In­come in­equal­ity threat­ens Toronto

United Way study says dis­par­ity could un­ravel city’s so­cial fab­ric


Toronto is now the in­come in­equal­ity cap­i­tal of Canada, a new United Way Toronto re­port shows, with the gap be­tween rich and poor house­holds in the city widen­ing at dou­ble the na­tional pace.

The study, to be re­leased Fri­day, says in­come in­equal­ity in Toronto bal­looned by 31per cent be­tween1980 and 2005, the most dras­tic in­crease of any ma­jor Canadian city. On av­er­age, the gap across the coun­try grew by 14 per cent.

Drawing on a grow­ing body of re­search on in­come dis­par­ity, the re­port warns Toronto’s grow­ing divide could dampen so­cial mo­bil­ity, weaken com­mu­nity bonds and un­der­mine eco­nomic sta­bil­ity.

But the study also found Toron­to­ni­ans still main­tain high lev­els of trust in each other and sug­gested pol­icy-mak­ers must tackle in­equal­ity now be­fore the city’s so­cial fab­ric un­rav­els.

“It’s a wor­ri­some trend for sure, but we have not gone the path of some of our large city neigh­bours to the south,” said United Way Toronto pres­i­dent and CEO Su­san McIsaac. “This is a wake-up call. We should act, and we can.”

The United Way study used the Gini co­ef­fi­cient, a com­mon mea­sure of in­equal­ity, and drew on Statis­tics Canada data to com­pare in­come be­fore tax, but af­ter gov­ern­ment trans­fers. It chose not to com­pare af­ter-tax in­come be­cause there is no cen­sus data on taxes paid be­fore 2006, mak­ing com­par­i­son over time im­pos­si­ble.

While Toronto used be the sec­ond most eq­ui­table of Canada’s largest cities, the re­port il­lus­trates how Toronto’s in­come in­equal­ity dramatically ac­cel­er­ated in the 1990s, even­tu­ally out­strip­ping Mon­treal, Van­cou­ver and Cal­gary.

In those cities, house­hold in­equal­ity grew by 15, 17, and 28 per cent re­spec­tively over the same 25-year pe­riod.

Ris­ing in­equal­ity may be partly ex­plained by dif­fi­cult-to-con­trol fac­tors such as glob­al­iza­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal change that led to a shift from high-qual­ity man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs to pre­car­i­ous ser­vice jobs, the re­port says.

Pre­vi­ous re­search by United Way Toronto and McMaster Uni­ver­sity re­vealed that al­most half of all work­ers in the GTA are in pre­car­i­ous em­ploy­ment.

But public pol­icy de­ci­sions have also height­ened the city’s dis­par­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to the study, in­clud­ing tax re­forms and cuts to so­cial benefits. Michelynn Laflèche, United Way Toronto’s direc­tor of re­search, said grow­ing in­equal­ity was not in­evitable for the city.

“We can make choices to slow that down, to mit­i­gate the im­pacts, or to turn it back a lit­tle bit even. And those are choices that we as a so­ci­ety need to have a con­ver­sa­tion about and to come to some com­mon ground about.”

Echo­ing Uni­ver­sity of Toronto pro­fes­sor David Hulchan­ski’s ground­break­ing re­search doc­u­ment­ing the city’s shrink­ing mid­dle-in­come ar­eas, the United Way re­port also warned of Toronto’s in­creas­ingly acute ge­o­graph­i­cal divide. It said in­come in­equal­ity be­tween neigh­bour­hoods has shot up by 96 per cent since 1980 and ar­gues that the im­pact of such po­lar­iza­tion will be widely felt.

“There are all kinds of is­sues that we know are ac­cel­er­ated in com­mu­ni­ties where there is sig­nif­i­cant in­come in­equal­ity,” said McIsaac.

Ex­ten­sive re­search by Bri­tish aca­demics Richard G. Wilkin­son and Kate Pick­ett has shown high in­come in­equal­ity even in rich coun­tries is as­so­ci­ated with a range of so­cial prob­lems, in­clud­ing higher lev­els of vi­o­lence, im­pris­on­ment, ad­dic­tion, and obe­sity.

A re­port by the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment and Co-op­er­a­tion sug­gests in­come in­equal­ity has an “in­vari­ably neg­a­tive” im­pact on GDP growth.

