The ’family shame’ of Canadian politics: class struggle

In a country where even acknowledging that class exists can be hard, the term ’middle class’ has become a hypnotizing catch-all in the election campaign
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer makes an announcement during a campaign stop at the Abilities Centre in Whitby, Ont. Monday, September 30, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Class is everywhere in this election, invoked seemingly every time someone wants to put a sympathetic face on a policy proposal or make a point about being in touch with ordinary Canadians.

There’s the “middle class” that’s constantly prioritized, flattered and fetishized by every campaign and candidate; critiques of people who come from such a privileged class they can’t possibly understand the concerns of normal people; sometimes bizarre pitches aimed at those who want a better future for their kids and just need a boost (camping, anyone?); and leaders who come from hardscrabble backgrounds—except that maybe they don’t quite.

But if class is an ever-present anthem running through campaign 2019, it’s a tune no one seems to know the proper words to, or they’re deliberately mumbling nonsense lyrics and assuming no one else will notice.

The Conservatives consistently draw a sharp biographical contrast between their leader, Andrew Scheer, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, which maps neatly onto the way they would frame the two parties and their approach to running the country. Their case is that, as the son of a former prime minister, famous from the moment of his birth, Trudeau grew up with such immense wealth and access to power that he is incapable of understanding the concerns of ordinary people. And the corresponding narrative is that Scheer grew up in a car-less family where the end of every month brought fretful kitchen-table conversations about how all the bills would get paid.

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Scheer undoubtedly had a more average upbringing than Trudeau, but in his eagerness to highlight the differences in their formative years, he appears to have leaned too much into a mythological narrative. His brief sojourn working in the private sector—before becoming an MP with a $141,000 salary at age 25—also appears to have been inflated.

As for Trudeau, when the biggest bombshell of the campaign so far—the revelation that he had enthusiastically worn blackface or brownface on multiple occasions—detonated, he explained and indicted his own behaviour through the lens of his rarified upbringing. “I have always acknowledged that I come from a place of privilege,” he said. “But I now need to acknowledge that comes with a massive blind spot.”

It’s easy to imagine how such a life might induce a sense of the world and everyone in it being your personal tickle trunk. But it’s equally logical to wonder how someone who spent their young life travelling the globe at the side of their prime minister father, with access to the best education money and influence could buy, could emerge from such an experience with a weapons-grade sense of obliviousness.

Then there is the electorally beloved—and conveniently poorly defined—”middle class.” Given all the campaign trail hot air devoted to lauding the values and hard work of this population and lionizing their noble struggles, you would think that at some point, other corners of the electorate would get ticked off about being ignored by politicians in favour of these golden children.

But they don’t, because pretty much everyone thinks that’s them.

“If you’re a politician, it’s an awfully great rhetorical device to say ‘ordinary folks.’ It’s not divisive in the sense that it doesn’t come off as class warfare, because, well, everyone loves the middle class,” says David Moscrop, a political theorist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa. “People either think they’re middle-class or they’re close to middle class…they think politicians are talking about them. That’s powerful. So, middle class becomes this bucket that everyone gets dumped into, even though most people couldn’t tell you what it means.”‘

U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden recently tweeted—presumably in a bid to continue being counted among them, even after decades in powerful and highly-paid public jobs—that “Being middle class isn’t a number. It’s a value set.” He was roundly mocked, but in a sense, he was right, twice over: in practical use, “middle class”—or, if you and your party prefer, “the middle class and those working hard to join it”—apparently means whatever the people who hear the phrase think it means, and an awful lot of people associate it with a mindset or set of aspirations rather than any statistical cut-off.

As with other social classes, you could define the middle class by income, occupation, social capital (people’s tastes, education, who they associate with and their general position in society) or a combination of those, or by the subjective measure of how people identify themselves.

However, the clarity of how the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development defines it can be a nice sharp reality check. The OECD focuses on income, and defines the “middle-income class” as those earning between 75 and 200 per cent of the median in a country. For a single person in Canada, that falls between $32,621 and $86,990, while for a family of four, it means household income between $65,242 and $173,980. Across OECD countries on average, the share of the population fitting into that bracket fell from 64 per cent to 61 per cent between the mid-1980s and the mid-2010s. But while the decline was small and gradual for most countries, Canada was one of those that experienced a bigger drop.

