By From the editors - Thursday, April 18, 2013 - 0 Comments
From the editors
Attention, middle-class voters: Justin Trudeau is thinking about you. A lot.
“I say this to the millions upon millions of middle-class Canadians and the millions more who work hard every day to join the middle class,” Trudeau said as he accepted the leadership of the federal Liberal party this past weekend in Ottawa, following a landslide victory. “Under my leadership, the purpose of the Liberal party will be you.”
He added for good measure: “I promise that I will spend every day, from beginning to end, thinking about and working hard to solve your problems.”
Whether this promise of round-the-clock contemplation should properly be considered smart politics or outright stalking, Trudeau’s middle-class fixation ought to be seen as a canny attempt to define his political persona before his opponents get there first. He’s not an aloof philosopher king in the image of his father. Neither does he wish to be seen as a flaky upper-class dilettante, as Tory attack ads have already argued. Associating himself so tightly with the middle class paints a comfortable and appealing image for the telegenic new Liberal leader.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 8:53 AM - 0 Comments
Martha Hall Findlay is also worried about Justin Trudeau’s focus on the middle class.
“If someone says ‘I’m going to focus on a particular group’ what does that say to everybody else?” she said. “Every Canadian wants a job, every Canadian wants a future for their kids and every Canadian wants to be proud of their country. So as a prime minister, the last thing I would want to say is that my focus is on a particular segment of our society.”
This is what she seemed to be trying to get at on Saturday when she decided to question Mr. Trudeau’s ability to understand the average Canadian’s financial situation (she expanded on her concerns in her subsequent apology). Here is Mr. Trudeau’s op-ed on the middle class. But Ms. Hall Findlay could ask the question of Barack Obama. Or Bob Rae. Or Michael Ignatieff.
This strikes me as an odd attack, not least because of the reason politicians focus on the middle class: most people consider themselves to be part of it. In a 2006 survey, 64.9% of Canadians identified themselves as either “upper middle class” or “lower middle class.”
By John Geddes - Monday, March 28, 2011 at 9:52 AM - 5 Comments
The rush to secure the middle class vote
Jack Layton wasted no time getting to the point. Striding into the foyer of the House to declare that his NDP MPs would be voting against last week’s federal budget—all but ensuring the Conservative minority would fall within days—Layton quickly accused Stephen Harper of failing the “middle class.” He proceeded to work into his denunciation of the budget a few more rapid-fire references to the most sought-after voter demographic group in the coming election. “Mr. Harper had an opportunity to address the needs of hard-working middle-class Canadians and families, and he missed that opportunity,” Layton said, adding seconds later that the budget didn’t “give middle-class families a break.”
Brace yourself to hear plenty about the hard-working, everyday, over-stressed Canadian middle class in the next few weeks. Layton is joining the Prime Minister and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in trying to position himself as the champion of the most admirably unexceptional sort of family. The Harper government’s proudest boast, for instance, is that they’ve saved the average two-earner family $3,000 by cutting taxes. For his part, Ignatieff recently travelled the country on what he dubbed a “Working Families Tour.”
The tripartisan preoccupation with voting moms and dads nesting in nice suburbs might sound like politics as usual, but the uniform emphasis—almost to the point of obsession—is new. In the past, Harper’s strategists were often fixated on other sorts of demographic aims, like orchestrating a Quebec breakthrough. Under Paul Martin and Stéphane Dion, Liberals tried grand-vision platforms, like competing globally and taxing carbon, rather than targeted policies aimed explicitly at middle-class taxpayers. Taking over the NDP leadership eight years ago, after the party’s decline in the 1990s, Layton had to first rebuild its base—largely young and single, often less affluent—and has only recently made broadening into comfortable suburbs a prime electoral objective.
By Jason Kirby - Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 4:17 PM - 6 Comments
Despite big setbacks, our middle class is still pulling ahead
When not teaching law at Harvard University or overseeing the U.S. Treasury Department’s massive bank bailout program on behalf of Congress, Elizabeth Warren has found another calling of late: middle-class folk hero. Warren, a tough-talking, no-nonsense Oklahoman whose parents lived through the Dirty Thirties, has repeatedly blasted fat-cat bankers, credit card companies and politicians for grinding down workers. “Dang gummit, somebody has got to stand up on behalf of middle-class families,” she twanged to the New York Times last month. And with America’s unemployment rate stuck at 10 per cent and debt levels still near record highs, she’s found an eager audience. After she took comedian Jon Stewart through her down-home analysis of the financial crisis on The Daily Show recently, Stewart admitted, “When you say it like that, and when you look at me like that, I know your husband’s backstage, I still wanna make out with you.”
But while Warren is winning fans among the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs and their homes during the financial crisis, her underlying message—that ordinary workers are falling behind—appears to resonate far beyond America’s borders. Thirteen years after then British prime minister Tony Blair vowed to create a “classless society,” his Labour Party successor Gordon Brown is desperately trying to reinforce his “ordinary middle-class” roots ahead of the country’s general election. Before the global recession hit, many developed nations were already fretting about their dwindling centre grounds. Reports of Germany’s shrinking middle class have become common, as has talk of rising inequality in countries like Australia. Even in South Korea, which until relatively recently was still considered a developing nation, headlines warn of the collapse of the middle class.
