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The Progressive Economics Forum

What is a middle class income these days?

Whenever we consider the pros and cons of a new policy, we want to know if it benefits or hurts the poor, the middle class and those who are better off. Often, the answer depends on how we define each of these groups.

It’s said that 99% of Canadians think of themselves as middle class, regardless of their income. But as our incomes grow increasingly unequal, it’s becoming more important to revisit the actual distribution of incomes in Canada and BC and come up with an evidence-based definition of middle income.

I looked at the distribution of total incomes (including all government transfers, such as EI, welfare, GST credits, etc but no taxes) for economic families of 2 and more persons and propose the following break-down according to quintiles. The data is for 2009 (latest available).

Canada Income range Percent of families Description
Quintile 1 up to $40,000 21.1% Poor & near poor
Quintile 2 $40 – $60,000 17.9% Lower-middle or modest income
Quintile 3 $60 – $85,000 20.4% Middle income
Quintile 4 $85 – $125,000 21.4% Upper-middle income
Quintile 5 over $125,000 19.2% High income or well-off

 

BC Income range Percent of families Description
Quintile 1 up to $40,000 22.9% Poor & near poor
Quintile 2 $40 – $65,000 21.2% Lower-middle or modest  income
Quintile 3 $65 – $90,000 18.2% Middle income
Quintile 4 $90 – $125,000 19.2% Upper-middle income
Quintile 5 over $125,000 18.5% High income or well-off

 

So, a broad definition of the middle class in Canada (and BC) would include those with family incomes between $40,000 and $125,000. This income range spans substantial differences in standards of living and levels of economic security. With growing income inequality, it’s becoming harder and harder to think of a unified middle class experience.

For example, if a policy benefits those with incomes $90 – $125,000 but does little for those with incomes under $70,000, like much of the Conservative government’s existing and proposed tax cuts, can we still say it favours the middle class?

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The latest Statistics Canada release of income data for families makes all data tables available for free through CANSIM so you can double-check these or make calculations for your province using Table 202-0401.

Comments

Comment from andrew jackson
Time: July 20, 2011, 6:05 pm

A note of caution – there is a very wide range of circumstances covered by ” economic families of two persons or more ” – everything from couples to famiilies with six or more kids who clearly need more income. better to define middle class as say 75% to 150% of the median income of the same family type.

Comment from Iglika Ivanova
Time: July 21, 2011, 10:22 am

You make a good point, Andrew.

I was looking for a ballpark estimate to answer the question: Did the Conservative government’s boutique tax cuts benefit the “better off” or the “middle”?

In his Globe article on income inequality, Jeffrey Simpson argued they benefit the “better off”. UBC economics professor Kevin Milligan took issue with this on twitter, pointing out that these tax cuts did not do much for the top 1% (the rich) so he argued they benefited the middle income families with kids. While I agree with his point that these tax cuts are not meant for the super-rich (who won’t even notice them), I don’t think it’s fair to describe them as benefiting the middle, when most lower-middle income families who are struggling to pay their bills can’t afford to put their kids in expensive sports programs.

Comment from Karen
Time: July 22, 2011, 9:39 pm

I can tell you that under 60,000. is poverty wages in Cda now – we are the working poor with aprox this income between 2 people – we don’t buying clothing, we don’t go out anywhere that costs money, we can’t help my daughter although OSAP has cut the amount down for no discernable reason, we have not been on vacation in 20 years and are in trouble when the second hand car acts up. So thanks for the statistics! If everything has gone up 3 times since Harris was in power but our wages have not – are you so surprised?
We have a mortgage on a small house which by the time we are finished with it will be worth nothing. It’s fall apart and we have no money to fix it. McGinty was ever so kind to people with his home renovation grant, that if you paid $10,000 you’ll get a small rebate – well, that was fine for the middle class and upper class but it did nothing for the working poor. What do people not understand about having no money? When people say they have no money it means no financial resources at all behind what they make month to month which there is never anything to save. Happy Trails!

