The Great Divide Widens Between Rich and Poor

The great divide widens between rich and poor

One million live in neighborhoods that are going down in socioeconomic status

Marianne Takacs Staff Reporter
Published On Tue Oct 05 2010

While many in Toronto have been surprised by the deep vein of voter resentment Rob Ford has so successfully tapped in his run for the mayoralty, the head of the agency that has been tracking the citys economic and social health since 2001 says the writing has been on the wall for several years.

A lot of people are looking at the municipal election right now and scratching their heads on the amount of anger and protest, says Rahul Bhardwaj, president of the Toronto Community Foundation, and quite a bit of that is emanating from the inner suburbs and the disconnect between the inner suburbs and downtown.

That disconnect has been increasing in tandem with the growth and marginalization of the citys low-income population, explains Bhardwaj, many of whom live in communities covering much of the northwest and northeast sections of Toronto.

They went from about 20 per cent of all neighborhoods in 1970 to over 50 per cent now, and they make up about 43 per cent of all Torontonians.

The growing gap between the lives of the rich and poor in Toronto, and the shrinking of the middle class between them, are among the pressing issues highlighted in Vital Signs, the foundations annual report examining social and economic trends that affect the citys quality of life. The report is one of the tools used by the non-profit foundation to connect donors and funding to the community organizations that need them.

According to Vital Signs 2010, Torontos low-income neighbourhoods are concentrated in sections of the city now considered the inner suburbs. Their residents live in more crowded households, have lower socio-economic status, are less educated, have less access to jobs and services and often live in areas poorly served by public transit.

You add these things up and you ask yourself, why wouldnt they be concerned? Bhardwaj says.

University of Toronto sociology professor David Hulchanski, whose research on income trends in the city is cited by the Vital Signs report, agrees the economic polarization of Toronto may be behind the voter anger.

Out of two-and-a-half million people in the city, one million live in neighborhoods that are going down in socioeconomic status, Hulchanski says, noting the number of middle-income residents in the city has shrunk from 66 per cent of the population in 1970 to 29 per cent in 2005. Thats a dramatic change.

Hulchanski points out that even in 1990 Toronto was still a middle-income city, with about 50 per cent of its residents living on a comfortable wage.

A majority middle-income city means to me a majority relatively content, he says, explaining that majority would be able to cope with the high prices and high taxes that accompany big-city living. The fact low-income residents now form the largest portion of the citys population means many citizens are struggling.

I wonder how much resentment there is in that group because life is harder, Hulchanski says.

This years Vital Signs report makes it clear that life is difficult on many levels for many Torontonians, though it does cite improvements on some fronts.

As the gap between rich and poor grows in the city, one in 10 people in the Toronto Region continue to live in poverty and one in 10 households lives without food security. There have been more people relying on social assistance over the past year, more turning to food banks and more unable to find jobs.

Immigrants continue to face higher unemployment – 17 per cent last year in Toronto for recent newcomers and to have difficulty getting their work skills recognized. A 2009 GTA study found job applicants with English-sounding names were 40 per cent more likely to get an interview than those with identical Canadian training and experience, but with Chinese, Indian or Pakistani names.

Housing became severely unaffordable in the Toronto region last year, according to an international survey, a downgrade from being seriously unaffordable in 2008. The average home in the city cost 4.62 times the median family income in 2008, up significantly from 3.54 in 1995. Average incomes for many workers in areas such as retail sales or data entry were inadequate to afford the rent on even a bachelor apartment in the city.

Some of the reports good news came in the area of education: the proportion of the Toronto regions population with a post-secondary degree, diploma or certificate rose by more than 50 per cent between 1990 and 2009 and the proportion that has not completed high school dropped by 42.3 per cent.

However, many qualifying students do not pursue a university or college education because of financial barriers. Research shows university enrolment rates in Canada vary by income far more than by academic ability. As post-secondary tuition and housing costs climb, government subsidies are not helping enough disadvantaged students, with a disproportionate amount of the aid going to students from the highest-income households.

There seems to be a gap between those who may really need the funding help and those who are getting it, says Bhardwaj.

Jacqueline Enoyoze is determined not to fall into that gap. The 15-year-old Grade 11 student from the Lawrence Heights neighbourhood already has her sights set on McGill University in Montreal, where she is considering studying law.

Before entering Pathways to Education, a program supported by the Toronto Community Foundation aimed at lowering dropout rates and increasing access to post-secondary education for disadvantaged youth, Enoyoze wasnt even sure she wanted to go past high school.

Im really happy I got into Pathways because its given me all these opportunities that I wouldnt be able to get somewhere else, says the student of Monsignor Percy Johnson Catholic Secondary School.

From Grade 9, the program has provided Enoyoze with bus fare to get to school, the tutoring in math she needed to boost her otherwise high grades, mentoring that has introduced her to new people and new possibilities, and a student-parent support worker to advocate for her at school, in the community and at home.

That support worker has done everything from encouraging her to attend classes to discouraging her from hanging out with certain people.

Shes kind of like an extra mom, laughs Enoyoze. Shes very good to me. She listens to all my problems.

Pathways also offers students a bursary of up to $4,000 for post-secondary education, providing a much-needed hand up for young people facing the types of barriers highlighted in the Vital Signs report.

The best thing to me is the financial part because were not really a rich family, says Enoyoze, who immigrated to Canada at the age of 2 with her parents from Nigeria. The financial part is like a gift from God.