Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?


Daniyal Zuberi
RBC Chair & Associate Professor of Social Policy, 
University of Toronto

Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Associate Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto. In 2015, he was elected to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. He was previously the William Lyon Mackenzie King Research Fellow at Harvard University. His innovative social policy research has made important contributions to the study of urban poverty, inequality, health, education, employment and social welfare. He has authored three books and other publications that examine the impact of public policy on vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in Canada and the United States. Imagine a City spoke with Daniyal for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to provide a big-picture lens on poverty across North America. 

1. What are some of the common drivers that contribute to poverty across North America, whether in Winnipeg or Washington?

adsc_5343Poverty in North America is multi-faceted, affecting many individuals, families, and communities. The real cause of poverty is the lack of income. Many people are working longer and harder simply to tread water, living only one or two missed paycheques away from major financial hardship. With the explosion of precarious employment, too many households struggle to balance work and family life requirements as individuals take on multiple jobs to make ends meet and deal with the stress and anxiety of supporting their families. A job is no longer enough and they struggle as the “working poor” trying to find affordable housing and childcare for their families.  For those unable to find work, they receive very limited support. Most of these individuals can’t access employment insurance benefits due to program restrictions. They join tens of thousands of others on wait lists for housing assistance and subsidized childcare as well as heavily-subscribed charitable programs such as food banks. Instead of helping and enabling these individuals and families, we trap them in poverty, failing to provide the training, support and education they need to upgrade their skills and find secure living-wage employment.

2. Discuss the recent U.S. election and how it has put a spotlight on the growing issue of rising income inequality.

The failure to adequately address the growing insecurity experienced by all too many North American households is one cause of the unexpected election outcome in the United States. Most of the economic gains over the past several decades have flowed exclusively to those at the top, especially in the U.S. Growing economic insecurity threatens social cohesion and people react to fears that their fortunes have stagnated, or that they’re falling behind. Countries that are more equal, or those with narrower income gaps, have much higher social development outcomes. Life expectancy is longer, infant mortality is lower, there is greater social trust, lower crime and incarceration rates, less mental illness and better health and educational outcomes. Importantly, there is also more equality of opportunity. One of the best ways to address growing inequalities is to support those struggling at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy.


3. How have changing labour market conditions, including precarious employment, impacted poverty?

The changing labour market is a major contributor to growing poverty in North America. With a shift away from manufacturing to the service sector in a globalized economy, we’ve seen a rapid expansion of precarious employment including poverty wage, part-time, and insecure jobs that fail to lift individuals and families above the poverty line. Our employment protections and social welfare policies have failed to evolve to protect people from poverty in this new economy. When hours are cut or workers are laid off, many can’t receive support from employment insurance because they haven’t worked enough hours to qualify. It’s important to note that these changes do not affect all workers equally. Women and racialized minorities, especially new immigrants, are the most likely to work in these precarious jobs. They’re forced to make impossible tradeoffs between working extra hours, but spending more on childcare, paying for rent or food. This is true in both Canada and the United States.


4. Discuss the changing nature of poverty in North America and how it differs in urban, suburban and rural contexts.

Poverty exists in cities, rural areas, and suburban areas. Many of the causes and consequences of poverty in these three contexts are similar, but important differences also exist. For example, poor individuals and families in the suburbs are less visible. In Vaughan, a wealthy area in York Region, we see “hidden homelessness” where people are doubled or even tripled up living in other people’s basements. In suburban and rural areas, there are also problems with social isolation that also include greater challenges in terms of accessing transportation for services and employment opportunities. But the urban poor face some unique challenges too. Especially if high housing costs force them to live in stigmatized areas with high concentrations of poverty, where transit is less accessible, less frequent, and of poor quality. While it may be easier to access services for individuals living in urban neighbourhoods, living in a high poverty urban neighbourhood can also it make more difficult for a person to successfully obtain employment as a result of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and postal code. It can also require coping with more challenges including violence and schools that lack resources to address the major challenges facing their student populations. Fundamentally, in urban, suburban and rural contexts, poverty comes down to a lack of resources.


5. Is there a single, best way to tackle poverty? If not, what are some common solutions we should be working towards?

No, I don’t think there’s a single solution. We need to continue to promote proactive policies and programs to prevent poverty and support struggling individuals and families. For example, we can raise social assistance rates to bring those households up above the poverty line. Expanding access to high-quality early childhood education will increase maternal employment and incomes by sending more mothers into the workplace, generating greater tax revenue and also reducing poverty. The research is clear that “housing first” and harm reduction approaches are far more effective than punitive measures to address problems such as homelessness and addiction. The latter results in an extremely expensive, reactive system where we end up spending more than required for policing, incarceration, hospitalization, and shelter services. We also need to focus on issues like raising the minimum wage, addressing a growing mental health crisis and providing individuals, including youth, with the training and support they need to find good jobs. Solutions at the local level are also important and include investments in high quality transit and community infrastructure. These include things like community hubs and health centres, parks, and community gardens that can really improve the quality of life for people in low-income neighbourhoods. These programs, along with significant policy reforms, could work together to reduce poverty quite dramatically.