In subjective terms, pollster Frank Graves of Ekos Research has also found fewer Canadians who call themselves middle class in recent years, and younger people are least likely to claim that status. Three-quarters of respondents have told him that being middle class is mostly about income, while 22 per cent say it’s a state of mind. But though most say it’s about dollars and not feelings, the elements they consider most important to defining the middle class are all about a sense of security and control: “being able to retire with a secure income,” “having a secure job” and “being financially secure,” top the list in Ekos surveys, with more than two-thirds of people citing each as very important.

When it comes to political campaigns, the mushy understanding of class is a feature and not a bug. “Elections are about hunting for votes, and there are more votes in the wide swath of the middle and more people who identify as being middle class than people who identify as being low income,” says Jennifer Robson, an associate professor of political management at Carleton University.

But the vexing result of that is a rhetorical bait-and-switch: she’s noticed the parties trotting out data points meant to illustrate they have their fingers on the pulse of the public—such as the proportion of households that could not handle a $200 emergency expense—but the struggles they ascribe to the middle class are much more acute in those below them on the economic ladder. “The empirical data that I look at is telling me that the greatest financial strain is actually very much in the bottom end of the income distribution,” Robson says. “It’s a no-brainer in so many respects.”

Moscrop argues that a big part of the fixation on the middle class in Canadian politics has to do with the easy politeness of it, because it neatly sidesteps a messy, difficult conversation about whether maybe the whole system is broken and screwing over a lot of people. Instead, the affordability narrative in this election is all about tossing a few more bucks at people to help them struggle through the day, he says. “No one is going to transform any class relationship,” he says. “But when you at the end of your shitty job get home and flop down to sit with your kid for 45 minutes and watch Netflix before you have to get up and repeat your miserable life the next day, you’re going to have an extra 20 bucks to order some Uber Eats, won’t that be nice?”

Somehow, Canada has decided that its fundamental points of conflict are regional and linguistic, Moscrop says, so there can’t possibly be economic strife, too. “My response has always been, ‘Well, you can have two sorts of problems,’ ” he says. “I just think it’s the family shame we don’t want to talk about.”

Indeed, the author of a recent letter to the editor in The Globe and Mail primly insisted that the notion of class in Canada is a recent—and dangerous—invention of political campaigns. “Middle class is a horizontal description, thereby inferring that there is also a better upper class and a worse lower class. The Canada I know has never had such divisions,” the reader asserted, allowing that such a thing might happen in Britain and India, with their entrenched social divisions. “The pervasiveness of the term is the start of a slippery slope. Do not let ‘class’ become a reality in this wonderful land of Canada.”

And so in a country with such discomfort even acknowledging that class exists, “middle class” has become a hypnotizing catch-all in election campaigns because it seems non-offensive, says Wolfgang Lehmann, professor and acting chair of sociology at Western University. “You consider yourself not to be so rich that people need to think you’re a parasite as a rich person who doesn’t pay taxes and so on, but you’re also not so poor that you need the state to look out for you,” says Lehmann, whose research focuses in part on working-class students who go onto higher education. “[It’s] the same way people don’t want to talk about race because we live in a multicultural society, and yet we know how it stares us in the face on an everyday basis in the choices we make and how we live.”

A big part of the problem, in the estimation of Stephen Gordon, an economics professor at l’Université Laval, is the warped way in which people—particularly the relatively privileged ones who shape politics and public policy debate—perceive their own relative station in life.

He wrote a column for the National Post arguing that because the upper-middle class generally doesn’t see itself as such, they don’t realize that the fashionable call to “tax the rich!” should probably creep down to them at a certain point. In the piece, Gordon noted that if you make $90,000 a year, you’re at the 90th percentile and only 10 per cent of Canadians make more than you. That demonstrable fact melted people’s brains. “I got a lot of people saying, ‘What?! That’s way too low!'” he says. “No, that’s the way it is. A lot of people simply don’t realize how the bottom two-thirds lives. I have a hard time remembering myself all the time.”

