, we haven’t actually been doing a bad job on that score. The percentage of the population falling below various low-income cutoffs has been stable or even, despite the economic crisis, declining.

God may not be making as many poor people as He used to, but even so, they’re who politicians should be focusing on.

William Watson teaches economics at McGill University in Montreal.