A tale of two Torontos

David Hulchanski & Michelynn Laflèche

David Hulchanski is the Dr. Chow Yei Ching Chair in Housing at the University of Toronto and Michelynn Laflèche is Vice President, Strategy, Research and Policy at United Way Toronto & York Region.

For a few years, Toronto has worn the tarnished crown of the inequality capital of Canada. Today—without serious action—we are at risk of getting stuck with it.

In our latest research report, an update to The Opportunity Equation in the Greater Toronto Area, we took income data from the latest census to reveal a picture of neighbourhood income inequality and polarization in the GTA. Spoiler alert: it’s not pretty. The story of our region is becoming a tale of two cities as neighbourhoods are increasingly segregated into high- and low-income. Middle-income neighbourhoods are vanishing.

Within the GTA, the gap between rich and poor is most pronounced in Toronto. The city of Toronto’s levels of neighbourhood inequality and polarization are almost double those of the adjacent regional municipalities.

Toronto is no longer a city of neighbourhoods—it’s a collection of islands segregated by income. These are the two Torontos—one where residents buy the soon-to-expire produce of discount grocers, embark on epic commutes and decide to invest in a decent car, rather than try to attain housing near transit routes. There are more low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto—in 1980 there were only five very-low-income neighbourhoods and in 2015, there were 88.

Then, there’s high-income Toronto. Snuggled up to the transit line, these neighbourhoods fill their fridges at premium grocers. A garage that once held one midsize car, now squeezes in two luxury SUVs. Rich neighbourhoods in Toronto are getting even richer. In real terms, the average income in Toronto’s highest income neighbourhood more than doubled from 1980–2015.

This report confirms a growing danger—since 1990, the gap between rich and poor has grown dramatically across our region. In 1980, the GTA was dominated by middle-income neighbourhoods. By 2015, this pattern completely reversed: the majority of neighbourhoods are now either low or high income. If you’re a middle-income earner in the GTA—there’s very little room for you.

Toronto’s levels of income inequality and neighbourhood income polarization are proof of a broken opportunity equation. Access to opportunity plus hard work no longer equals success. In a region marked by islands of wealth and poverty, where you live increasingly determines your access to opportunity—and a better life.

The GTA needs to close the gaps between people and between neighbourhoods. It is clear that these three priorities for collective action are as central and relevant today as they were when United Way published the 2015 The Opportunity Equation report:

  1. That young people have the opportunities they need to build a good future.
  2. That job opportunities are real pathways to stability and security.
  3. That background and circumstances are never barriers to opportunity.

It’s time to rally together and break the divides that have crowned Toronto as a national capital for inequality—our future prosperity depends on it.