Minding the Margins: Christians Must Look Beyond the Middle Class

From The Catalyst Summer 2014

A similar version of this article was published by Christian Week in June 2014.

Do you think you are part of the middle class? If so, join the ranks of the ninety-three per cent of Canadians who, according to Environics Research, claim they fit in the same bracket.

Of course, ninety-three per cent represents a majority rather than a true “middle” class. This self-reported figure may be due to the fact that those who are poor prefer not to label themselves as such while those who are rich may underestimate their relative level of wealth. Nonetheless, politicians of all stripes continue to highlight their support for the middle class in order to court these voters. As a result, recent political discourse has been consumed with who’s in and who’s out of the middle class and how well it is doing.

The problem is that this focus on the middle class assumes that Canadians vote primarily for their own interests, without consideration of what is happening on the margins. Canadians (and certainly Christians) should be capable of more than just concern for their own bank accounts. We must look at the bigger picture.

If we do look to the margins, we see that poverty is alive and well in Canada. The poorest fifth of Canadians must somehow secure adequate housing and healthy food on $15,100 per year (their average after-tax income). Even according to the most conservative measures, nearly three million people in Canada are poor. We are among the top ten developed countries with the worst poverty rates and it’s estimated that poverty costs us between $73 billion and $86 billion each year.

We are all one On the other end of the spectrum, the rich are only getting richer. According to Canadian Business, the number of billionaires in Canada grew from 23 to 69 between 1999 and 2012. During that time, the total wealth of the 100 richest Canadians went up over 75 per cent, surging past $200 billion in total. Increasingly, wealth in Canada is being concentrated in the hands of a few.

Given the debate around the middle class and the growing wealth of the richest, our challenge is to interpret the issues of the day from a framework of “justice, not ‘just us,’” as CPJ co-founder Gerald Vandezande used to say. The middle class’ concern for their own interests is legitimate, but people of faith must put a particular emphasis on the needs of the most vulnerable and ensure their voices are heard amid the political noise.

Caring about the poor shouldn’t be a new message for Christians. The Bible is abundantly clear that we are required to stand against oppression and care for those who suffer. Churches have been outstanding in their efforts to support food banks and give to charities that address the immediate needs of those in poverty. But as remarkable as these efforts are, they are not enough. Until we address the many upstream causes of poverty, our communities will continue to face injustice and exclusion.

Canadians have the opportunity to show real concern for the most poor and vulnerable in our country, not just the middle class. We can shift our focus from an economy of continual growth and scarcity to an economy of enough. This requires an end to the greed that causes the endless pursuit of wealth and a recognition that there is in fact enough for people in poverty to no longer be poor.

So whether or not we fall into the middle class, Christians must become ambassadors of a new political vision that defines authentic security as the well-being of everyone, not just of some. And when politicians gauge our interests, they must know that we are mindful of the margins. After all, it’s in seeking the welfare of everyone that our own welfare will be found.

Janelle is CPJ's former Socio-Economic Policy Analyst.

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