The Myth of Middle-Class Stagnation in Canada

A frequently heard complaint is that for the past several decades middle-class workers and families in Canada have stagnated economically. A typical rendition of this claim appears in the 2016 federal budget from the Department of Finance in Ottawa: “The net result is that even though there has been economic growth over the past three decades, it hasn’t much benefitted the middle class. Too often the benefits have been felt only by already wealthy Canadians, while the middle class and those working hard to join it have struggled to make ends meet.”

If it is true that over the previous thirty or forty years the material welfare of ordinary Canadians has remained stagnant, then this would indeed be a troubling state of affairs. But despite being incessantly repeated as if its truth were incontestable, the assertion of middle-class stagnation is a myth.

An examination of a wide variety of goods sold by Sears in 1976 and their counterparts sold by Sears today shows that the average Canadian wage earner today works fewer hours than he or she did in 1976 to earn enough income to buy almost all goods. For example, it took the typical Canadian worker 90 percent fewer hours to purchase a colour television and 84 percent fewer work hours to earn enough to purchase a refrigerator in 2011 than in 1976. These findings are yet further evidence that ordinary Canadians have enjoyed significant economic improvement since the mid-1970s.

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