The Riddle of the Middle

It’s like a bad riddle: almost everyone thinks they belong to it, but few can define what it is.

Politicians claim to champion it, but it’s increasingly difficult to determine what it actually wants.

And, often, when we talk about it, we’re really only referring to part of it—the part that doesn’t really belong to it at all, but likes to think it does.

What is it?

It’s the middle class.

The CCPA Growing Gap Project did extensive public opinion research to look at issues around income inequality and poverty—how it’s experienced and how it’s perceived. But something else was revealed: as my colleague explained to me, it doesn’t matter if you make $25,000 or $150,000; everyone self-identifies as “middle class.”

Now, obviously the vast majority of Canadians understand there’s a world of difference between life as experienced by someone living right around the poverty line and someone among the richest 5% of income earners. So how can both extremes (representing that massive swath of humanity not in a position to light cigars with $100 bills—at least not every day—but not living on the street either) possibly see themselves as part of the same class?

Is “middle class” simply a label that speaks to how people want to think of themselves and be perceived?

Perhaps its real significance is as a term that de-stigmatizes both ends of the spectrum. It allows the well off to feel less privileged (less “elite,” to use a term co-opted by neoconservatives to describe postal workers) and the working poor feel less financially insecure.

We talk about the “disappearing middle class,” but while disposable income is flatlining and decent jobs are vanishing, the middle class label isn’t. On the contrary, it’s being stretched like an elastic band to accommodate an enormous range of people with very different lives and financial realities.

People who make less can aspire to the notional lifestyle middle class evokes, and people who make more can take comfort in a label that allows them to have more, yet still be considered ordinary, down-to-earth folks.

But I think constant use and acceptance of this term allows us to avoid addressing the persistent financial struggle experienced by too many, the accumulation of wealth by too few, and the difference in between.

I think the over-use of “middle classism” provides a convenient way to avoid the fact that far too many people constantly face the heartbreaking struggle of paying the rent or feeding the kids, while others bring in six figures and can top up their RRSPs each year quite comfortably.

I think it relies on the illusion of economic commonality—even, dare I say it, a solidarity—that is a useful pretense come election time when parties of all stripes champion the “middle class.”

The distribution of wealth has shifted, but the self-identification as middle class has not; if anything, identification of and with the middle class has expanded to include more people than ever. And rather than political leaders addressing the vast disparities across the economic spectrum, we hear how their policies will benefit the “middle class” when even a cursory analysis reveals the real beneficiaries of many of these policies are those with much higher incomes (the very upper crust of the middle, so to speak).

So, for example, we’re told the middle class will be the beneficiary of income splitting, when they really mean families (with kids) making over $125,000 a year—the richest 20%–who still self-identify as middle class.

In spite of the “middle class” framing, tax policies are being used to help enrich the already most affluent. Meanwhile, everyone else labouring under the false impression that they are part of the middle class that politicians are talking about is left wondering why at the end of the day the so-called middle class-friendly numbers don’t seem to add up for the people who need the most help.

The political disconnect is profound. But so, too, is the social one—between the stagnating wages we earn and the longer hours we work on the one hand, and our increasing inability to afford the life we’re living as household debt hits record highs on the other.

Consumer culture has played an enormous role in servicing this disconnect. It guides how we define ourselves, how we judge others, and how we want to be judged. We are encouraged to perceive qualitative concepts that help constitute our quality of life as little more than consumer transactions.

Election promises that privilege tax credits for soccer lessons or home renos over bigger societal solutions such as implementing a national pharmacare program or using the wealth of this country to eliminate poverty in our lifetime reinforce our identification as consumers instead of privileging our roles and responsibilities as democratic citizens. We are encouraged to think about acquiring a university or college education the same way we acquire iPods or flat screen TVs.

Accumulation of these items is what ensures us our place in the “middle class”—some of us just go more deeply into debt to acquire them for ourselves or for our children. And these are not all luxury items, by any means. Today post-secondary education is almost without exception a job requirement.

But ironically, the process by which we make the money to purchase the illusion of “middle classdom”—the work we actually do, unless we suddenly stumble into an inheritance—has been erased from the equation…or at the very least hived-off and devalued.

What we do isn’t important. What we aspire to, and the items we acquire that identify us as “middle class”, appears to be the goal—though, for many, the goal of middle classdom feels increasingly like a hologram.

Call it the (middle)class-less society. The modern riddle of the Sphinx.

Erika Shaker is Director of the CCPA’s Education Project.

5 comments

  1. I can appreciate your comment about education. My husband is a mechanic and after a workplace accident his production went down and hence his income. In applying for jobs to supplement our income I found that most places I applied in the food service sector required ‘certification’. So when I went to get my ‘red seal’ I jumped through several hoops, proved double the hours required, filled out all the burocratic forms, wrote my test with 81% and failed at the practical with an emphasis to ‘take some courses’. The school that failed me was eager to offer those. Nothing about the practical exam was about the real world. They claimed to focus on Occupational Health & Safety and didn’t even have a first aid kit in the kitchen, or an orientation for emergency situations. This blatant selling of educational services screwing with my livlihood. (which isn’t that lively at the moment) and it’s being funded by our tax dollars. So, now I have to take a lesser paying job or pay for education. Neither of which really helps my financial situation.

  2. I have a funny story, I’m from BC and when the BC liberals took over around the turn of the century their first move was to slash education subsidies. This was only a few short years before I would go into post secondary school. Needless to say when I did, the cost was prohibitively expensive to attend any of the quality universities. I attended CNC and UNBC campus in northern BC and challenged some third and fourth year courses without prerequisites getting high marks. However I didn’t really have time for it and decided to instead spend my money getting into first aid, which was largely unproductive until I got some experience with it on my resume and now I’m working for $20 an hour for construction areas and looking at getting some certification related to OHS protocols that could make more. After a decade since I first left school and entered the job market I have lived in poverty and even at my current job I am currently unsure if I will end up “middle class.”

    The other day I was at work, doing a daily personnel inventory report and came across a person on the site who was doing environmental monitoring for some work that was going to start later that day and he told me that he was able to start the company with a partner and that all he needed was a four year degree in environmental sciences, he also indicated that he made some good money from the buisness as well. I asked him how he payed for all those student loans, his reply, he didn’t have to get any. He, said he had achieved this majorly by living with his parents a lot and working summer jobs, however even were I lucky enough to have parents living near a place where I could go to school, there was basically no way I could have even remotely afforded this sort of education (5 years) without loans and in reality in my situation they would have had to have been massive loans. Which is why I wrote it off and stopped (though news stories of many 4th year graduates having to go back for 8th year degrees also prompted this decision).

    The right in canada are at war with the middle class and want to lock tight the bonds of social stratification as much as possible by denying people in need access to services or opportunities that might enable upward mobility. Instead they want those who already have money to have the best shot at all these opportunities and these opportunities happen to also be the vast majority of the ones that put people in positions of authority.

    The saddest part of this whole story is that I’ve personally seen this reigning in of the oligarchy in BC as it kicked away the ladders just when it was finally my turn to climb.

  3. Great piece Erika!

    I have been very much on this path trying to figure it for sometime.

    Identity has become such a huge role call spreading the veneer thinner during the last 20 years of social polarization.

    however, the question is how long before it all cracks and people turn on the wealthy? I was kind of humouring myself withbthat thought last night and this morning i read in a respectable paper, that soon the rich will have a whole lot harder time making appearances, in the usa. And we are not talking just inner cities, the gated communities just may not be enough. The gates have held for some time but with no solutions othe horizon except austerity, some new forms of higher quality private security may be the new driver of the economy.

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