There was a lot of talk in the recent federal election about class, specifically about the middle class. Every politician, it appears, is out to help or protect the middle class of Canada. The NDP no longer talks about the working class but is there for the middle class. The Conservatives, while representing Big Oil, Big Banks and Big Pharma, with a straight face no less, make appeals to the nebulous middle class and the Liberals, at least according to their own mythos, practically invented the middle class.
So as someone asked me recently, who is the middle class? The answer is not an easy one because everyone uses different criteria, some of it economic and some cultural. Also it is a group that is self -identifying. When given the choice of upper, middle or lower class the vast majority of Canadians identify as middle class. Interestingly, at least in the US, if working class is added as a choice, an equal percentage, 46%, chose either working class or middle class.
In a 2015 Macleans article entitled ‘Are You in the Middle Class?’ the writers broke the population down economically into classes grouped by percentiles of 20% so the bottom 20% was considered ‘poorest class’ , the top 20% ‘richest class’ and then three subgroups of the middle class. As the writers pointed out your class can fluctuate wildly depending on whether you are single earning $70,000 in Port Hardy or married with a family living in Vancouver making the same income.
A better indicator is net worth: your income, property and other incomes like stocks, minus your debts. Here the range was much starker. The net worth of the poorest class ranged from $0-68,000, the middle classes from $ 68,000 to $1,140,000 and the richest from there to the Pattisons and Westons. This has shortcomings as so much of that net worth is tied up in the value of your home, in fact almost 50%. If the housing bubble bursts or mortgage rates balloon there will be a lot of people falling out of the middle class.
There are indicators other than money, including your housing, your level of education and the type of work you do. So whether you own or rent, finished high school or attended university, or do manual labour for a wage or a professional office job for a salary determines what class you fall into. Again these are generalizations as some people with money prefer to rent especially in larger urban centers. B.A.s are a dime a dozen, and a heavy duty mechanic can make three times the salary of a high school teacher.
So it means class divisions are very blurred but that doesn’t mean class lines aren’t there. When it comes to inequality, those top 20% had 67% of Canada’s net worth and the bottom 20% just 4% leaving the middle class to fight over the remaining 29%.
One of the myths taught in high school was that we live in a classless society. Horatio Alger stories were used to show us that in this land of opportunity, through hard work and respect for authority, we too could be rich. No doubt there were a number of self-made millionaires but for every man who got rich a thousand died penniless. The belief in this myth is sometimes used to explain why working class and middle class people support economic policies, like tax cuts for the rich and anti-union legislation, which are basically against their own self-interest. People imagine they will be rich someday so they identify not with their coworkers but with their bosses and the political parties that represent those bosses.
At a workshop I once attended, we did a spectrum line exercise. The question put to us was “Which economic class were you raised in as a child?” So we lined up from those that considered ourselves poor to those who were rich. As we lined up we could talk about why we positioned ourselves in that particular part of the line. We asked the person next to us if their family had ever owned a new car or if they had had a TV.
Being the son of a corporal in the Canadian Army who drank and a mother who mainly worked in the home, I found myself toward the poor end. We rented in the Personnel Married Quarters ( PMQ’s). If you want to see class hierarchy, live on an army base. We never had a new car, and only went to my grandparent’s farm for vacation. I remember meals of white bread soaked in milk. Clothes were often hand me downs.
We then broke into ‘our class’ and talked about what was positive and what was negative. Most of us in the poor/working poor group agreed the way people looked out for each other, our solidarity, was what stood out. Also our disdain for authority figures. The negative aspects included our lack of opportunity. We knew we weren’t going off to university and would be lucky if we were any better off than our parents.
One thing I thought about at the time but didn’t share was the contempt I felt for most of the people around me as I entered my teens. I disliked their taste in music, country and western mostly, and thought their humour was crude. Most of all I hated what I saw as their anti-intellectualism, the way they looked down on reading. Their reaction to reading was in self-defense as a lot of society looked down on them for their lack of education. I bought into a stereotype. Since then I have met many people from similar backgrounds who are well read, or if not book smart, have a wisdom earned on the hard roads.
Maybe that is another reason people identify as middle class – simply shame of the hard lives they lived. All the more reason why progressive political parties should refocus not just on the leafy suburbs but on working class neighbourhoods all across Canada.