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StatsCan study doesn't sway Trudeau from worry about middle class

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau talks to reporters after attending his caucus meeting in on Parliament in Ottawa, Wednesday February 26, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau talks to reporters after attending his caucus meeting in on Parliament in Ottawa, Wednesday February 26, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

OTTAWA - Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is sticking with his assertion that the middle class is struggling with stagnant incomes and skyrocketing household debt, no matter what Statistics Canada says.

The agency released a study earlier this week that said families have become wealthier, with median net worth rising 44.5 per cent since 2005 and almost 80 per cent since 1999.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney said the study proves Trudeau is "making things up." He credited the Harper government's 162 tax cuts for the "very significant increase" in family net worth — although about half the growth occurred during years when the Liberals were in power.

But Trudeau on Thursday cited another report — prepared last fall by experts in Kenney's own department — which concluded that "the Canadian dream is a myth more than a reality" for middle income earners.

Trudeau has zeroed in on the plight of the middle class since taking the helm of his party last April. He has vowed that measures to improve the lot of middle-class Canadians will be the cornerstone of the eventual Liberal platform for next year's election.

Asked Thursday how he reconciles his depiction of the middle class with the Statistics Canada study, Trudeau said he's looking at data over the longer term, since 1981, and they show "very, very troubling trend lines."

"The reality is that anyone who has spent any time actually talking to Canadians and listening to them knows that people are really, really worried," he told a questioner following a breakfast speech hosted by the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and Ottawa Business Journal.

"Canadians are worried that, you know what, for the first time, they're not going to be offering to their kids greater opportunities than they had."

Trudeau said Canada "must be a place where upward mobility and equality of opportunity is there for everyone" and added: "I do believe, unlike some others, that the federal government does have a leadership role to play in making that happen."

During his speech, Trudeau didn't mention the Statistics Canada study but he did reference the report prepared by officials in Kenney's department and obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

That report said middle-income earners saw their wages stagnate and debts mount between 1993 and 2007 and concluded they're unlikely to move into higher income brackets.

"It explicitly says that wages of middle income workers have stagnated and that middle-income families are increasingly vulnerable to financial shocks," Trudeau said.

"And it says finally — something that the Conservative government has so far refused to acknowledge — for far too many, 'the Canadian dream is a myth more than a reality'."

A spokesperson for Kenney said the departmental report shows the middle class suffered primarily when the Liberals were in power, while the StatsCan study shows they're "faring much better" under the Conservatives.

However, the Statistics Canada study did not paint an entirely rosy picture.

While net worth has increased, largely due to the spike in housing prices, so too has household debt — by 41.6 per cent since 2005, the study found.

Moreover, the study showed that almost 90 per cent of the improvement in net worth was accumulated by the top 40 per cent of income earners. The bottom 60 per cent accounted for a mere 11.1 per cent of the pie.

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