Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?

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

Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy 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 four 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?

Poverty 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.

Malika Favre art of piggy banks seen from above with one broken on UNIGNORABLE colour

2. 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.

3. 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 make it 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.

Statistic that 1 in 5 people in Toronto live in poverty and 1 in 8 in Peel and York Region

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.”

Ways you can help:

10 ways poverty affects kids

Child poverty is a widespread issue, with an alarming 17 per cent of Canadian children living on a low income, according to the 2016 census. In Toronto, the rate is even higher, and our region has the dubious distinction of being the child poverty capital of Canada. According to Unequal City: The Hidden Divide Among Toronto’s Children and Youth, a 2017 report from Social Planning Toronto, more than one in four children under the age of 18 live in poverty, making Toronto’s child and youth poverty rate the highest among major cities in Canada. Indigenous, newcomer and racialized children are more likely to be growing up in low-income households, creating an even wider gap in quality of life.

Child in pink hoodie and brown pants hugging knees

Across the board, kids who experience poverty are at a great disadvantage in life, with effects lasting well into adulthood. Here are 10 ways poverty holds kids back:

1. Food insecurity

When children don’t have enough to eat, they are more likely to have difficulty focusing at school. But it gets worse: hunger can actually impair cognitive functioning and brain development. Sugary and refined foods that are low in nutritional value can also have a negative effect on a kid’s ability to learn. That’s one reason children who have access to nutritious (and often, more expensive) food typically do better academically. “Food insecurity can play into certain mental health disorders and developmental disorders,” says Dr. Sloane Freeman, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital and founder of the Model Schools Pediatric Health Initiative, an in-school healthcare program that works in low-income communities. “If you’re not nourished a certain way, you’re at risk for developmental problems in childhood.”

Food insecurity also puts kids at a higher risk for developing other health issues—like diabetes and cardiovascular disease—later in life. According to a 2017 report from the University of Toronto, people with lower incomes typically consume less produce than those in food-secure households. “It’s not a question of not knowing you should be eating fruits and vegetables; it’s not being able to afford the fruits and vegetables,” says Raphael. “With poverty, you live under conditions of material deprivation.”

2. Affordable housing

As housing costs increase, lower-income families are forced into enclaves where there are usually fewer recreational resources—or lower-quality resources—for kids. “Inadequate housing may be located in high-risk neighbourhoods which have less access to quality services, infrastructure and vibrant communities, compared to housing in more secure locations,” says a report by Best Start Resource Centre. “Welfare rates and Ontario Disability Support Program are not enough to meet basic needs, making it impossible for families to save for a house or to increase their standard of living.”

Plus, when families are underhoused, they are often subject to overcrowding, says professor Raphael. This means it’s not uncommon for two or three families to live in a single apartment. “From a health perspective, this can cause infections and stress.” And it’s not a short-term problem: “the waiting list is 18 years [for subsidized housing],” he says.

3. Childcare

There’s a link between childcare and school success. Quality childcare helps early childhood development and boosts success later in life: it provides a safe, educational environment that fosters cognitive development and prepares kids for school. While affordable childcare is important to families from all economic backgrounds, access to this service is not equal across income brackets: a 2018 report from People for Education found that elementary schools with a higher percentage of university-educated parents are more likely to offer childcare, whereas at schools with fewer university-educated parents and higher rates of poverty, subsidized or affordable childcare services are lacking.

When low-income children don’t have access to this vital service, they’re put at risk, says Khanna. “Unfortunately, affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare is still a matter of chance, as children linger on the subsidy waitlist when they could be gaining foundational skills through play-based learning,” she says.

4. Extracurricular activities

According to the Unequal City report, access to recreational opportunities is key for children’s development and well-being, and prepares them for success in school. But when kids can’t join in for financial reasons, they lose out. Data from the Toronto District School Board shows that 48 per cent of children in families with incomes below $30,000 do not regularly take part in extracurricular activities. This is a huge contrast with children in households with incomes of $100,000 or more, where only 7 per cent do not attend out-of-school sports or lessons.

“Typically, children in low-income [households] have fewer opportunities for enrichment,” says Anita Khanna, the director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto. “Experiences like going to an arts-based day camp or on trips to the zoo or science centre help bring in-class learning to life. This is why programs that promote access to summer programs for children in all income groups are so vital.”

5. Dental care

A 2014 Toronto Public Health outreach initiative found that kids from lower-income households are less likely to receive quality dental care, and are more likely to have cavities and need root canals than kids from higher-income families.

