Canadians increasingly identify as poor, working class

A new poll suggests the political battle constantly waged for the support of Canada's middle class is being fought over increasingly shrinking territory.

An Ekos-Canadian Press survey of 4,839 Canadians indicates the number of people who self-identify as working class sits at 37 per cent, while 43 per cent place themselves in the middle.

It's the lowest recorded since 2002, Ekos said – at the outset of the century, about 70 per cent of Canadians defined themselves in middle class terms.

At the same time the incidence of those in the working class has nearly doubled.

Those self-identifications aren't just about people's bank balances, said Frank Graves, president of Ekos. It's about how they see their physical well-being, their emotional connections and general sense of their quality of lives.

"It's not just an economic debate," Graves said.

"If we really see people falling out of the middle class, then we're going to have a less happy, less healthy society at some point in the future."

The telephone survey was conducted between Sept. 15 and Oct. 1, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.4 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

The questions were asked as part of an ongoing effort by The Canadian Press and Ekos to suss out whether the factors that have led to the overhaul of the political status quo in the U.S. and elsewhere in recent years exist in Canada.

The poll suggests they do.

"It's not like people are moving out of the middle class and becoming upper class," Graves said.

"They are falling backward and I think the evidence is really quite clear is that that is probably the greatest source of the rise of populism and all of the unpleasant things that go along with that."

Anger from the working class in the U.S. was seen as a critical force behind U.S. President Donald Trump's march to victory. His promise to restore America's economy was embraced by people rallying around his slogan of making American great again.

Americans' outlook in turn shot up in the week after Trump was elected. A regular tracking survey done by the firm Gallup saw a 13 point jump in their confidence index, which looks at how Americans view current economic conditions and whether they think things are getting better or worse.

The jump came from a partisan shift – Republicans suddenly felt more optimistic about things than they had for a very long time, Gallup concluded.

Ekos asked Canadians about their own short-term and medium-term financial outlooks, and only a minority of Canadians see things as getting better.

When 2,396 people in the survey were asked about the quality of their own lives compared to those 25 years ago, 33 per cent said they felt they were better off and 34 per cent felt they were doing worse.

When a slightly larger sample of 2,443 people were asked how they think the next generation will do, 13 per cent felt they'd be better, and 56 per cent felt things would be worse.

But, perceptions of the economy do generally lag behind reality, Graves noted.

The latest Statistics Canada numbers on job growth show there's been 10 months in a row of gains, the longest growth streak since 2008. Meanwhile, average hourly wages grew at the above-inflation pace of 2.2 per cent, for the biggest increase since April 2016.

The Liberals have been quick to take credit for the positive numbers, and for unexpectedly strong GDP growth in the first two quarters of 2017.

Whether Canadians eventually shift their own points of view and the political implications if they don't are hard to forecast, Graves suggested.

Those feeling pessimistic about the future generally tend to support the party out of power, but the working class is beginning to skew more Conservative and that's new, Graves suggested.

"In many respects, this is mirroring what we saw in the last American election and was also one of the key drivers in Brexit," he said.

"And the reality is that the political arithmetic here in Canada means that if you want to win on a populist program, you don't have to do as well as you have to do in the United States. The centre-left here is fragmented across four choices. We'll see where the NDP or Liberals go – there's also a populist progressive option."