The Canada Child Benefit will be increased on Saturday – a development that would not normally be ushered in with the sound of trumpets.
However, seemingly everywhere you turn, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his government are using every means possible to ensure Canadians are aware that the child benefit – a signature piece of the party’s 2015 election platform – has assisted nearly four million families and helped lift more than 300,000 children out of poverty. After the weekend bump, eligible families can receive a maximum of $6,639 for every child under 6 and $5,602 for every child between 6 and 17. The amount decreases as annual household income rises above $31,120.
Yes, that sound you hear is the Liberals gearing up for Election 2019, taking dead aim at their favourite target group: the middle class and those aspiring to join it.
Every election is apparently a fight for the hearts and minds of this demographic. The Conservatives might prefer to call members of it “everyday Canadians." The NDP usually opts for “working-class Canadians.” But the Liberals have always been the most comfortable with the term “middle-class,” even if the definition of it can sometimes be nebulous.
Under normal circumstances, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals would appear to have a decided edge with this ever-important cohort as we inch closer to the October vote. The country’s recent unemployment rate of 5.4 per cent is the lowest since 1976; the poverty rate of 7.8 per cent is, similarly, the lowest in 43 years. The number of people employed has increased by more than a million over the period the Liberals have been in office. And Mr. Trudeau and his Finance Minister, Bill Morneau, are happy to remind you that a “middle-class family of four” is $2,000 a year better off than it was under the previous Conservative administration of Stephen Harper.
And yet there is still a feeling that persists among a broad swath of the middle class that it isn’t all that much better off than it was five, 10, even 30 years ago. This has seemingly been a common theme for decades, perhaps with good reason. A Statscan study of earnings between 1980 and 2005 showed that the median income of Canadians employed full-time for a full year changed little over that period – moving from $41,348 in 1980 to $41,401 in 2005, in constant dollars. Meantime, the number of high-income earners – those making $100,000 a year or more – almost doubled during that period to 6.5 per cent in 2005 from 3.4 per cent in 1980. Wage growth between 2007 and 2017, meantime, averaged 1.1 per cent – although admittedly this period did encompass the Great Recession.
A study released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development this spring showed that across member countries, the share of people in middle-income households fell to 61 per cent from 64. The decline was more significant in Canada, where the drop-off was 4.5 percentage points, and a handful of other countries.
Add on top of that the record level of debt Canadians are racking up, which is related to record housing costs, and you can see why Canadians, despite a robust economy and high levels of employment, still feel like they’re struggling to get ahead. Meantime, the rich get richer.
This is Mr. Trudeau’s cross to bear as the incumbent. While the middle-class tax cut and child benefit were no doubt welcomed, elections are a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately proposition. That is why I expect the Liberals to announce some platform measures that equal, if not exceed, the middle-class initiatives in their 2015 platform. Perhaps, this is the election when a national pharmacare program is introduced.
As for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, his job is somewhat easier. He just needs to prey on the emotions of those Canadians who are feeling pinched and make sure they understand that Justin Trudeau is to blame for their financial pain. Which is why he is so focused on talking about the carbon tax – conveniently ignoring the fact that nearly all Canadians will be further ahead with it than without it. It’s why he’s also brought up the clean-fuel standard – the “secret tax” that Justin Trudeau didn’t tell you about. Except that he did. But the Tories’ overall message is clear: Say no to a government that can’t stop taking more of your hard-earned money.
That may very well be a mantra that wins – even if the reality is something quite different.
For Mr. Trudeau, the job is more complicated. He needs to convince skeptical Canadians they are better off than they were four years ago, while stressing that his work in this area is far from done. The question will be whether Canadians take him at his word – or decide it’s time to give someone else a chance to improve their lot in life.
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