What Canada's election campaign has missed: The inequality debate

With real problems plaguing lower income Canadians, why has this election campaign focused so much on the middle class?

By: /
October 14, 2015
A protester with a Canadian two dollar bill taped over his mouth is shown during the 'Occupy Toronto' march in the financial district in Toronto. REUTERS/Mike Cassese

In April 2014, a widely shared New York Times article revealed that the after-tax income of middle class Canadians appeared to have not only caught up with but surpassed the income of their American counterparts.

But looking at the 2015 federal election campaign, you wouldn’t know it. The woes of the middle class have been front and centre — despite the confusion over who actually is included under the term’s banner. 

As October 19 approaches, ‘middle class’ is being used more and more as a byword for ‘ordinary Canadians’ — those who feel like their income is being squeezed, that working hard doesn’t produce security and success like it used to, that their economic and job prospects aren’t as plentiful as those of past generations.

Despite the term’s elusive definition, Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates, says that “all three [major] parties running are positioning themselves as the party that can solve middle class problems — the NDP and the Liberals more explicitly, but certainly [Stephen] Harper has a middle class narrative as well.”

“A lot of concerns about the middle class are actually expressions of concerns about inequality — but a new form of inequality,” explains Graves. “The bargain is broken. Many are feeling, ‘a rising tide doesn’t lift all ships, there’s just big yachts out there and I’m dry-docked’.” 

In the last decade, according to Graves’ research, concerns have turned away from the gap between the rich and the poor towards the gap between the “uber” rich and everyone else.

In the last decade, according to Graves’ research, concerns have turned away from the gap between the rich and the poor towards the gap between the “uber” rich and everyone else. This has resulted in the lumping of middle- and low-income Canadians under the same umbrella, at least in terms of campaign rhetoric.

Middle class incomes “have been treading water, certainly not rising as fast as GDP,” explains Chrystia Freeland, Liberal candidate for University-Rosedale and author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. “Meanwhile, we have seen the share of national income going to people at the very top increase. It was about 7.5 percent in 1982, and around 10 percent 30 years later in 2012. You see an even starker shift when you look at the 0.1 percent, which have over that 30-year period gone from 2.5 percent to five percent. That’s very consistent with what we’re seeing across the Western industrialized countries.”

In other words, the concentration of wealth in the hands of Canada’s top income tier has been growing, while the middle class feels the effects of stagnation.

But, all this focus on the middle class begs the question — in this election, is attention being diverted from low-income Canadians (for 2015, anyone earning less than $23,861 a year) and the most vulnerable members of society? 

Tom Cooper, the director of the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty Reduction, agrees that the scales have tipped away from a society that many Canadians would recognize as equitable. “The numbers bear it out — whether you’re looking at food bank use in Canada, the number of people who are experiencing homelessness, the number of people in precarious housing, the growth of precarious employment — people simply aren’t earning enough at their jobs to move out of poverty,” he says.

“Right now, here in Canada, there are about 4.8 million Canadians who are living below the low-income cut off. In a society as rich as ours is supposed to be, that shouldn’t be happening.”

Cooper says that parties’ main communications have indeed been geared for the most part towards middle-class voters, but “if you look a little closer at some of the policies, there are some very interesting proposals out there right now.” He cites the NDP’s childcare, pharmacare, and federal minimum wage proposals, as well as the Liberals’ proposal around increasing taxation rates for the top one percent.

Linda McQuaig, NDP candidate for Toronto Centre and co-author of The Trouble with Billionaires, says that while the focus on the middle class at the expense of lower income Canadians can be problematic, policies for each demographic aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive: “A lot of NDP policies really are geared to low-income people — they will also be helpful to the middle class.”

In addition to those mentioned by Cooper, McQuaig is passionate about the NDP’s proposed $2.7 billion in new money that would go towards affordable housing. The party has also announced a $400 million increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement, which she estimates will lift about 200,000 seniors out of poverty.

“When we talk about all these new investments we’re making, we want to pay for them, with higher corporate tax and by closing a special tax break for CEO stock options,” McQuaig emphasizes. “The idea is to take the savings from closing that particular loophole and invest it dollar for dollar into lifting children out of poverty.”

Freeland, meanwhile, says that helping middle- and low-income Canadians is all related.

Freeland, meanwhile, says that helping middle- and low-income Canadians is all related.

“[The Liberals’] focus on the middle class is really data driven,” she says. “When you look at what has been changing in the income distribution, it’s the middle class that’s getting really hollowed out. It’s also the case that when the middle class is hollowed out, people who are working hard to join the middle class don’t have a shore to land on, so it is connected.”

Freeland says she is extremely proud of the “political courage” of the Liberals’ platform. “One of the most important elements of our child benefit plan is that it will lift 315,000 Canadian children out of poverty. Also, a lot of the problem for both the middle and people at the bottom is stalled growth — that’s where our historic infrastructure plan comes in. Unless we can move the economy to growth…we can’t make the middle class and those who are working hard to join it secure.”

When it comes to the NDP and Liberal platforms, then, while most of the rhetoric has been focused on the middle class, it’s not entirely to the exclusion of lower income Canadians. 

As for Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives, the party has committed to doubling the federal contribution to additional Canada Education Savings Grants and expanding grants for families with disabled children. But many of the Conservatives’ measures — the Home Renovation Tax Credit, the Family Tax Cut and the Universal Child Care Benefit for example — have been criticized as being most helpful to those on the higher end of the income scale. 

According to Frank Graves, 65 percent of the population feel like they’re falling behind. Unfortunately, he says, this is not expressing itself in the political process. “Problems of inequality growth, while they’re experienced to a certain extent in conservative Canada, are much less pronounced,” he explains. “[Harper supporters] are more likely to say they’ve moved ahead, more likely to think they’ll move ahead in the future, and so the economy actually works okay for them.”

Ultimately, the focus in this election campaign on the middle class can best be explained by voter habits. Historically, the most vulnerable in society are those least likely to turn up to vote, so the Conservatives in this election have been steadfast in appealing mostly to their base. The Liberals and the NDP, while putting forward suggestions that could indeed help lower income Canadians, are still focusing their rhetoric on the demographic they think will make it out to support them in October.

Tom Cooper is however hopeful that those working towards a more equal Canada will have the opportunity to influence positive, progressive change.

“It doesn’t end on October 19. It’s very likely — if the polls remain where they’ve been for last while — that we’ll have a minority government, and there will be the opportunity for communities across the country to put pressure on the federal government to implement some of the priorities they’ve identified, particularly around poverty reduction and decreasing the income gap.” 

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The Politics of Inequality series is a partnership between OpenCanada and the Lind Initiative at the University of British Columbia.


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