What are the most personal causes that stir the hearts of our nation’s political leaders? The Star asked the leaders of Canada’s major political parties to share the issues that move them deeply. Today, in the fourth of a series called Passion to Lead, we look at the middle class, the cause chosen by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. Read more about the series, here.
Sonia Massoud and her husband make a good living. As an accountant and an electronics engineer, she estimates they take in more than $ 100,000 a year between them.
“But it doesn’t go anywhere,” says the 42-year-old.
“We don’t feel like we have that money.”
The couple have two boys under the age of 10, and rent the top floor of a home in North York. After rent, transportation (she spends more than $ 300 a month in tolls to drive on Highway 407 to avoid traffic when visiting her accounting clients) and other expenses, there’s just not much left over.
“I think to myself, as an accountant, if I’m struggling, what about the people who don’t speak English? Who are working $ 16-an-hour jobs?” she says. “It’s just too much.”
The “middle class” is a term that often gets thrown around during election campaigns. It’s a label that millions of Canadians — from factory workers to doctors — use to describe themselves, without an exact definition.
But experts agree it’s a group that’s feeling increasingly squeezed, given the high cost of housing, mounting debt and stagnant wages.
Geranda Notten, associate professor of economics at the University of Ottawa, says, depending on how you define it, there has been a “shrinking” of the middle class over recent decades.
In Canada, as in many developed countries, the incomes of those at the very top of the scale have jumped, while those at the bottom have stalled.
This is because of a number of global factors, including increased automation of lower and even some middle-income jobs, she says.
But income is only one part of the equation. Cost of living also plays a huge part.
Even if someone’s income does rise that doesn’t necessarily mean “congratulations, you’ve now entered the middle class because you’re out of low-income,” Notten says.
“On the one hand you’ve got your financial resources, and debt repayment and those kinds of things, and on the other hand you’ve got all of these costs of living, and it’s the relationship between these two that matters.”
That hits home for Ria Rinne, who feels lucky to have the same administrative job she landed in 2007 when she graduated from the University in Ottawa with a degree in public administration.
“I have a full-time job with benefits. I cannot complain,” she says.
But, “living in Toronto in 2019, I say middle class with hesitation.”
Currently in a “micro-bachelor” in Etobicoke, the 35-year-old is one eviction away from having to move back in with her parents in Ottawa, as she doesn’t think she could afford rent in that city or Toronto anymore. She doesn’t think her place is in jeopardy, but the landlord could always sell or move a family member in.
Internet and cellphone bills, necessary for her position working from home, also eat up her income.
“The cost of living keeps going up,” she says.
“And it’s affecting people who at one point would be considered quite comfortable, well off, middle class and are really trying to hold on to that level of financial comfort.”
A 2017 Ekos Research poll for The Canadian Press found 43 per cent of respondents defined themselves as middle class — a big drop from 2002 when about 70 per cent of people identified that way.
An April 2019 report from the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defined the middle class as households with income between 75 per cent and 200 per cent of the median national income, which is roughly $ 43,500 in Canada. That report found that at 58 per cent, the Canadian middle class is slightly smaller in size than the OECD average of 61 per cent.
“As in most other OECD countries, the middle class in Canada is struggling,” says OECD economist Michael Förster in an email from the centre’s Paris headquarters.
The report also found Canadian middle income households are spending a growing share of their income on housing: 32 per cent in 2015, compared to 27 per cent a decade earlier.
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It’s worse for younger people, he added, 67 per cent of Canadian baby boomers were part of the middle class in their 20s, compared with 60 per cent of millennials today.
There are different pressures at different life stages that can impact class status, says Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family.
A couple in their 30s may be struggling with paying off student loans and daycare fees, while a senior might be concerned with home-care costs and losing the pension of a spouse who dies.
Even people who technically qualify as high income might see themselves as middle class, because the cost of living in some places is so high. For example, a pair of young lawyers making a combined $ 300,000 a year with a giant mortgage, may still feel like they’re just getting by.
The disparity between those junior associates and the top partner at their firm has also probably gotten bigger over the past decade, Spinks says.
“If you look at the levels of income from a CEO to a front-line worker in most organizations now across the country, the differential is massive,” she adds.
Debt is also at record levels, and the face of work is changing with the rise of precarious jobs, says Mitchell Huynh, a personal finance expert who teaches a course on the subject at the University of Toronto.
According to Statistics Canada, seasonally adjusted household credit market debt as a proportion of disposable income increased to 178.5 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2018, compared to 178.3 per cent in the third quarter.
Huynh estimates, on average, “middle class” means a household income of under $ 100,000, but that changes depending on where you live. And, as people like Massoud and Rinne know well, that income is just not going as far as it once did.
“Living expenditures are going up, inflation is going up, even the cost of housing is going up, but salaries are not rising as fast as anything else,” Huynh adds.
The old ideal of going to school, getting a good job, sticking with it for life and then collecting a nice pension is not as achievable as it once was.
“If someone is trying to fulfil that as an ideal lifestyle that would be very hard to do,” Huynh says.
“You’ve dedicated your whole life to one company and if that company closes its doors tomorrow what do you have to show for it? We see a lot of families going through that now.”
Massoud, the accountant, does consider herself part of the middle class. But she is far from comfortable. Her family has decided to leave Toronto, hoping a move to Hamilton will stretch their dollars further.
“It’s just becoming ridiculous, the cost of living here,” she says.
“For the price of these houses, we should all be making $ 300 an hour.”