Staggering poverty report has province listening – comment – Staggering poverty report has province listening
November 26, 2007
Ian Urquhart

In the rest of the province and the country, Toronto is seen as a fat cat – wealthy and content.

The reality is quite different, according to a report to be released today by the United Way of Greater Toronto. Yes, there are a lot of wealthy people in the city and penthouse suites are selling for upwards of $25 million.

But Toronto is also home to a disproportionate number of poor people.

The median family income in Toronto (416) is just $41,500, substantially below the levels in the 905 belt around the city ($60,000), in Ontario as a whole ($54,300), and across Canada ($51,800).

Even more troubling than this snapshot is the trend line: the number of families living below the poverty line in Toronto (92,930) has increased by 9.7 per cent since the year 2000, whereas across Canada that number has shrunk by 5.1 per cent.

Here’s another staggering statistic: families below the poverty line now represent 28.8 per cent of all Toronto families, up from 16.3 per cent in 1990.

“Our city is changing in ways that pose a threat to its social cohesion and quality of life,” concludes the United Way report.

There are various reasons for this:

Toronto is a magnet for both immigrants and the disadvantaged.

High-paying manufacturing jobs have been replaced by lower-paying and temporary service jobs – or what the report calls “precarious employment.”

The rules for employment insurance, based on the old fat cat assumption, discriminate against Toronto. Just 22 per cent of unemployed workers in the Greater Toronto Area qualify for EI compared to 36 per cent in Montreal. Even Calgary, the new fat cat, fares better, with 26 per cent of its unemployed workers qualifying for EI.

What this means is that, when the next recession hits, the vast majority of its victims will have to depend on welfare, which is partly financed by the city, rather than employment insurance, which is entirely funded by Ottawa. And Toronto can’t afford to meet the demand.

“So the prospect of an economic downturn remains one of the most serious threats to the health of the city,” says the United Way report.

The question is: what should be done about it?

The report makes several recommendations, including a Toronto-specific anti-poverty policy (as part of a broader strategy for the whole province) and a comprehensive non-profit housing program.

The report also calls for much stricter regulation of the payday lending shops that prey on the poor with annualized interest rates in excess of 400 per cent. (The United Way counted 317 such operations in the city, heavily concentrated in low-income neighbourhoods.)

Finally, the report recommends a loosening of the EI eligibility rules for Toronto’s unemployed.

With the notable exception of the EI rules, all of these recommendations are within the jurisdiction of the province.

Fortunately, the provincial government appears to be listening. United Way president Frances Lankin was shopping her report around Queen’s Park last week and found an attentive audience.

So we can likely expect to see some of the report’s recommendations reflected in Thursday’s throne speech at Queen’s Park.

As for the EI rules, since the issue involves Toronto and Ontario – neither of which appear to be on the federal government’s radar screen – don’t hold your breath.

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