The Canadian middle class may now be the world’s richest, but it has its anxieties, too.
Members of the middle class in Canada worry about whether they can afford college for their children and whether their children will find jobs afterward. Housing costs are a major concern, as are everyday costs for transportation and mobile-phone plans. Middle-class Canadians worry about inequality.
Yet many also believe that they’re better off than their American counterparts.
We reported last week that median income in Canada appears to have surpassed median income in the United States, based on more than three decades of international income surveys analyzed by LIS, a research group, and by The Upshot. As recently as 2000, median income in the United States was significantly higher. The data also show that lower-income families in Canada and much of northern Europe now make more than their American counterparts.
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The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that honor, and many Americans are dissatisfied with the state of the country. “Things are pretty flat,” said Kathy Washburn of Mt. Vernon, Iowa. “You have mostly lower level and high and not a lot in between.”Losing the Lead: The American Middle Class Is No Longer the World’s RichestAPRIL 22, 2014
To get a sense for how these trends are affecting Canadians, we set out to interview members of the middle class. Most, of course, have no firsthand way of comparing their experiences with American ones, and they were quick to acknowledge as much. Yet in a globalized world, people do know about more than just their own neighborhood.
And interviews suggest that many members of the Canadian middle class prefer the situation on their side of the border.
“When you have a family to raise and you are middle class, you are on a treadmill,” said Deborrah Mustachi, a 52-year-old educational assistant for the Catholic school board in Markham, a Toronto suburb. “It’s very difficult to save when you have to live for today.”
Yet, Ms. Mustachi added, “I think people in the U.S. seem to struggle more.”
Canadians have little doubt that they face less financial stress about medical costs than Americans. Many also credit their labor unions for the size of their paychecks; union membership rates are higher in Canada. Canadians also know that the American housing bubble and bust were more severe than their version.
“We got to keep our houses,” said Gregory Thomas, 39, an actor and house painter who lives with his wife and two young children in Toronto. “As an outsider, it seems like the aspirational section of the middle class — those who are constantly trying to get a little bit higher — they really got decimated in the States.”
Mr. Thomas added: “We read about Arizona, Florida, Colorado, these places where housing prices just tanked. That didn’t happen here.”
It’s possible that Canadian home prices may have some declines ahead of them, which could reverse the relative positions of the middle class. But many of the other forces that have caused Canadian middle-class incomes to grow more quickly are less ephemeral. Young Canadian adults, for example, are now more educated than their American peers.
Beyond obvious economic issues like education and housing, Canadians also notice cultural differences that seem to affect living standards.
“Our family values are huge,” said Ms. Mustachi, who has three grown children with her husband, William, 60, a millwork department manager at a Lowes outlet. “From what I see on TV, I don’t get a sense of that in the States.”
She acknowledged that her impression might stem from the shows she watched, including “Judge Judy,” but she is right that family structure in the two countries is different. About 68 percent of American children live with two parents; about 80 percent of Canadian children do.
The Canadian middle class also seems to have an accurate impression of the differences between the rich in the two countries: The American rich still have a big lead over the Canadian rich, as the LIS income surveys and other data show.
“If you have money in the United States, you’re probably better off,” said Kyle McGreal, 35, a general grocery warehouse worker who lives with his wife and two children in Caledonia, Ontario. “But a lot of Americans are struggling.”
Or as Mr. Thomas said, Americans “may get more on their plate when they go to Denny’s, but they don’t have more when they go home.”