6. What is the role of the non-profits like United Way in mitigating the effects of poverty?

We have a healthy and vibrant social services sector. We need to continue to build on that and expand it. United Way and other organizations do great work in providing services and supports for vulnerable and at-risk populations. United Way does a particularly great job of raising awareness of important issues like precarious employment through its research. It also brings together coalitions to mobilize, to advocate for policy reforms and new programs and to fundamentally address some of the root causes of poverty with the goal of eradicating it.

7. Can we end poverty?

Absolutely, yes. Fundamentally we have to understand that we can end poverty if we have the political will. There are many places in the world—including Scandinavian countries—that have largely eliminated poverty. But it’s still extremely rare. Canada has done a lot more in terms of supporting those living on a low income and reducing poverty compared to the United States where we’ve seen a lot of cutbacks and a really rapid increase in deep poverty. Although there is a long way to go, I don’t think we should ever lose hope. I think, in fact, this is an important reminder why this work is so tremendously important. We can’t stop fighting to improve the quality of life for people living in poverty.  One of my friends is a congressman in the United States and he recently sent out an email with Dr. Martin Luther King’s message: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

How much do you know about food security?

Healthy food is an essential building block to our overall health and wellbeing. It helps children do well in school, ensures we can put our best foot forward at work and allows us to contribute as active members in our community.


But for too many people living in Toronto and York Region, access to healthy, affordable, and culturally-appropriate food has become a major barrier to a good life. We also know that income is the root cause of food insecurity, and that in order to address this growing problem, we need to work together to close the gaps between those who are doing well financially and those who are not.

That’s why United Way invests in a network of agencies across our region that help people get the food they need through meal programs, community gardens and kitchens and a mobile food truck. By bringing people together around food, we’re also connecting kids, adults and seniors to their communities, which we know is another essential step in helping them move from a life of poverty to possibility.

To help you learn more about food security, we put together a quiz to test your knowledge.

For detailed answers, click here.

ICYMI: 3 must-read blog posts

We wanted to send a special shout-out to you, all of our loyal blog readers, for continuing to visit Imagine a City to learn more about the social issues that matter most. We know you’re busy…so we’ve put together a list of some of our most popular blog posts over the last year. Happy reading!

What is hidden homelessness?

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night. But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, poverty is often hidden. This means some individuals “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet. Check out this post to learn more about this important issue from homelessness expert Dr. Steven Gaetz.


5 Women who inspire us

For International Women’s Day 2016, we put together a list of inspirational women who are changing lives and making our communities better places to live. From a Canadian senator who’s championing the rights of newcomers to a 13-year-old philanthropist and Richmond Hill resident who is creating big change in the world of charitable giving and social justice, we dare you not to be inspired!


What if you had to choose? 

Imagine having to choose between eating or keeping a roof over your head? Or what would you do if staying home to care for your sick child could cost you your job? In this eye-opening blog post, we introduced readers to some of the daily, harsh realities faced by 1 in 4 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region who live in poverty. Missed the post? Test out our digital poverty simulator, Make the Month, here.

Food for thought on food security


What does it mean to be food “insecure”?

  1. Running out of food before there is money to buy more
  2. Not being able to afford a healthy, balanced diet
  3. Missing meals
  4. Not eating for the whole day

According to the World Food Summit, the answer is: all of the above.  Here are three more things you might now know about food insecurity.

  1. Food insecurity affects 1 in 8 Toronto households: The latest Household Food Insecurity in Canada report says 12.6%, or one in eight, households in the Toronto census metropolitan area experienced food insecurity in 2014. Food insecurity isn’t just about hunger either. It’s a serious public health issue that affects individuals’ health and well-being, impacts their ability to do well in school, contribute successfully to their workplace and be active members of their communitieDSC_9131
  1. 1 in 6 Canadian children experience food insecurity: The report also finds that a shocking one million children in Canada under the age of 18 live in food insecure households. Research tells us that missing breakfast is associated with decreased academic, cognitive, health and mental-health performance among children. In a survey, nearly 68% of teachers believe there are students in their classrooms who come to school hungry.  That’s why United Way helps children and their families access healthy food through meal and school snack programs. We also support programs that encourage healthy eating—including nutrition classes that teach low-income families how to make healthy baby food.


  1. Cost isn’t the only barrier to healthy, nutritious food: The average food bank client has only $5.83/person/day left over after spending the majority of their income on fixed expenses such as rent and utilities. Cost is a major barrier to accessing food, but it isn’t the only one. What many people don’t know is that there is a lack of healthy food outlets—places that sell nutritious, fresh and culturally-appropriate food—in Toronto’s inner suburbs and low-income neighbourhoods. That’s why innovative solutions such as urban agriculture and healthy food corner stores play an important role in improving nutritious food access and bringing community members together through the growing of food and the cooking and sharing of meals.


