Making sense of Canada’s middle-class distress debate
TheStar.com – News/Canada – Employment Minister Jason Kenney said a New York Times report on median incomes shows that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s focus on Canada’s struggling middle class is desperately misguided.
Apr 23 2014. By: Thomas Walkom National Affairs
In a weird way, the debate over Canada’s middle class is like medieval angelology.
Then, theologians would argue over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
Today, the questions from the political priesthood are equally abstruse.
Is the middle class really hurting, as the Liberals and New Democrats claim?
Or, as the governing Conservatives insist, is it just sort of hurting?
The Conservatives are over the moon thanks to a study just published in the New York Times.
The newspaper reported that American median incomes have lagged badly during the last 30 years and that the U.S. no longer leads the pack among major nations.
In fact, the Times reported, Americans have done so poorly that even Canada has caught up. For both countries, median per capita after-tax income in 2010 was about $18,700 (U.S.)
Median income, by the way, refers to the amount of money going to someone right in the middle. Half of the population earns more, half less.
Conservative angelologists were quick off the mark. Employment Minister Jason Kenney said the Times report shows that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s focus on Canada’s struggling middle class is desperately misguided.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office said the study proves that the Conservatives are right on just about everything.
In fact, the Times report merely confirms what was widely known.
First, the U.S. has been whacked hard by the post-2008 slump. Canada’s resource-based economy has been whacked less.
Second, between 1980 and 2010, Canadian and European income-redistribution programs helped middle-income citizens weather all storms.
In the U.S., by contrast, tax and subsidy programs are more favourable to the wealthy.
Presto: The poorest in America saw their incomes fall; the middle class stagnated and the wealthy forged ahead.
In European counties like Norway, the poor fared better. Canada, as usual, tended to be in the middle.
What the Times study does show is that, in terms of eliminating the welfare state, the Conservatives have more work to do. They have not yet finished the job that the Liberals, under Jean Chrétien began.
If they had, the poorest Canadians, like their U.S. counterparts, would have seen real incomes decline.
But give Harper credit for perseverance. He has announced that cutbacks to medicare and old age pensions will kick in after the next election.
The government’s very interesting expansion of the temporary foreign worker program is already achieving results. From fast food joints to mining operations, employers are laying off Canadian workers in order to replace them with cheaper or more docile foreign help.
The Conservatives’ ultimate aim, presumably, is to drive down wages.
I have great faith in this government’s ability to achieve this aim and to so restructure Canada that, by the time of the next economic crisis, our middle-income earners will do as badly as those south of the border.
But the political battle for the middle class is not about statistics. As always, it will be decided by how Canadians feel when the next election rolls around.
Some voters may agree with Kenney that Trudeau’s policy on the middle class is not “evidence-based.”
(Aside: Given that his government has eliminated the long-form census, cancelled Statistics Canada studies and squashed straightforward scientific research, it’s a bit rich for Kenney to call for evidence-based anything).
But I digress. Voters may indeed decide that Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair don’t know what they are talking about.
When it comes to determining their own situations, however, I doubt Canadians will spend much time parsing longitudinal income studies in the New York Times.
They will look at whether their lives are better, whether their kids can get work and whether the future looks good.
Some will wonder why their bosses are doing so much better. Others will be grateful to survive.
But the question for most will be simple: Is this government making our lives easier or harder? To answer that is to determine the role the Canadian middle class will play in the country’s politics.
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