On the campaign trail, everyone's singing the middle-class blues

In this election, politicians of all stripes are turning themselves inside out to sound like champions of the middle class. But what is the middle class? And is anyone tackling the real roots of today's middle-class anxiety?

Lots of rhetoric, few truly new ideas for today's 'precarious,' worrying middle class

NDP Leader plays barista on the campaign trail and is serving up tax breaks for small business as part of his bid to woo middle-class voters. (Tom Parry / CBC)

On May 8, 1974, the NDP voted to defeat the budget brought forward by the minority Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, triggering a federal election that was held two months later. When asked outside the Commons why he would not support the budget, then NDP leader David Lewis explained:

"To ask us to support a budget that gave the ordinary worker 96 cents a week in a tax cut is just irresponsible, and what we needed was some additional help for the pensioners, for the low-income people of Canada, for the working poor."

Did you notice all the different people Lewis thought were not being properly served by that budget: low-income earners, ordinary workers, pensioners, the working poor.

Did you notice who he did not mention? Here's a hint.

It's from the current NDP leader, Tom Mulcair, explaining why he could not support the Conservative government budget presented last spring.

"The most important thing is the Conservative's balancing this budget on the backs of the middle class. Mr. Harper's theme now for years has been to increase inequality in our society. So he's going to take billions of dollars from the middle class and give it to the richest 15 per cent."  

Middle class rules!

"The poor you will always have with you," the Bible tells us. The same, perhaps, goes for ordinary workers and pensioners.

All those people that David Lewis singled out in 1974 are still out there, and arguably aren't being well-served by federal budgets. But they've fallen off the political radar in Canada today, at least rhetorically.

In their place is the mighty middle class.

What's more, this is not just a rallying cry for the NDP, although the shift is perhaps more dramatic for them than the other two parties.

Most North American politicians have historically been uncomfortable talking about class. It's more of a European thing.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is also fishing for middle-class voters and has been making them the rhetorical centre point in his campaign. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

But today they can hardly stop talking about it, provided of course, it's the middle class.

"Our offer to Canadians is clear," Mulcair proclaims "A government that stands up for middle-class families and the communities where they live."

"With our plan", says Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, "all you have to be is part of the middle class, or hoping to join it."

"If you want to fight for the middle class," Stephen Harper declares, "you do it by putting more of their money back in their pocket."

The mobility arrow

The reasons why all this attention has been showered on the so-called middle class are not hard to understand. They comprise a substantial percentage of the electorate, they vote in large numbers and they have some very real problems that they want to see addressed.

The middle class, though, has probably always been more of a state of mind than a statistical abstraction.

It's about feeling secure about your present and hopeful about your future while aspiring for a better life for your kids. And that's simply not the reality for most middle-class Canadians today.

According to Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research, only 12 per cent of Canadians think the middle class is growing, and only 13 per cent think their kids will do better than them.

The number of Canadians who consider themselves middle class has gone from about 70 per cent in 2000, to under 50 per cent today.

Meanwhile, the number of people who consider themselves working class has risen from about 20 per cent  before the recession of 2008 to about 30 per cent today.

For the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the mobility arrow is pointing down, not up.

Living the life precarious

So it's not surprising politicians of every stripe are falling all over themselves in this campaign to try to address the source of middle class angst.

Conservatives are looking at targeted tax cuts; Liberals want to cut taxes for the middle class and create jobs by spending on infrastructure and running a deficit; the NDP favours raising the minimum wage for federal workers, tax cuts for small businesses and subsidizing child care.

Here's to you, mostly in the form of targeted tax breaks from Conservative Leader Stephen Harper. (Stephen Harper/Facebook)

All of these may be worthwhile initiatives, all focus on what would be good for middle-class families (the true stars of this campaign), and all would benefit at least some parts of those middle-income earners.

But do they address what is really keeping middle-class Canadians awake at night?

It's hard feel good about your present and your future, or be optimistic about your children's future if you have no idea if your job will still be there tomorrow, or if your wages will be cut, or your pension reduced, or even when your next shift will be scheduled.

And that's the precarious reality for about half of all workers in Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area, according to a 2013 study

Limited imaginations

So what are the parties doing to address the issue of precarious employment? Not enough, according to Trish Hennessey, the director of the Ontario office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"Tax cuts will never save the middle class," Hennessey argued in a recent interview. "We still have a safety net that reflects a generation ago.

"So let's talk about employment insurance, and what governments can do to help create a stronger safety net for when you lose your job, or when you're in between contracts because of precarious employment. I'm not seeing that conversation."

According to Angella MacEwan, a senior economist at the Canadian Labour Congress, the closeness of the three main parties in this election is one big reason we are not seeing a serious discussion about the insecurity that lies at the heart of middle-class angst.

"There aren't clear answers and it's risky," she says. "And so in a really tight election race we're going to see politicians make some safer choices in terms of what they're willing to talk about and how far out they're willing to go."

What's more, she says, this is a global phenomenon. "You see the same thing happening to the debate in the U.K., Australia the U.S. The debate has been very limited to balanced budgets, to cutting taxes, and that limits the imagination of our politics."

At Ekos Research, however, Graves believes that Canadians are now looking for their politicians to expand their imaginations when it comes to addressing the problems of the middle class.

He points out that the last time Canadians were feeling so insecure about their future, in the 1930s, governments responded with bold ideas like instituting a minimum wage, creating public high schools, making it easier for workers to unionize and building a social safety net.

Graves believes middle-class Canadians are looking for those kinds of bold ideas again today, but they're not yet seeing them in the promises being offered in this campaign.

"Our sense is that none of the approaches to this point have cracked this nut in the public's mind," he observes.

"They're still waiting to hear a bigger answer to this, and I believe that the way that this question is answered, could well shape the outcome of the election."

This week on The Sunday Edition

On CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition on Sept. 13 starting at 9 a.m.: 

  • Where's the poetry?: Politicians are selling themselves as competent fiscal managers, but where are the big ideas, the uplifting speeches? Former politician, diplomat and philanthropist Stephen Lewis, poet Lorna Crozier and philosopher Joseph Heath discuss why there's no poetry in our politics.
  • "Home" by Warsan Shire: "You have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land." The line from Somali-British poet Warsan Shire on what it means to be a refugee has gone viral. The poem is read by Canadian actor Yanna McIntosh.
  • Donald Trump, the latest incarnation of the "Know-Nothing" movement?: The contender for the U.S. Republican presidential nomination is following in the political footsteps of a mid-19th century party that strongly opposed immigration. Historian Eric Foner says anti-immigrant sentiment is a recurring strand of thought in America; a response to fears of changing demographics.


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