Poverty Stalks The Nation’s Big Cities

Poverty stalks the nation's big cities

By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
Toronto Star
Published On Wed Apr 07 2010

We see it in the deterioration of once-decent neighbourhoods. We hear it from those living on the margins, the non-profit agencies that serve them and the odd brave economist. We know it intuitively.

Big cities are in big trouble.

Now a comprehensive report by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities spells it out in hard numbers. The highest percentage of poor households in the country is in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

That is not to say Canada's smaller communities are doing well. Many have lost their only industry. Their downtowns are dying. Their young people are leaving.

But the deepest and fastest growing pockets of poverty are in the city-regions that produce most of the country's economic output.

The statistics in this report are not new. But they are compiled in a way that demonstrates the destructive dynamic at work in urban Canada.

Mending Canada's Frayed Social Safety Net is the sixth in the federation's quality of life series. Each year, the umbrella group for most of the country's municipalities divides its 1,750 members into big cities (the 24 largest urban centres) and smaller communities (rural villages to medium-sized cities such as Red Deer and Saint John). Then it compares the two categories.

In its 2010 report, the proportion of low-income families in the big cities stood at 13.5 per cent, compared to 9.1 per cent in the smaller communities.

The federation began tracking these percentages 19 years ago. At that point, the poverty rate for both types of municipalities was in the 12.5 per cent range. Since then, a sharp divergence has occurred.

What is even more striking is the split between Canada's three largest cities and the rest. Toronto has highest percentage of low-income families (21 per cent), followed closely by Vancouver (20 per cent) with Montreal in third place (15 per cent).

It's not hard to identify the reasons.

Big cities attract both top talent and newcomers seeking an economic foothold. In the past 20 years, executive compensation has increased eightfold. The minimum wage has barely kept pace with the cost of living.

The job market has changed but Canada's employment insurance system hasn't. It was meant for an era of steady full-time jobs. But a growing segment of the urban labour force works part time, on contract or for temporary agencies. The majority of these workers are ineligible for jobless benefits.

Most of the federal and provincial programs that protect the vulnerable have been cut, off-loaded or abandoned since the mid '90s. The federal government has capped its contribution to welfare and walked away from public housing and child care. The provinces have shifted part of their responsibility for social services to the municipalities. But with a mere 8 cents out of every tax dollar, cities can't rectify the damage. They can't even curb it.

What is most troubling about this retrogression which affects 18 million Canadians is that no one is talking about it at any level of government.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper considers municipalities a provincial responsibility. He sees no need for direct funding from Ottawa.

Premier Dalton McGuinty, while sympathetic, is a parsimonious and unreliable municipal partner. He talks about reducing poverty, building affordable housing and investing in urban infrastructure, but only pays for tiny improvements (and sometimes reneges on his commitments).

The only solution advanced by most of Toronto's mayoral candidates is that the city cut costs, shrink its workforce, privatize public services and sell off assets.

It will take more than statistics and studies to get this issue on the political agenda. Until urban Canada finds its voice, governments will continue to play tug-of-war with taxpayers' dollars.

Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday