As we trudge along towards an expected fall election, the race is on to gain votes from the “middle class”.
In the midst of an economic downturn, both the New Democratic Party (NDP) and Liberals have made strong assertions about how they will fight for the middle class if elected to office in Ottawa. On the one hand, Justin Trudeau waxes poetic about saving the middle class from taxes and providing more money through the Child Tax Benefit. On the other, Tom Mulcair invokes his personal experience to champion the middle class, bruised from the brutality of ‘the rich’ to lead Canada back to a country governed by ‘middle class values’.
Both parties have tapped into a significant narrative that underpins the importance of class in this election. This election will largely be about economics, both individual and systemic. But the emphasis on the “middle class” does not show how these classifications address the unique challenges facing new immigrants to this country.
What is the Middle Class?
Defining the middle class is a difficult, if not impossible, endeavour. An investigative piece in Maclean’s last year, suggests that by even the most inclusive measurements, only 30 to 40 per cent of Canadians are defined as middle class.
For example, economist Lester Thurow’s defines this group as those earning between 75 and 125 per cent of the median income, which would only include 30 per cent of all Canadians (those earning between $35,000 and $70,000 a year). Some have suggested that the middle class should be a proportional group, consisting of 60 per cent of the middle of Canadians, while others have suggested that middle class should be defined by the amount of disposable income a person has.
Regardless of the approach, the parties have tapped into a winning strategy – studies have showed that despite their actual income, close to 80 per cent of Canadians self-identify as middle-class.
[T]he parties have tapped into a winning strategy – studies have showed that despite their actual income, close to 80 per cent of Canadians self-identify as middle-class.
And this self-identification benefits the parties immensely.
Where do immigrants fit?
According to the 2011 National Household Survey, the median income for all working Canadians was $29,878. The table below shows the inter-generational immigration effect on median incomes, notably for those from the second generation. The data matches the anecdotal suggestion that second generation immigrants who witness the struggles of their parents are more likely to be successful economically than future generations.
* Data from the 2011 National Household Survey
For first-generation immigrant groups, the data shows that the timing of an immigrant’s arrival in Canada has a noticeable impact on their income. Newer immigrants are doing significantly worse than their Canadian-born counterparts. As the table below shows, the most recent arrivals to Canada, those arriving between 2006 and 2009, earn $10,000 less than the Canadian median.
* Data from the 2011 National Household Survey
As these numbers show, there are a large number of immigrants who will not benefit from the proposed Liberal and NDP policies, simply because they do not actually qualify as ‘middle class.’
What does this mean for ‘middle class’ politics?
The statistics suggest that the NDP and Liberal approach to tax cuts and child benefits may have some impact on improving Canadian lives, but they have yet to actually address the more dire needs of recently-immigrated Canadians.
Not a single policy from either party has made recommendations focused on the specific economic situation facing newly-arrived immigrants. Yet, there are numerous policy options that could be addressed by these parties.
To the NDP’s credit, a federal minimum wage set at $15 dollars would vastly benefit those earning in the lowest income brackets, including immigrant populations largely dependent on unskilled labour in construction, fast-food, cleaning, and low-level agricultural jobs. With a full-time job at $15 an hour, an individual will earn $29,125, coming close to matching the average income of Canadians ($29,878).
Not a single policy from either party has made recommendations focused on the specific economic situation facing newly-arrived immigrants.
Training and skills development programs are required that include lessons on integration in the Canadian workplace, to help individuals integrate faster into the workplace. Opportunities for small business development could also be addressed through these programs.
Additionally, there is a significant need for affordable housing options with the requisite infrastructure for new immigrants to build lives in Canada. Currently, low-income immigrant communities are sequestered to corners of metropolitan centres, dependent on inadequate public transportation, overfilled schools and inadequate healthcare.
These are just a few solutions that this election continues to ignore.
A middle-class focus could be the future, if that future includes all Canadians.
Anita Singh is a founding partner of Tahlan, Jorden & Singh Consulting Group and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. Her research examines the role of diaspora groups and their influence on foreign policy, particularly the Indo-Canadian community and Canada-India relations.