August 25, 2015 5:00 pm
Updated: August 25, 2015 8:21 pm

Who is this middle class that politicians keep courting?


WATCH ABOVE: Politicians love to talk about the middle class and in this federal election it seems almost every policy from every party is aimed at this group. But who really belongs to the middle class? Jacques Bourbeau reports.

Politicians can talk all day about the middle class. They’re less good at defining it.

When Global News asked some federal leaders to define the term they use so often in their speeches and campaign material, we got a variety of responses.

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“Listen, I’m going to let economists, and I have a few around me, argue over which quintile or decile the middle class begins or ends in,” said Liberal leader Justin Trudeau at a campaign event Tuesday.

He went on to describe his party’s policies, including a “$3 billion tax cut for the middle class” before saying, “We have a plan that focuses on the fact that the middle class has always been the heart of the Canadian economy and we’re going to invest in the middle class and those who seek to join it in order to grow the economy, to create stability and confidence and to help those who are seeking to join the middle class.”

NDP leader Tom Mulcair got personal. “I guess I can talk a little bit to that because I come from the middle class,” he said. “I come from a family of 10 kids. My mom was a teacher, my dad was in the insurance business. And sometimes things were really tough. At one point during my life my dad lost his job. We had to sell the family house in town and move up to what was our cottage. So I know what that is. It means working really hard and having trouble getting by. That’s what a lot of people in Canada are going through right now.”

We don’t know what Stephen Harper thinks, as Global News was not allowed to ask him a question Tuesday.

However, the Conservative party had previously sent a response, which read: “We don’t believe in the politics of division and so-called ‘class’ warfare that Justin is trying to import from the U.S. Under Prime Minister Harper’s experienced leadership, we are keeping taxes low and supporting Canadian families who work hard, pay their taxes, play by the rules, and are concerned about securing their families’ futures.”

READ MORE: 4 political parties’ full responses to “how do you define the middle class?”

Watch: Federal political leaders talk (and talk) about the middle class

It is true, as Trudeau said, that economists argue over the definition of the middle class. While between 85 and 89 per cent of Canadians have consistently identified themselves as middle class over the past few decades, according to John Wright, a senior vice president at Ipsos Global Public Affairs, there are many, many approaches to defining the term “middle class”.

Philip Cross, a former chief economic analyst at Statistics Canada, recently co-wrote a paper on the subject. A lot of researchers argue that middle class status should be based strictly on income, he said: picking out the middle 60 per cent of Canadians, for example (making roughly between $25,000 and $88,000 in 2011).

He prefers a different approach – the point at which you can accumulate wealth, meaning you aren’t living paycheque-to-paycheque, is the point at which you enter the middle class.

“Income, that comes and goes. But if you’ve got a house, you’ve got a major possession like a house, if you have a car, it’s when you start accumulating wealth that you start becoming middle class. It’s when you can start affording to save for retirement. You can start saving to put the kids through university.”

The problem with the common income-based definition, he said, is not just that the cut-offs are arbitrary, it’s that it’s too broad. “When everybody calls themselves middle class, at some point it stops to mean anything.” And, calling everyone middle class misses the fact that there are smaller groups who are struggling within that broader definition, as well as those who are doing extremely well.

“Maybe we should bring back the working class as a way of identifying that there is a group of people out there who are in trouble, who are having trouble keeping up in our society, and it tends to be people with below-average educations,” he said.

“If we brought back a more limited concept like working class, with the connotation of below average skills, that better gets at, yes there is a segment of the population out there that’s in trouble. It’s not 90 per cent, it’s more like 15 to 20 per cent, and if we’re going to address that we should be thinking about upgrading the skills of these people.”

Why everyone wants to be middle class

“If you’re not rich and you don’t think of yourself as poor, you think of yourself in the middle,” said Wright, who calls it the “Goldilocks effect”, and says it’s why at least 85 per cent of Canadians consistently call themselves middle class in Ipsos’ opinion polls.

“We don’t wear dollar signs on our foreheads when we walk around either as voters or as citizens,” he said. “It’s not a dollar value, it’s a feeling about where you fit.” As such, he said, a person who owns a million-dollar house in Toronto will feel poorer than the person across the street who owns a $20 million house, and will therefore call herself middle class.

WATCH: Why the future’s not so bright for Canada’s middle class

To Wright, appealing to the middle class in general terms isn’t the winning political strategy. Instead, it’s about the problems that everyone is having making ends meet.

“If you talk to most people in this country, the squeeze on the cost of living is enormous right now.”

“We have a vast majority of Canadians who are concerned about making ends meet and they run the gamut between middle, upper and lower class people. This is what it’s all about.” And, he said, the party that best provides answers to that problem will stand to make political gains. “I really do believe that this is a populist way of talking about the economy. It’s not yet being seized upon.”

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