The United Way part­nered with pri­vate polling firm EKOS Re­search As­so­ciates to ask how Toron­to­ni­ans see in­come in­equal­ity in their city. In a sur­vey of more than 2,500 res­i­dents, the study found 86 per cent be­lieved in­come in­equal­ity was too high in the city.

Al­most three-quar­ters said they be­lieved hard work was not enough to get ahead and one third said they felt worse off than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.

“Re­gard­less of in­come, age, gen­der, vis­i­ble mi­nor­ity sta­tus and ed­u­ca­tion lev­els, peo­ple think this is hap­pen­ing. Peo­ple think that merit is not the ba­sis on which ad­vance­ment is oc­cur­ring,” said Laflèche. “I think it’s a prob­lem that peo­ple are feel­ing this way be­cause it’s an in­di­ca­tion that peo­ple are not feel­ing like things are go­ing well for them.”

The poll also found wide­spread con­cerns for the prospects of young Toron­to­ni­ans: only 17 per cent of those sur­veyed said fu­ture gen­er­a­tions would be bet­ter off 25 years from now.

“It is dif­fi­cult to re­main op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture when uni­ver­sity de­grees and post-grad­u­ate in­tern­ships do not lead to ca­reers, but rather pre­car­i­ous em­ploy­ment,” said Mark Camp­bell, who is the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Nia Cen­tre for the Arts and will speak at a sym­po­sium about the re­port on Fri­day.

But amid the anx­i­ety, the study also found Toron­to­ni­ans re­main broadly pos­i­tive about their city and the pos­si­bil­ity for change. For ex­am­ple, 46 per cent of those polled said gov­ern­ment played a favourable role in their lives.

“I do think it’s heart­en­ing to note that there’s still enough in­sti­tu­tional and in­ter­per­sonal trust that peo­ple feel this is a prob­lem that can and should be dealt with,” said EKOS founder Frank Graves

The poll shows 95 per cent of re­spon­dents also be­lieved they per­son­ally could ef­fect change in Toronto, and 57 per cent said they felt most peo­ple in the city could be trusted — slightly higher than the na­tional av­er­age of 55 per cent.

Although low-in­come Toron­to­ni­ans were some­what less likely to be trust­ing than high-in­come coun­ter­parts, Laflèche said the find­ings were “good news” for the city.

“Other re­search from cities around the world demon­strates that in large cities like Toronto, and in di­verse cities like Toronto, it would be nor­mal or usual for trust lev­els to be lower than your na­tional av­er­age,” Laflèche said.

“Peo­ple feel . . . the same chal­lenges. But they’re also feel­ing that there’s some­thing pos­i­tive in Toronto that can be built on. And that shows us that we’ve still got a good level of so­cial co­he­sion.”

The re­port ar­gues pol­icy-mak­ers should cap­i­tal­ize on that good­will and rec­om­mends a range of mea­sures to re­verse Toronto’s ex­pand­ing in­come gap. Th­ese in­clude giv­ing young peo­ple equal ac­cess to good ed­u­ca­tion, start­ing with early learn­ing through high-qual­ity, af­ford­able child care.

It also sug­gests pro­mot­ing bet­ter jobs through things like com­mu­nity benefits agree­ments such as the Metrolinx plan. That ini­tia­tive con­nects low-in­come peo­ple with good jobs emerg­ing from the con­struc­tion of the Eglin­ton Crosstown.

The prov­ince’s re­view of em­ploy­ment and labour stan­dards, an­nounced last week is also lauded by the re­port as a “ma­jor op­por­tu­nity” to im­prove work­place pro­tec­tions for the city’s grow­ing body of pre­car­i­ous work­ers.

“At the core we’re look­ing at em­ploy­ment, we’re look­ing at youth op­por­tu­nity and we’re look­ing at cre­at­ing strong neigh­bour­hoods,” said McIsaac.

“And I be­lieve that there’s lots that both the pri­vate and public sec­tors, as well as the com­mu­nity sec­tor, can do.


Sabina Ali, right, laughs with friends while vol­un­teer­ing at the Thorn­cliffe Park Win­ter Car­ni­val.“I love this com­mu­nity and I wanted to get in­volved. I knew this was the place to start,” she says. A United Way poll shows 95 per cent of re­spon­dents...

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