I have no idea what point Jonathan Kay and the editors of Toronto Life were trying to make with their “almost rich” feature.
The package takes a look at what it’s like to live as a member of the one per cent—meaning an income of around $196,000—and combines a short essay by Kay with profiles of five such households. Kay’s essay especially has drawn heated criticism online, the most notable example being a masterful Gawker rant. The author of that post, Hamilton Nolan, seems to believe Kay’s main intent was to argue that those who make $196,000 a year aren’t really that rich, because the cost of living in Toronto is so high.
And Kay does make some arguments to that effect. He writes that “for many Torontonians, that $10,400 [the after-tax, monthly income of someone making $196,000 a year] disappears fast.” By way of example, he points out that living in a $1.5 million house, spending $1000 on a stroller, renovating a kitchen to add granite counters and “spending a fortune on artisanal cheeses” to host a “casual” weekend gathering is really expensive. (“No shit,” replies Nolan.)
But the profiles that follow, like Kay’s examples, don’t support this argument at all. Instead we’re introduced to one man who spends $800 a month on wine in addition to his $1,000 a month on clothes. We meet a retired couple who buy a new Mercedes every three years using cash. One family of four owns a Toronto house, a cottage and two cars including a BMW while still managing to put away $20,000 a year in savings and go on an annual $7,000 vacation to an all-inclusive resort. Another family’s reported monthly expenses only came to $5,780, presumably leaving them with a $4,000 a month surplus.
Most people would agree those sound like pretty rich lifestyles, as Nolan ruthlessly and convincingly asserts, so if the point of this feature is to argue that $196,000 isn’t that rich, these are very strange examples to hold up.
But then, even Kay doesn’t argue that point in his subsequent reply to Nolan. The “admittedly witty” take down, Kay says, “doesn’t change the fact that the growing debt phenomenon among the upper classes I describe is very real.”
Ok, so now we’re talking about debt, I guess. And in Kay’s original essay we can find examples of concern about debt: “the average GTA household is now carrying almost $40,000 in debt on top of a mortgage,” he says, and “the ratio of the average single-family Toronto home price to the income of its occupants” has risen to 5.5 from its historical average of 3.5. But the key word in both of those statistics is, of course, average. These claims that debt is a problem in general for an average household then get juxtaposed with the family putting away $20,000 a year in savings.
So I don’t see how “the growing debt phenomenon among the upper classes” can be the point either. Other than that, I’m at a loss. Is his thesis that “the city [has become] more and more the exclusive domain of the One Per Cent?” That “the era of the ‘mixed’ neighbourhood… is falling away?” That “urban life is unaffordable unless both partners are bringing in serious money?” That previous generations “did not waste a single moment worrying about replacing [their] laminate kitchen counters?”
I don’t know. And I suspect, based on the wounded “can’t we just move on from this” tone of his Nolan reply (he quotes Homer Simpson, “I like it better when they’re making fun of people who aren’t me”), Kay might not know either. Toronto Life has a knack for getting writers to produce bewildering content that’s out of character and lacking in focus. I wonder what kind of direction he was given, and how much he knew about how the family interviews (conducted by Maggie Gilmour and Jasmine Budak) would be framed.
What I do know is that the whole thing is a missed opportunity. Lifestyle inflation is a real thing, and would have made for an interesting exploration in a Toronto context. The increasing cost of housing and debt are serious problems as well, though certainly not limited to the one per cent. And the fact that pretty much everyone seems to think of themselves as “average” continues to be fascinating. It would be great if another publication did a reboot of the Toronto Life feature, this time using a more economically diverse collection of households and exploring the actual cost of living most Torontonians encounter. Maybe someone will yet take that on.