For Canadians who’ve seen the middle-class debate take on an urgent edge during the recession, one thing should become abundantly clear—we’re far from alone. Across the developed world, countries are grappling with a similar problem. After experiencing tremendous growth in incomes during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, there’s a growing sense that prosperity has stalled. Yet, looking at the international scene, an obvious question emerges. How exactly does Canada’s middle class stack up to the rest of the world? Turns out, much better than you might think. “The situation in Canada is actually much improved from where it was,” says Mike Veall, a professor of economics at McMaster University. Yes, the recession has set everyone back, but middle-class workers have made great strides since the mid-’90s.
By Rachel Mendleson - Monday, March 15, 2010 at 9:00 AM - 14 Comments
More women are now prime family earners, but wage gaps persist
The past few years have been difficult for Brian and Karen Rae. After working at K Tool & Die for more than a decade, Brian, 62, was laid off from the Oakville, Ont., plant, which made parts for the auto industry, in December 2008. At the time, Brian, who had been a toolmaker for 38 years, was earning about $58,000—a decent salary, he says, but not enough to live comfortably. “You can’t make it on one family income anymore.” As such, Karen has long worked full-time at Zellers, where she earns less than $20,000 a year assisting customers in the men’s department. The importance of her job has been “brought to the forefront” since he lost his, says Brian, along with the fact that surviving on it alone is impossible. While he completes a government-funded course in home renovation (he gave up on toolmaking after distributing 100 resumés to no avail), they’ve had to dip into their RRSPs. “It’s been a bit of a struggle to keep up with everything,” he says.
As Ottawa celebrates the country’s official return to economic growth, the Raes are not the only ones for whom recovery remains an abstract notion. Dubbed the “man-cession” or “he-session” for the way in which it snuffed out male-dominated manufacturing jobs, the downturn has dramatically altered the dynamic of many working class families. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, men suffered 76 per cent of the overall job losses; Statistics Canada numbers show that in 2009, male employment levels dipped by a total of 249,000 over the previous year, compared to a decline of 28,000 for women.
The reality today is that a middle class existence, more often than not, means a two-income family, with more women assuming the role of primary breadwinner than ever before. But a stubborn fact, buried under decades of gender equality and diversity training, has resurfaced: despite comprising more than half the workforce and outpacing the educational achievements of men, women still make less. What’s happened since the recession, says Barb Byers, executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, “is the men have looked [at what their wives are earning] and said, ‘Wait a minute, these are really crappy jobs. You can’t feed a family on this.’ ” It’s a reality that, when combined with the downturn and the shrinking middle class, is wreaking havoc on family finances.
By Jason Kirby - Monday, April 13, 2009 at 3:40 PM - 10 Comments
There are no simple solutions for the plight of the middle class, but all is not lost
The other day Jim Milway was standing in line at a Tim Hortons when he saw one of the fast food chain’s latest innovations. No, not another maple treat. Milway was looking at a computerized kiosk at which customers could place their orders, swipe a card and then skip to the front of the line to pick up their chicken sandwich. “That’s going to mean fewer service jobs,” says the executive director of the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity in Toronto. “That’s a good thing, believe me, that’s good.”
Milway’s counterintuitive way of thinking is bound to upset coffee slingers. Yet he stands by his assertion. Canada is overly reliant on low-skilled service jobs, he says, which is holding back the economy and contributing to stagnant incomes. What’s needed instead is to ﬁnd ways to foster more high-skilled, creative jobs. “That’s one of the things that’s going to help strengthen the middle class,” he says. “The more of us that can get into creative jobs, the better.”
By Colin Campbell - Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 9:37 AM - 155 Comments
With our nest eggs in ruins, the feds look at pensions for everyone
Most of the carnage wrought by the economic crisis that’s ripped through the country over the past year is obvious: the lost jobs, the bankrupt companies, the shuttered manufacturing plants. But a bigger and far less visible effect of the financial meltdown has been the way it decimated the retirement plans of millions of Canadians in just a few cruel months.
Four years ago, Chris Morales and his wife, Sally, moved to Wasaga Beach, a few hours north of Toronto—a move he envisioned as the first step toward semi-retirement. But lately, the 51-year-old has had to downsize in ways he’d never expected. It started when he lost his advertising industry job last August. Morales cut out the travel he and his wife once enjoyed, as well as the practice of leasing new cars every few years. He has since started his own consulting company, but he has had to dip into his rainy-day fund to do it. Now savings are a big concern, he says. All of the money he diligently put away in RRSPs over the years has taken a hammering. “As you look forward you go, wow, do I keep contributing? What’s the value of it going to be when you really do need it 15 years from now?” Morales once dreamed of retiring by age 56. “That’s not going to happen,” he says. He now expects to be hard at work for at least another decade.
