What is 'middle class?'

The Liberals speak constantly of strengthening the Canadian middle class, but any precise definition of that amorphous category has always been ambiguous. Until now — kind of.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau rose in the House of Commons this week to reveal the Liberal government's criteria for the middle-class club.

"The government of Canada defines the middle class using a broad set of characteristics that includes values, lifestyle, and income," Garneau said.

"Middle-class values are values that are common to most Canadians from all backgrounds, who believe in working hard to get ahead and hope for a better future for their children," he continued.

"Middle-class families also aspire to a lifestyle that typically includes adequate housing and health care, educational opportunities for their children, a secure retirement, job security, and adequate income for modest spending on leisure pursuits, among other characteristics."

The short speech contained a total of 127 words, but not one of them was a number, such as one resembling the annual income reported on a middle-class tax return. That, Garneau suggested, is part of the point.

"The income required to attain such a lifestyle can vary greatly based on Canadians' specific situations, such as whether they face child care expenses or whether they live in large cities where housing tends to be more expensive," he said.

Stephen Gordon, an economist at the University of Laval, said there is no perfect way to define it.

"Definitions are neither right nor wrong, they are only useful or not," Gordon said.

"I'd put this in the 'not useful' category," he said, because it would be difficult to base policy on such a definition, especially if you were aiming to target economic benefits. "It's so broad that approximately every Canadian could be labelled as 'middle class.'"

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