Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Riddle of the Middle

by  Erika Shaker  
The Agora National

Smack dab in the middle: Matt Sesow
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 flat-lining 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 renovations over bigger societal solutions such as implementing a national pharma-care 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.

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