The middle class is courted consistently by candidates and government officials seeking public support. In fact, just last week, the federal government released Budget 2017, which was entitled, “Building a Strong Middle Class”. This leaves us wondering: when it comes down to it, who really is the “middle class”?
Canada has never had an official poverty line, and as such, it’s a challenge to accurately gauge just who is living below or above what we consider low-income. The Liberal government considers Canadians within the four middle tax deciles – those with incomes ranging from $36,000 – $100,000 – to make up the middle class.
This trend of focusing policy on a broad range of those considered middle class is not new; the importance of accessible basic needs and respect for economic and social rights for all Canadians is unwavering. In 2015, the Trudeau government released the “Fairness for the Middle Class” policy booklet which outlined tax breaks geared towards middle class Canadians . This policy booklet identified policies that were designed to benefit Canadians with an income between $44,701 to $89,401 – only a portion of those considered middle class. Similarly, recent government fiscal policies tend to focus on transferring wealth back into the “Canadian middle class”, a feat that is not easily achieved in an equitable way given the large discrepancies within middle-class classification and lack of accountability measures built in to the policies themselves. Without a clear definition of which households fall into the middle class, the effectiveness of policies geared towards helping these people in Canada is significantly harder to evaluate.
And effective policies to help the middle class are critical. In Canada, those who self-identify as or are deemed to be middle class face a number of financial challenges, including food insecurity, precarious housing, soaring childcare costs, and crippling debt.
Last year, Canadian household debt was greater than its GDP for the first time ever. According to Statistics Canada, this marks $1.68 of credit for every dollar of disposable income in Canadian households, making it harder for Canadians to achieve a basic standard of living – including their ability to put food on their tables.
Over 3 million people in Canada experience food insecurity, with the majority – 62.2% – reliant on wages or salary from employment. In 2016, 1 in 6 Canadian food bank users were currently or recently employed, and 66% paid market-level rent.
3 million Canadian households are precariously housed: living in unaffordable, below standards, and/or overcrowded housing conditions. Typically, home ownership is associated with achieving middle class status. However, the Canadian housing market has seen a dramatic increase in housing market instability: since 2004-2005, housing markets have seen a 50% average increase of home prices relative to income in all major housing markets across Canada. Buying a home is simply unattainable for many middle class Canadians today. Almost 1 in 5 Canadian households spend over 50% of their income on rent – which places them, and quite often their children, at risk of homelessness.
According to a new study released by the CCPA, the average cost of daycare in Canada is rising 3 times quicker than inflation. Toronto was ranked the most expensive city for childcare with median costs reaching $1,649 monthly. The OECD found that Canada had the most expensive childcare costs among 35 other wealthy nations, with Canadian families spending almost a quarter of their income on childcare alone.
These statistics paint a picture of difficult circumstances for many people in Canada who may not be considered as living in poverty. Many “middle class” families have to make difficult choices given their financial situation. And until we have a clear definition of who the middle class is, how can anyone claim to be helping them?
All people in Canada have a right to an adequate standard of living. While laws, policies, and programs should prioritize those who are the most vulnerable, there are “middle class” Canadians who are struggling to access basic necessities like food, housing, and childcare. If our governments are serious about improving the lives of the middle class, the first step is to ensure that everyone in this country has access to their economic and social rights.
Sarah DelVillano is a Placement Student at CWP in the Carleton University Bachelor of Arts: Human Rights honours program. She is also pursuing two minors in Anthropology and Political Science.