Comment from Karen
Time: July 22, 2011, 9:47 pm

The income amounts need to be brought down one level in your statistics chart which will then reflect reality in Cda. Also, keep in mind that people are still embarrassed to claim themselves “Low Class” or poor. “Low Class” has for a long time referred also to uneducated welfare bums. So maybe the better questions to ask in order to find out where people stand financially are: How easy is it to get by every month, do you go on vacation – why not, how does your life differ from 20 0r 30 years ago, did your parents own property etc etc

Comment from Denise Freedman
Time: July 24, 2011, 7:29 am

I find this a very interesting comment, Iglika, but I do wonder why you have accepted the notion of an ‘economic family’ of two or more persons, regardless of the caveats Andrew has raised.

It is my understanding one of the reasons people, individual persons, are ‘poor’ is they are alone. That, historically, before even the breakdown of the post-WWII social consensus, those who were ‘poor’ and homeless were single individuals.

I am also concerned with the notion, not necessarily part of your definition of “economic family of 2 or more” that there must be children involved. As I understand it, children (under 16, I believe) are not included in employment statistics, yet we talk about ‘poor children’ as if they are some separate entity from adults–their parents–and can be assisted separately.

The logic of this has always escaped me: extra money for the children, as if they are in some kind of bubble and that while their parents are under-employed or unemployed, the children’s lives can be made better while the lives of the parents disintegrate.

Sometimes, children ARE on their own and must be addressed; are they then part of “an economic family of two or more”? Where do ‘street-involved’ children figure in these economic statistics?

I have read of “economic families of one.” I am not convinced about how that works, except that this is what I am.

While I applaud your project of showing, statistically, that Harper policies do not help the middle class, let alone the poor, I am not sure how defining away broad swaths of Canadians adds to its strength.

I argue that those left out of economic statistics, whether for reasons of ‘invisibility’ or that econometric models cannot conveniently include them, are those truly failed either by ‘equality’ or ‘equity.’

Comment from Iglika Ivanova
Time: July 25, 2011, 11:23 am

@ Denise

I fully agree with you that talking of child poverty misses the point that it’s not children that are poor, it’s their parents that are poor, and most often, it’s their mothers. So we absolutely cannot deal with child poverty in isolation from adult poverty.

Employment stats include individuals 15+ who are in the labour force — i.e. who are working or actively looking for work. That’s how Stats Canada can come with numbers of youth unemployment. However, some provinces have a lower legal age for children to work (it’s 12 in BC), and those younger children are not included in the labour force survey as far as I know.

In terms of the size of economic families, Statistics Canada does provide data for economic families of 1, known as unattached individuals. The number of unattached individuals has been growing over the last 20 years, but economic families of 2+ is still the living arrangement for the majority of Canadians, which is why I chose to focus on it for this table.

The Statistics Canada table I linked in the post has data separately for unattached individuals and for economic families of 2+. It also provides and for unattached individuals and families put together into a single group, which I have used in other research.

The best way to compare standards of living across family size is to adjust family income for the size of the family. Various adjustment methods exist to take into account that 2 people sharing expenses with joint income $40k have a higher standard of living than two individuals living alone on $20k each.

My calculation here is ballpark, and of course, this means that it misses some of the diversity of experiences of families. All statistics do. But I still think it’s important to have an idea of how income is distributed in this country.

Statistics Canada survey data, the type I used for this calculation, is good for looking precisely at the middle of the distribution. We know that both the very poor and the very rich are not well represented in these surveys because they tend not to respond to them. The Census had a much better coverage of the extremes of income, but now that the long form questionnaire was replaced with a voluntary survey, I expect this would change.

So yes, homeless people, children in care, street-involved people — those are all not covered. Neither are the super-rich. What we have is a decent slice of the middle of the distribution, and this is what I was looking at here.

Comment from Donna
Time: September 11, 2013, 7:32 pm

Those in the middle can control some of their income; ie cheaper housing, beer instead of wine, hamburger instead of chops.

How many singles are there already no one knows and it seems no one cares.

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