The people at the bottom of the ladder sure know, though. Antoine Genest-Grégoire, a researcher at l’Université de Sherbrooke, has found that while three-quarters of the people who are objectively in the top slice of income earners cheerfully identify themselves as middle class instead, those in the low income group are almost exactly accurate in locating their position in the hierarchy.

The one-way nature of that funhouse mirror may explain perhaps the most pointed illustration of class blindness so far in this campaign.

A couple of weeks ago, Scheer stood in front of a human backdrop of hairdressing students in Winnipeg and announced his party’s RESP proposal: to increase the government top-up of parents’ savings for their kids from a maximum of $500 a year to $750. “Post-secondary education is just about the surest route there is to a brighter future,” he said. “And that’s why opening a registered education savings plan comes shortly after sending out the birth announcement for many parents.”

The government contribution to RESPs is a percentage of what parents chip in each year, meaning that in order for families to reap the maximum bonus, they have to sock away $2,500 a year. A local reporter asked an astute question: this riding contains one of the poorest postal codes in the country and a lot of families can’t afford to pay their bills, let alone plug money into an RESP, so what are you offering them?

Scheer repeated that this policy would help low-income families “who are able to put something aside,” and mentioned his party’s pledge to increase annual provincial social transfers to help struggling families. He also noted that the number of lower income families opening RESPs, “even if it’s only a few dollars a month,” has been on the rise.

He was not wrong about that, but it’s a painfully slow growth curve that appears to have a hard ceiling, and wealthier families have always gotten a bigger slice of that pie.

Statistics Canada numbers show that in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, 20 per cent of families in the bottom net worth quintile had RESPs (in 1999, it was seven per cent), compared to 73 per cent of those in the top net worth group (33 per cent in 1999). Unsurprisingly, the mean value of those RESP accounts varies hugely, from $831 for the lowest quintile to $18,752 for the highest.

Kevin Milligan, a professor of economics at the University of British Columbia, wrote a 2004 paper examining in detail who opened RESPs for their kids. The pattern was clear: it was parents with high income and wealth, lots of education and—perhaps less intuitively—immigrants. In short, “people who had aspirations for their kids to attend post-secondary,” he says.

But as he concluded in that paper, given that the stated purpose of the RESP was to give more kids—especially those from low-income families—opportunities for education, then a program used primarily by people who were already determined to get their kids there and had the means to do so wasn’t accomplishing much.

The RESP program also includes the Canada Learning Bond for low-income families, which provides $500 when an RESP is opened and $100 each year after that. Receiving the CLB does not require parents to contribute a cent, only open an RESP. But numbers crunched by Robson show that as of 2016, just 35 per cent of children who have ever qualified for a CLB got one.

She’s since done research showing the barriers to low-income families getting the free money they’re owed range from the intimidation of dealing with a financial institution to open an RESP to finding the time and money to get paperwork like a child’s social insurance number in order.

Increasing the top-up for parents who already have the means to save does nothing to broaden access. “It’s rewarding the savers,” says Robson.

And so you had the spectacle of a national party leader standing in a trade school in one of the poorest cities in Canada, citing—correctly—the upward mobility afforded by higher education while pitching a bigger government bonus for parents who would almost certainly be able to save for their kids’ futures anyway.

Meanwhile, students who really need a boost to access all those brighter opportunities afforded by more schooling—almost certainly including some of the students hard at work behind Scheer at the microphone—come from families that demonstrably do not have the means to use the program in the first place.

All of it was couched in the familiar campaign-trail language of the noble struggle of ordinary folks, and a politician who just wanted to give a hand to the people who need it, through a policy that appeared to fundamentally misunderstand who those people are and what they actually need.

Scheer is far from the only leader to pitch strangely aimed or pragmatically tone-deaf ideas framed through a class lens so far (seriously: camping). And he won’t be the last before Oct. 21 arrives.

Whoever does it next and whatever they’re offering, you can bet it will be framed as a schmaltzy love letter to the middle class—whoever that is, and whatever it is they want from their politicians.