Those findings are backed up by a 2013 report from the Canadian Paediatric Society, which found that dental disease disproportionately affects low-income families, Indigenous children, new immigrants and kids with special health needs. On top of having poorer oral health, the report states that these populations are also less likely to have dental insurance, and tend to have limited or no access to oral health care.

This is all despite Healthy Smiles Ontario, an initiative aimed to provide government-covered dental care to low-income kids. According to the Ontario Dental Association, there’s still a critical funding gap that leaves many behind. A June 2018 press release calling for “meaningful action” on funding public dental health programs from Ontario’s new premier noted that dentists in Ontario treat about 200,000 kids under Healthy Smiles Ontario—but there are 500,000 eligible children. This means that even with current government support, many low-income kids still aren’t receiving quality care.

6. Educational opportunities

Findings from a 2013 Globe and Mail investigation showed that schools in affluent Toronto neighbourhoods had higher student literacy test scores and better educational resources than schools in lower-income areas. Not only do low-income kids tend to do worse on literacy tests, but research shows they’re less likely to succeed in the long term, too. One study published in the journal Paediatrics & Child Health revealed that kids from low-income households were less likely to graduate from high school and to attend university or college.

“In Canada, only 31 per cent of youth from the bottom income quartile attended
post-secondary education compared with 50.2 per cent in the top income quartile,” the report found. “Once again, the evidence indicates that students from low-income families are disadvantaged right through the education system to postsecondary training.”

7. Reading

There’s a strong correlation between socio-economic status and academic performance. That’s particularly evident when we’re looking at language development. A 2013 study by psychologists at Stanford University, for instance, showed that toddlers from low-income households knew fewer words and had weaker language processing skills than their more-affluent peers. They were also less likely to start school with early reading skills.

Another gap is in the simple—yet, for many, less achievable—act of reading aloud to and with kids. According to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, kids who are regularly read to at home and have more positive parental interaction have higher levels of school readiness. But for a number of reasons, this tends to happen less often in lower-income households.

“Despite parents’ best efforts, the hunger, anxiety and social exclusion associated with poverty can have negative effects on children’s school readiness,” Khanna says. “Parents who have to juggle multiple low-wage or contract jobs may have less time to read to their children and build early literacy skills.” This barrier is even greater for new Canadian families if English is not their first language. Even if they’re able to spend time developing other skills with their children, English literacy is key to school success.

Kids from low-income households are also more likely to experience summer reading loss, a decline in literacy skills that can happen when children take a break from reading over summer vacation—and one that can have cumulative effects. “We all know that it is much harder to play catch-up when you start off on an unequal footing,” she says.

8. Swimming lessons

Knowing how to swim can save your life. Unfortunately, many low-income children aren’t enrolled in swimming lessons due to cost, much like other extra-curricular activities. When kids don’t learn to swim, they are literally more likely to die than those who can.

There are also cultural barriers that may prevent many low-income kids from learning how to swim—the need for gender-segregated lessons, for example. New Canadians are four times less likely to know how to swim than those born in Canada, and are therefore at a higher risk for drowning.

9. Healthcare

Children from lower-income households typically receive worse, and less frequent, medical attention than more-affluent kids do, which means they’re at a greater risk for physical and mental health problems. Plus, kids experiencing poverty are more likely to be hospitalized for acute conditions and are less likely to receive preventive care. According to Social Determinants of Health, a report co-authored by York University’s Raphael, the bottom 33 per cent of Canadian income earners are less likely to see a specialist when needed compared to the country’s top 33 per cent of earners.

“Poverty affects a number of the social determinants of health,” says Freeman. “There’s transportation barriers, financial barriers, parents have to take time off work to go see the doctor and there’s significant language barriers. There’s difficulty navigating our healthcare system in general. It’s more difficult than we may realize for families to access the care they need.”

10. Financial literacy

“Financial services are generally designed to cater to the needs of middle- and high-income individuals,” says a report by Prosper Canada. “This can result in financial information and advice that is unintentionally ill-suited or even harmful to people with low incomes.”

If a child comes from a family where there are financial barriers, like low levels of education or low-wage employment, they’re less likely to develop financial literacy as they grow up. Certain segments of the population that are more prone to poverty, including Indigenous people and new Canadians, are also less likely to learn how to make more informed financial choices. Things like applying for student loans and government grants, for example, are more challenging for kids whose parents don’t have the knowledge base.

