Down and desperate

Brian D. Johnson January 6 1986

Down and desperate

Brian D. Johnson January 6 1986

Down and desperate


Alexa Stapley was born into the working class and, at 44, has yet to escape it. She grew up in a lumber camp in Nova Scotia, where her father worked in the mill and her mother was a cook. She has been a cocktail waitress and a cashier, a nurse’s aide and a factory hand. Now, Stapley drives a van as a courier in Winnipeg, 50 km from her home in East Selkirk. She enjoys the job but, because her husband is unemployed, she has to push hard to maintain a commission-based income of $18,000 a year.

Consequently, when Stapley hears talk about economic recovery, she is skeptical about the chances for people like her. “I can’t see any change,” she said.

“If anything, my situation is getting worse.” That attitude reflects one side of a significant class disparity in the results of The Maclean ’s/Decima Poll.

Said Decima chairman Allan Gregg:

“What we picked up is a growing sense of inequity. ‘Downscale’ people are saying, ‘The economy is getting better, but I’m not benefiting from it.’ ”

Critical: The poll asked respondents to place themselves in one of four classes: upper, upper-middle, lower-middle and lower. Nine out of 10 identified themselves as middle class, with 41 per cent saying that they were upper-middle and 48 per cent lowermiddle. Only two per cent called themselves upper class, while nine per cent said lower class. While most respondents said they were satisfied and optimistic about their personal economic situation, those who consider themselves to be members of the lower class generally stated that they were not. As well, the same group was more critical of both the economy and the government. Gregg said this year is the first in the. six years that Decima has been tracking public opinion that “class-based attitudes” have begun to emerge. Said Gregg: “The poor are realizing that problems they used to see as temporary aberrations —such as unemployment—are becoming permanent.” Still, 57 per cent said they are content with their present status. As well, the vast majority of respondents in all classes said they believe hard work is the key to success, rather than luck or privilege—an indication that most Canadians still consider class barriers surmountable. Understandably, there is still a strong desire for mobility in the lower class, where 68 per cent said they wanted to move up. But of 43 per cent in the total sample who want to change their status, only half expect to do so. Patricia Marchak, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia, said the poll reveals cracks in the postwar myth that the middle class has room for everyone. “Class barriers are becoming more rigid,” said Marchak. “From the Second World War un-

til the early 1970s, people moved up the scale very rapidly as the economy expanded. Now it’s contracting, and the mobility just isn’t there anymore.”

For some Canadians the concept of “class” is purely economic; for others it is a measure of social worth. Although 89 per cent of the respondents called themselves either upper-middle or lower-middle class, sociologists point out that most people would automatically rule out two other options: “upper class” suggests an

almost aristocratic level of wealth and nobility, while “lower class” carries a derogatory stigma. Indeed, a number of lower-income respondents placed themselves in higher class brackets. Among the 23 people who called themselves upper class, nine had household incomes between $10,000 and $20,000. And two with incomes of more than $40,000 said they considered themselves to be in the lower class.

Opportunities: Still, many people continue to deny the existence of any class structure in Canada. “I don’t believe it’s there,” said respondent Glen Salie, 46, manager of a Regina construction company. “There’s a class system in the mind of the individual—only if we want to believe it’s there.” With an annual income now that varies from $50,000 to $80,000, Salie worked his way up through the company ranks. And he believes the same opportunities are available to others. “I came into this world with zero,” he said. “I had no postsecondary education. And to get where I am today I worked 10 years without a holiday.” Now Salie drives a Cadillac

and bought his two daughters new cars when they turned 16. But he disapproves of the reckless consumer spending associated with the so-called “yuppies”—the young upwardly mobile professionals. “If you want to buy that special dining room suite,” he said, “you should save up for two or three years until you can afford it.” One of the more obvious signs of class disparity concerns consumer spending patterns. Said Decima’s Gregg: “The ‘yuppies’ are spending like mad, while the ‘downscale’ people are starting to retrench. Refrigerators aren’t selling, but microwaves are. Dealers can’t stock enough Audis and Porsches and Saabs and Subarus.” Basing his views on a broad body of data gathered by Decima over several years, Gregg concludes that attitudes toward economic recovery increasingly diverge according to class: “If people find the economy is improv-

ing while their own situation isn’t, they start thinking someone is getting rich at the expense of others.”

In The Maclean ’s/Decima Poll that class disparity is clearly evident on a variety of issues. Nearly five in 10 lower-class people surveyed—47 per cent—said that they felt the economy was not recovering, an opinion shared by only 34 per cent of the overall sample. And that disparity is almost identical when respondents were asked to rate the performance of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Said Gregg: “The yuppies are saying, ‘Let’s get it while we can,’ and the poor are saying, ‘Hell, this isn’t fair.’ ”

Contributing to the disillusionment is the continuing erosion of the North American middle class. With chronic unemployment, even skilled professionals may find themselves on the downslope of the economy. “We tend to equate the lower classes with the plebians,” said respondent Rhonda Bourdon, 42, an unemployed mechanical designer from Vancouver. “But I have a couple of friends who are professional engineers, and they have been unemployed for three to four years. Would you

Different people have different ideas about what it takes to get ahead or be successful. Some people say the most important thing is luck, such as being in the right place at the right time. Some people say the most important thing is privilege, or whether you were born or married into a family with status and wealth. Still others say the most important thing is hard work, that if anybody really sets their mind to it they can succeed. Which one of these three points of view best reflects your own? Luck - ■10% Privilege — - 7% Hard Work ■82%

People sometimes talk about the upper, middle and lower classes. If you had to place your household in one of the following categories according to how you live today, which one would that be? Upper Class- 2% Upper Middle Class 41% Lower Middle Class 48% Lower Class- 9%

consider them lower class when they used to be making $60,000 a year?” Bourdon herself designed sawmills for B.C.’s declining forest industry before she became unemployed. She doubts the province’s economy is recovering and she lays much of the blame on the government.

Although Gregg detects what he calls “the nascent beginning of class-based thinking” in the poll results, he says class identities have not yet hardened. “People are not saying, ‘I’m poor, I’m always going to be poor and my kids are going to be poor.’ ” The poll suggests that the working class still maintains a basic faith in a system that promises to reward individual enterprise. Alexa Stapley and her husband, John, hope to own their own business one day—their dream is to buy a chip wagon. In the summer they would sell french fries at fairs and parks; in the winter they would drive south. Theirs is a modest ambition. With the chip wagon, “we’d still have to work,” she added, “but we’d be working for ourselves rather than someone else.”

—BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Toronto