Want to help bring nutritious, culturally-appropriate food to people who need it most? Donate to, and volunteer with, our Malvern Urban Farm project—and see how your gift can grow a community, too.

Why dignified access to food matters

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The Boultbee Share program serves up food, and friendship, to residents in need

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Which means many of us will be gathering with family and friends to share a meal and to express gratitude for the many good things in our lives.

But for the more than half a million people living in poverty in our city, Thanksgiving is a stark reminder of the many barriers they face in getting the food they need.

The rising cost of living in our city means many people can’t afford healthy food after they pay their monthly bills and rent. Residents who live in the city’s “tower” neighbourhoods—high-rise communities in Toronto’s inner suburbs—face even greater challenges when it comes to accessing much-needed food, including a scarcity of healthy grocery stores and limited mobility.

Despite nearly one million visits to food banks in Toronto last year, 40% of adults and 20% of children still went hungry at least one-day-a-week. For many individuals living on a low-income—including single parents and seniors—even getting to a food bank can be difficult. Once they’re there, many feel embarrassed asking for help.

Food security is about more than just access to food,” says Kerry Bowser, executive director of Eastview Neighbourhood Community Centre , a United Way Toronto-supported agency. “It’s about choice and dignity. Being able to make decisions for yourself and your family when it comes to something that’s a basic necessity of life.”

“When I go to the grocery store, the produce manager doesn’t tell me what to buy because he thinks it’s what I need. I get to make those choices myself. I think food security, wherever possible, should invite individuals to share in basic decision-making,” adds Bowser.

An innovative food-sharing program facilitated by Eastview aims to serve up healthy staples—and dignity—at the same time. Every two weeks, residents from a community housing building in Toronto’s east end distribute donated food to other residents in the familiar setting of their apartment’s shared common room. “People feel more comfortable accepting help when it’s from someone they know,” says Pam MacKeigan, a longtime recipient and volunteer with the “Boultbee Share” program.

“Our job is to be the conduit. To get food to the community so they can take ownership of delivering food amongst themselves,” says Bowser. “They know better than anyone else what the particular needs of the residents are. They truly take ownership of the food for those who need it the most. And they know what that need is because it’s in their own living room.”




Food security is a growing issue


IACFoodSecurityimageSummer is in full bloom across the city. But for many Torontonians, access to the fresh fruits and vegetables of the season’s harvest isn’t as easy as a trip to the local grocery store or market.

Many of Toronto's inner suburbs are also considered "food deserts"

Many of Toronto’s inner suburbs are also considered “food deserts”

Food security—or access to healthy, safe and culturally-appropriate food —has become  a growing health and social issue in this city. This is particularly true in many of Toronto’s inner suburbs—some of which have been called “food deserts”— where there is a concentration of poverty and limited access to grocery stores.

In 2011-2012, almost 12% of Toronto households reported some level of food insecurity, or inadequate access to food.

“Cost is a key barrier. Unfortunately, we have a minimum wage that’s lower than the cost of living in Toronto ,” says Lauren Baker, a food policy specialist at Toronto Public Health and the Toronto Food Policy Council.

“Often there are physical or geographic barriers too. There are a lack of food outlets that sell healthy, culturally-appropriate food. It’s worrisome that newcomer health declines over the first five years that they’re in Toronto. This is partially because people don’t have access to the food and ingredients they’re used to,” she adds.

Urban agriculture—an umbrella term for food-growing activities in cities—plays a small, but important, role in enhancing food security. It can include everything from growing food on your own balcony (like the residents of this development in Regent Park)  to recreational endeavours such as community gardens, kitchens and urban orchards.

A fruit tree from Lotherton-Caledonia’s urban orchard

These neighbourhood spaces, integrated into many of United Way Toronto’s Community Hubs, are about much more than just access to locally-grown, nutritious and culturally-appropriate food. One example? Lotherton-Caledonia’s urban orchard—billed as one of North America’s largest—which brought more than 50 local families together in this “food desert” to adopt individual fruit trees.

“The tree adoption project came from thinking that residents, many of them newcomers, could learn not only to grow their own food, but to take ownership of doing it in their own community,” says Tara Bootan,coordinator of Lotherton’s Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC), a United Way resident engagement initiative.

It’s innovative urban agriculture projects like these that enhance food security and help sow the seeds of neighbourhood engagement, too.  Other examples include commercial food-growing initiatives and social enterprises like CAMH’s market garden, where hospital volunteers grow “food-for-sale” and learn valuable gardening, teamwork and entrepreneurship skills at the same time.

Healthy corner stores provide access to fresh, nutritious food

Healthy corner stores provide access to fresh, nutritious food

All of these initiatives are part of a larger health-focused food system,” adds Baker.  “This includes healthy corner stores and sustainable food procurement policies to employment opportunities centered around food as well as food waste reduction strategies,” she says.

Toronto’s urban agriculture movement won’t grow and flourish on its own.  By working together we can achieve our shared vision of accessible, fresh, local, nutritious, affordable, and culturally-diverse, food for everyone, regardless of where they live.