By Jason Kirby - Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 2:50 PM - 1,034 Comments
The middle-class life has been built on debt for a decade. Now that bill is due.
What surprises Marcus Leech the most is how fast it all fell to pieces. Six months ago he was working as a computer security expert at Nortel Networks in Ottawa, earning about $127,000 a year. He knew the telecom giant was on shaky ground. But with three decades of experience, Leech was sure he could land another good job if need be. So when his wife, who had stayed home to raise and educate their three children, went to school to become a pharmacist last August, Leech thought nothing of tapping his line of credit for the $9,000 tuition. Nor did he fret much when he took out a mortgage of around $280,000 for a new home in Smiths Falls, Ont., or when he borrowed thousands to replace the family’s two aging vehicles. In all, the family piled on more than $400,000 in debt in the last few years. “When I was young if you got heavily into debt it was a very serious issue, but now it’s just seen as normal,” he says. “If you’re an average middle-income family with two or three kids and only a single income, debt is the only way to keep the family going.”
Then, last November, the hammer fell. Nortel told Leech, 46, that his last day would be Jan. 11. At first he took solace in the fact that after 20 years at the company he was due a generous payout of around $100,000. But three days after clearing out his desk, Nortel filed for bankruptcy protection, killing any prospect of a severance cheque. All Leech got was $11,000 in vacation pay, which is all the family has had to live on since. With his hopes for quickly finding a new job shattered, the family has radically scaled back. But the bills continue to roll in, forcing Leech to sometimes resort to credit cards to make ends meet, sinking the family even deeper into debt. With their finances spiralling down, he knows everything is at stake, including the roof over their heads. “I have no idea how we’re going to eventually crawl our way out of this situation,” he says.
By Colin Campbell - Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 10:38 AM - 70 Comments
Many are finding the recession can deliver unexpected benefits
In hard economic times like these, most of us live in fear of getting laid off. But when Rick Geister got his pink slip he saw it as a lucky break. For the past 15 years, the 40-year-old had toiled away at the auto parts company Kitchener Frame, first as a welder, then for seven years as a quality control inspector. It wasn’t the best job, but it was well-paid, regular work and he had a good pension. So when the Kitchener, Ont., company hit hard times and Geister recently found himself jobless, it was scary at first. But he quickly came to see the upside to his situation. Here, at last, was a chance to pursue the career he’d dreamed of since high school, but never pursued because a guidance counsellor had advised against it: he would become a police officer. “Losing this job is kind of a blessing, because it’s given me a second chance to do something I really want to do,” he says. “Hopefully I can get in and make a career of it.”
Geister hopes to get accepted into the Ontario Provincial Police training program this fall. Money will be tight, but the roughly $40,000 he expects as part of his plant-closure contract makes for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I’m just happy to have the chance right now to do this,” he says. “I see policing as a really good job.” His wife, who previously stayed home to look after their seven-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, is also using the disruption to explore new opportunities. She’s looking to go back to work, perhaps training to be a nurse.
By Jason Kirby - Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 4:20 PM - 251 Comments
For a while, it looked like young workers had finally caught a break. It didn’t last long.
Finally things were looking up. For years Joe Martin had found himself stuck in a series of lousy jobs. As a teenager he served time at McDonald’s. In the wake of the 1990s recession he toiled at a golf course for low wages alongside disgruntled university grads. Later, he installed garage doors, working for years to earn meagre raises with zero benefits. Then, three years ago, Martin finally caught a break. He landed a coveted spot on the assembly line at Cami Automotive in Ingersoll, Ont.—and everything began to fall into place. At $33 an hour the pay was good. The full benefits package was even better. He met Kate Fisher, another employee, and with a sense of confidence born of their joint paycheques, they bought a small home together in nearby Dorchester and prepared to have a child. “We were able to actually have a plan that we could move forward on,” says Martin, who’s now 36. “Things were looking good and the company said if there was ever any trouble, they’d just reduce production and rotate layoffs.” After a pause, he adds, “It didn’t work out that way.”
Last spring the couple both received pink slips, making them front-line victims of the unemployment storm to come. In June, Fisher gave birth to a baby girl. And Martin, already a father of three, now finds himself right back where he started. He’s working with garage doors again, earning $11 an hour while his fiancée struggles to raise their young family. “I’m starting all over,” he says. “We have no idea what we’re going to do to get by. It’s the same thing for everyone we know. My generation is in serious trouble.”
By Duncan Hood - Thursday, February 5, 2009 at 11:29 AM - 9 Comments
If so, we want to hear how you’re making the most of these tough times
It’s hard to see a silver lining in all this economic doom and gloom, but some Canadians are taking advantage of this period of upheaval to make changes in their own lives—for the better. Are you one of them? Have you gone back to school to get ahead? Have you left a job you hated for a volunteering position you love? Are you finding that scaling back to a simpler life has made you happier? Tell us your story (in the comments below).