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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Politically, the middle class is the Holy Grail Add to ...

What’s the “middle class?” Statistically, the occupants of this group are hard to define; politically, they are the target of every party.

The rich, whatever that means, can take care of themselves. The poor, whatever that means, have largely dropped off the political map. But the middle class, however defined, is the Holy Grail for the Conservatives, NDP and Liberals.

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The middle class is struggling and needs help, claims Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. The Conservatives’ target voter is someone in the middle class, living in suburbia. Even the NDP talks less these days about the poor than about the middle class.

The poorest Canadians are, in hard fact, the ones who need government help the most. According to Statistics Canada’s latest National Household Survey (not as reliable as previous ones owing to the Harper government’s elimination of the mandatory census), the bottom 10 per cent of the population relies on government sources for 67.5 per cent of its income. The next decile up the ladder – the 10- to 20-per-cent closest to the bottom – rely on government for 55 per cent.

These are the people with the worst health outcomes, and therefore place the greatest charge on overstretched health-care budgets. They are the ones most plagued by all sorts of social ills that the state has to pay to mitigate. They are the ones on employment insurance or welfare, both of which cost the state plenty. They are the ones to benefit disproportionately from the redistribution of income taxes, since the top 10 per cent of earners capture 28 per cent of the nation’s income, but pay 42 per cent of the nation’s income tax, according to Statistics Canada.

The situation of the poorest, by objective measure, should concern those with a social conscience, or even an economic perspective. But politically, the poorest seem to have been lost in the rush by parties to identify themselves with the “middle class.”

Many are the reasons for this political orientation, starting with the fact that the largest number of Canadians self-identify with being in the “middle class,” whether they belong there or not from a statistical point of view. A whole lot of people in the upper 20 per cent of income-earners would insist that they are not rich but in the “middle class.” Similarly, some people who are in the lowest 30 per cent of income groups would say they, too, are in the “middle class” – or more important politically, they want to join the middle class.

So middle-class worries – from mortgage payments to cellphone bills to college tuition to tax levels – focus political attention. The worries of the poor, who don’t tend to have houses or cellphones, don’t pay income tax (or very little) and whose children often don’t attend college, seem of less concern.

In the U.S., this fixation politically on the middle class is driven to some extent by the unspoken reaction of white taxpayers that their money will be taken by government and redistributed to the poor – a.k.a. to many blacks.

Whether any of that racial or ethnic sense influences how Canadians feel is hard to discern, but the idea of further large-scale income redistribution via the tax system is a hard political sell.

The NDP in recent elections proposed higher taxes on corporations, not people. The party is very worried about being tagged with the “tax-and-spend” label, because it might scare middle-class voters that the NDP would target them. The NDP knows, as do the other parties, that the further up the income scale, the more likely people are to vote.

The so-called “superrich” (the top, say, 1 per cent of income earners) might yet be targeted for more tax. Taxing them always produces less money than the new spending will cost.

Through equalization payments, billions of dollars are spent to attenuate regional inequalities. Through the tax system, more billions are sent from the more to the less affluent. The health-care system is a large income redistribution system in disguise. Yet the poor are still with us in abundance, although their needs seem less important to parties than those of the middle class.

 

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