If the Trudeau government wanted to convince Canadians that its new “Ministry of Middle Class Prosperity” was a real thing – that is, conceived out of genuine need and not a surplus of already printed bumper stickers – it would have equipped its minister with a response to pretty much the only question she was guaranteed to receive her first time in the hot seat: What is the middle class?
Suffice to say that the ministers in charge of foreign affairs, or veterans affairs, or natural resources would’ve had no problem explaining the terms, literally and figuratively, of their mandates.
But it’s not so straightforward when you’re asked to provide a real definition for an aspirational ministry – one that seems to have been created when the Liberals’ communications and transition teams partied too hard one night and mixed up their papers. Thankfully, someone must have put the kibosh on the “Ministry of the Conservatives Will Take Canada Backward” before it became a full-blown portfolio, but alas, this Middle Class Prosperity one managed to slip through.
That left Mona Fortier, who will lead Canada’s most ambiguous and probably unnecessary new ministry, with little to say in an interview with CBC Radio’s The Current last week, when she was asked to explain her job and define the middle class.
“I define the middle class [as] where people feel they can afford their way of life,” Ms. Fortier said. “They have a quality of life, and they can … send their kids to play hockey or even have different activities. It’s having the cost of living where you can do what you want with your families.”
A more accurate answer, if such a thing exists, would have been that Ms. Fortier will be responsible for a group of Canadians that cannot be objectively defined, in ways that will likely be redundant to the ministries of finance, of labour and of employment. (A more accurate answer would have also cited soccer or baseball as recreational sports of middle-class families, rather than hockey, which requires all sorts of equipment and ice time, but I digress.)
The beauty of a ministry for the middle class, from a political perspective, is that it presents itself as a ministry for everyone – or at least the roughly 50 per cent to 70 per cent of Canadians, depending on the poll, who self-identify as middle class.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development uses a quantitative measure of the middle class, defining it as composed of those earning 75 per cent to 200 per cent of the median household income, or approximately 58 per cent of the population in Canada’s case.
But that definition doesn’t account for region, marital status or number of children at home, among other factors, all of which can make the national median pretax household income of roughly $93,000 seem generous in rural Nova Scotia, but paltry in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto.
The Liberals haven’t really tried to provide a better definition for the term, despite their long-time affinity for using it. The Trudeau government’s 2015 “middle-class tax cut” nudged at a range by lowering the tax rate on earnings between $45,000 and $90,000, although Finance Minister Bill Morneau implied a higher cap in a 2016 Senate committee meeting, where he suggested a middle-class income was in the range of $45,000 to $140,000.
All of which is to say: There is no universal way to measure the middle class in Canada, which seems to be entirely the point of the Liberals creating a ministry specially dedicated to it. There are no geographic or ethnic or political divisions here; everyone thinks they understand what it means to be middle class, so this is a ministry for everyone. Maybe the middle class is simply a feeling in your heart?
Anyway, here on planet Earth, the challenges of a national ministry for the middle class are already apparent. When social and economic factors such as housing costs, employment opportunities and transportation accessibility vary so considerably from one region to the next, it makes the role of a national ministry for the middle class impractical to the point of uselessness, particularly when it will overlap the jurisdictions of already-established portfolios.
But this is not about practicality, or definitions or planet Earth. This is about signalling from the esteemed benches of the federal cabinet that this government is working especially for you, where “you” means “everyone” and “working” is to be expanded upon later. So find that middle-class feeling deep down in your heart and settle in for updates from the ministry just for you. It’s a gift from the very serious and humbled Trudeau government 2.0.
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