Politicians standing up for the middle class might get some votes in the coming federal election, but they’ll be doing more harm than good.
We need a mature discussion about why so many people are worried about money and it has to involve debt. In the field of financial misery, debt is the killer app.
Some snapshots from the latest Manulife Bank quarterly debt survey: 37 per cent of those who are in debt said they the feel effects on a daily basis, 41 per cent of those indebted feel stressed or overwhelmed, 54 per cent of people between the ages of 35 and 54 have a credit-card balance and one in three over all say their spending growth outpaces their income growth.
The challenge in talking about debt is that personal responsibility comes into play. Standing up for the middle class on the campaign trail allows politicians to sidestep that complexity and instead cast those struggling with money as victims.
Debt is sometimes a matter of survival – you lost your job, you suffered a serious illness. It’s also a legitimate way to build wealth and security via long-term home ownership, investing or starting a business. But a lot of today’s debt was optional. People could have said no to that spending.
Manulife Bank CEO Rick Lunny believes the rise of social media helps explain this optional, basically unaffordable spending. “People are feeling pressure from family and friends to participate in activities that they can’t afford,” he said.
By some measures, the debt problem is improving. Manulife Bank found that 46 per cent of the survey’s 2,003 respondents reported having a lot or some non-mortgage debt, compared with 57 per cent in spring 2018. Statistics Canada has said the national ratio of debt to disposable income fell mildly in the first quarter of the year, although it was still near a record level.
But underneath, debt is grinding away on our sense of financial well-being. Manulife Bank’s survey found that just 28 per cent of people feel very comfortable about their mortgage payments, a big drop from 36 per cent a year ago. The percentage of people very comfortable with the amount owing on their mortgages fell to 21 per cent from 30 per cent.
Growth in debt might be the biggest economic story of the 10 years after the global financial crisis. Interest rates were slashed to save the economy in the last recession and they never returned to normal levels. The rise of social media coincided with this low rate trend, as did a period of slow economic growth that left workers with minimal pay raises (although wages did spike higher by an impressive 3.8 per cent in June compared with the same month last year).
Today, Canadians feel a general sense of unease about their finances. In a recent CBC poll on what worries people most, 32 per cent said the cost of living, 19 per cent listed climate change and 10 per cent said their health or a family member’s. If we’re honest about why the cost of living is an issue, debt has to be part of the conversation.
Expect anxiety about money to be channelled in the election campaign by politicians with various fixes to offer. These measures may help some, but what the country really needs to achieve better financial health is to pay down debt.
You won’t influence voters with this message, so some tweaking is required. One thought is for politicians to push back on debt by encouraging saving. As borrowing increased over the past decade, the national savings rate declined to a point where it most recently clocked in at just 1.1 per cent.
We’ve had tax-free savings accounts since 2009, but they’ve produced limited success in encouraging people to save more. What really works in building savings is for money to be taken off the top of someone’s paycheque, just as money is routed to the Canada Pension Plan.
Any bright ideas out there on how to build a national “deducted-at-source” savings program that will be easy for employers to administer and employees to use? In today’s uncertain economy, the way to help people improve their finances is to get them to save more and minimize debt. That’s how you stand up for a middle class with a chronic overspending problem.
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