Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices
Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Ignoring the poor impoverishes politics Add to ...

The poor will always be among us, the Bible instructs, but they have disappeared in Canadian politics.

The words “the poor” or “poverty” have apparently become so distasteful, or at least so politically risky, that no federal political leader dares to utter them. Or perhaps this studied reluctance reflects the politician’s regrettable but repeated preference to bend words to fit political exigencies rather than true meanings.

A vast blanket of verbal rhetoric has been thrown over the Canadian population so that politicians define almost everyone as “middle class.” This verbal blanketing results in only those defined as the “very rich” and the “poor” remaining outside the definition of the “middle class,” a factual muddle by any measure.

As is so often the case in politics, perceptions overwhelm facts, and it seems more rewarding for politicians to deal with perceptions rather than to explain facts.

In fact, only those literally in the middle ranks of income earners are in the “middle.” Since the rich (and even some of the very rich) prefer to hide (even from themselves) how well-off they are, they often self-define as “middle.” And some of the poor, who would be in the bottom third of incomes, either aspire to join the “middle” or are uneasy with their standing and refuse to self-define as poor. There are other definitions of poverty, but even these report more poor people than political perception allows.

To this terminological muddle is then added the evident fact that the better-off vote more frequently and take a greater interest in things political than poor people.

So, having shrunk the definition of who is poor, and knowing that those who are poor don’t vote much, why would any party spend much time even talking about them, let alone proposing to do anything for or about them?

This triumph of marginalizing all talk of the poor represents a significant intellectual (and therefore political) victory for the Conservatives.

They were the ones who, at the advent of the Harper era, designed a political strategy designed to focus on “Doug,” their target voter: middle-class income, careful about spending to make ends meet, usually with kids, for whom dinner at Tim Hortons or Swiss Chalet was a Friday night out.

Doug’s family was certainly not rich, but neither was it poor. Doug was anxious, mostly about himself and his family, in unsettled economic times, and felt government took too much of their money. Government was a problem, a burden, not necessarily of help.

These attitudes reflected the “anxieties of the middle class,” which Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives identified and tried to address (or politically exploit), and which are now the rhetorical hallmark of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and the target of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.

The terminological muddle of who and what is middle-class has predictably led to a political muddle. The three main parties are now aiming for the same voters, adopting not dissimilar policies and therefore exaggerating the few issues on which they disagree, such a Conservative plan for income-splitting – a policy that will help not Doug but people with incomes over $100,000, more than any other group.

This week, Mr. Mulcair proposed three tax changes for small business, all designed to lower the tax burden in ways any Conservative government might quibble with but not reject. Similarly, in unveiling his daycare plan, Mr. Mulcair conspicuously left in place the very expensive Conservative family allowance plan.

As for Mr. Trudeau, his approach to policy leadership seems to be to give as little offence as possible, to remove all areas where he might be criticized by the Conservatives and to deliver speeches almost entirely devoid of content, promising eventually to focus policies on those “anxieties of the middle class.”

None of the leaders, in any systematic way, is prepared to ask citizens to think about the less fortunate, as if to do so would invite voters in the elastic middle class to think they might lose something in the process.

Failure to think about the poor, let alone talk about them, impoverishes politics – it spins the discourse around what’s in it for me, rather than what’s in it for all of us.

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate

In the know

The Globe Recommends

loading

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular