It seems everyone is interested in the middle class these days. In Canada, the group of people called "the middle class" is seen to be under duress -- higher taxes, higher prices, stagnant wages and decreasing opportunities. Politicians of all stripes are saying the middle class is neglected -- and this class will be the new focus of their policies and their programs.
This raises the question: Who are the middle class?
The answer can be elusive. If we try to define this group in strictly quantitative terms -- levels of income, wealth, education and so on -- we quickly find ourselves tied up in knots. Is a person who has less than $20,000 a year in income but who owns a house without a mortgage in an area with a low cost of living middle-class or not? How about a couple that has an annual income of $120,000 but is falling behind on monthly payments and an increasingly unsustainable debt load?
Much like attempts to define poverty levels or what constitutes the working poor, a strictly quantitative definition of who is, or who is not, middle-class continues to elude us.
We know the middle class exists. Further, we are told this class constitutes a significant portion of the population and will determine the success or failure of the parties contesting the next election. Again the question needs to be asked: Who are they, and, of importance to political strategists, where can they be found?
More than any quantitative measure, being middle-class is a state of mind. It does have some attributes, such as home ownership, for example, that can be quantified, but it is an attitudinal posture more than a demographic bracket.
If you were to conduct a survey, you would find most Canadians self-identify as members of the middle class. Despite dramatic differences in income, place of residence and education levels, this belief encompasses a broad swath of the population. A retiree with a secure pension is as likely to see themselves as middle-class as a young entrepreneur trying to keep body and soul together. Likewise, an affluent suburban household anxious about impending tuition costs is as likely as an apprentice tradesperson to see themselves as part of this group.
While the amorphous nature of the middle class can be a source of frustration to those who believe in micro-targeting campaign strategies, "class consciousness" or neat social paradigms, our society benefits from an ecumenical and inclusive definition of this key population group.
As students of political behaviour can tell you, the middle class is also the democratic class. Adherence to democratic virtues such as the belief in individual equality, the rule of law, the fair administration of justice and participation in the electoral process, is strongest among those who see themselves as middle-class. They see themselves as neither dependant (as the poor may see themselves) nor independent (as might the wealthy) from society as a whole. Instead, they have a vested interest in maintaining a society that provides ongoing prosperity, security and opportunity.
The middle class is also an aspirational class. Home ownership, or the desire to be a homeowner, is a defining characteristic of this group. An upward career path, or at least the belief that economic security is personally achievable, is also a key attribute of this class.
Given the close correlation between higher levels of education and economic security, it is no surprise the middle class is obsessed with the quality and accessibility of the education system. Affordable post-secondary education, along with quality primary and secondary schools, is the bedrock of their public-policy belief system.
Aspiration also has its anxieties. Illness and age lurk in the shadows for those in the middle class. This is why those in the middle class are strong supporters of a universal health-care system and why they are equally suspicious of "means testing" or user fees, which might restrict their access to care, and two-tier health care, which would advantage wealthier Canadians. They are also strong believers in secure and adequate pensions and, when they grow more frail, quality affordable eldercare.
The middle class in Canada can only be defined by their qualities, not their quantities. Those seeking to appeal to the majority of voters, who are in this class, would do well to remember this.
A resident of Fredericton, N.B., Chris Baker is a former provincial deputy minister and has over 25 years of experience working in public policy, public affairs and public-opinion research.