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America’s Middle-Class Defeat: How Canada Shamed the Wealthiest Nation on Earth

Want to understand what's causing the decay of the American dream? Take some lessons from our friends to the north.

A few summers ago, I spent six weeks in Canada, as part of a 10,000-mile Great Lakes Circle tour. From Pigeon River on Lake Superior to Kingston on Lake Ontario, I drove and camped my way across Ontario. On Manitoulin Island, I went on a fishing charter captained by a retired nickel miner named Tom Power. The Nickel Belt is a stronghold of Canada’s most socialistic party, the New Democrats. When the conversation turned to politics (as it often did with Canadians during the George W. Bush years), Tom made a statement that would have tabbed him as a Marxist crank on the other side of the lakes.

“I don’t understand why anyone has to earn more than $200,000 a year,” he said. “I mean, honestly, what are you going to do with all that money?”

Right then, my rod bent toward the water, so I had to abandon our discussion of economics to land a six-pound salmon. But I thought about it again in Toronto, when I visited Jane and Finch, an immigrant neighborhood that was reputedly the most dangerous turf in the Greater Toronto Area. I expected to see Johnny Too Bads in beehive rasta caps, and dingy apartment blocks with smoke burns around broken windows. To my disappointment, it didn’t look like a slum at all. It looked like my grandparents’ civil-service ghetto in a suburb of Washington, D.C. The housing projects were clean white monuments. Ranch houses looked out on barbered greensward parks.

“There have been some shootings lately,” a Guyanese-Canadian bureaucrat told me at the Community Information Center inside the local shopping mall. “But we don’t have ghettoes here like you would think of in the United States. We have scatter housing. We try not to concentrate poverty in one place.”

The manager of my guest house was a Bronx expatriate who understood both his countries better than they understood themselves.

“If you want to see your name in lights, go to the United States,” he explained. “If you want a stable middle-class existence, go to Canada.”

This was all different than the extremes of opulence and destitution I was used to at home, but I didn’t really experience culture shock until I crossed back into the United States, on the tramp ferry from Kingston to Cape Vincent, N.Y. After weeks of driving through Canada’s orderly fishing ports and suburbanized metropolises, I was suddenly seeing … rural slums. Small towns blighted by abandoned gas stations. Dingy farmhouses with empty, eyeless windows. At the Erie County Fair, outside Buffalo, I witnessed a pageant of American poverty: a man swinging his lone leg between a pair of crutches, a phlegmy, smoky laugh gurgling from a mouth with intermittent teeth, a woman whose clothes were so packed with flesh she had to swing her shoulders robotically just to move forward.

I hadn’t noticed such poverty in Ontario. More significantly, I hadn’t noticed that I hadn’t noticed. For most of the summer, I’d been traveling through a country that tries to drag all its citizens as close to a middle-class lifestyle as possible. Southern Ontario is the least exotic place on Earth. What’s remarkable about a nation full of people with good teeth and summer cottages?

That’s why I wasn’t surprised by the Luxembourg Income Study’s announcement that Canada has surpassed the United States as the country with the most prosperous middle class. I assumed they’d always been ahead of us, or at least since the Guess Who hollered, “I don’t need your ghetto scenes.”

As Americans, we like to be No. 1 at everything, including being average. We’re still the wealthiest country, controlling 39 percent of the world’s financial assets — three times as much as runner-up Japan. But losing the middle-class crown is a blow to our self-image as the Land of Opportunity, and the surest sign that the Great Recession and the Great Divergence have permanently altered our nation’s character.