It’s clear that poverty impacts the trajectory of a child’s entire life and accentuates the income gap across generations—which is why it’s important for society to do everything it can to counteract its effects. Advocating for change, getting involved in local politics, and volunteering in your community can help.

“All children should have the opportunity to reach their full potential and contribute to our communities,” says Khanna. “We all benefit from lower poverty and inequality, so we need to be fully invested in making positive change to improve the lives of children and families.”

Ways you can help:

We’re in this together

Peel. Toronto. York Region. No matter where you live within the region, you know that poverty remains a real and ongoing threat. But, if the past year was any indication, there’s lots of proof of how we, as a community, are fighting back.

Today, we are pleased to share United Way Greater Toronto’s 2017–18 annual report. It highlights all the change that your generous donations, on-the-ground volunteer efforts and tireless work on the front lines helped to create—in the places, populations and priorities most impacted by poverty.

Watch this video for President & CEO Daniele Zanotti’s summary of an eventful 2017:

Then, for all the ways that your support fuelled our region-wide uprising of care, read the full report here.

Getting left behind

Professor Wayne Lewchuk, McMaster University and  Stephanie Procyk, Manager of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation, United Way Greater Toronto, are co-authors of Getting Left Behind: Who gained and who didn’t in an improving labour market, a newly-released report on precarious employment in the GTHA.

From people rocking their side hustle to talk of the gig economy – we know the working world has changed. But don’t let the cute terms fool you – this work is precarious and that’s a problem.

graphic of white stickpeople on red background with statistic about precarious employment

Precarious employment has imprinted itself on the GTHA job market: 37.2% of workers are still in some degree of precarious employment. That likely means they don’t have health benefits, don’t have pension plans and may not even know next week’s work schedule. They can’t plan for their future, let alone coordinate childcare for the start of the school year.

red stickperson holding stopwatch with statistic about employment anxiety

It’s more than stressful. One third of all workers still report poor mental health. 40% of workers report that, despite the improved economy, anxiety interferes with their personal and family lives.

While we’ve seen significant gains in the labour market in the past six years, we aren’t seeing the changes we would expect. While GTHA unemployment fell from 8.2% to 6.3% and Canadian real GDP per hour worked increased by 7.2%, wages didn’t keep pace. Real average weekly wages only grew by 1%. Temporary jobs grew almost double the rate of permanent jobs.

The labour market is becoming more polarized, not less. Those who had access to stable, secure jobs in 2011 gained even more access in 2017. And those who didn’t, were left behind.

dejected looking red stickwoman in graduation cap with diploma

When it comes to landing a secure job in a growing economy, a combination of gender, race and having a university degree determine whether or not someone gets left behind. Only white men and white women with university degrees and racialized men with university degrees gained job security between 2011 and 2017. Racialized women with university degrees and all workers without university degrees stagnated in terms of job security.

It’s clear that economic growth alone cannot solve the issues of precarious employment and labour market polarization. We need to take action to ensure that no one gets left behind. How? By expanding decent work through employment standards and ladders to opportunity. By creating a floor of basic income and social supports available to precarious workers. We need to ensure that background and circumstances are not barriers to the labour market.

If you’re running a business, running a household or even running your day, you know you need all hands on deck. In a growing economy we can’t afford for people to be left behind and we need everyone to play a role in addressing these challenges. Read our latest report, get informed and get engaged with the issues.

Food for thought on tackling food insecurity

Portrait of Joan Stonehocker executive director of York Region Food Network wearing glasses and black shirtJoan Stonehocker’s life-long passion for growing and eating healthy food aligns perfectly with her role as the Executive Director of York Region Food Network. Under her leadership, the committed team at YRFN advocates for sustainable solutions to food insecurity, demonstrates waste-free practices throughout the organization and continuously develops and promotes healthy food projects that are a catalyst for building strong and vibrant communities.

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Like other members of Ontario for All the broad alliance of community partners convened by United Way, York Region Food Network is committed to addressing the debilitating problems that face people living in poverty. Together, we’re focusing debate and discussion this election on the five community priorities we consider essential to a fair and inclusive Ontario, including how to create pathways out of poverty that ensure everyone has the supports they need to live with dignity.

Our organization was started by the food banks in York Region in the late 1980s to raise awareness of hunger and poverty in our seemingly prosperous area. Although awareness is increasing, the problem of food insecurity continues. Modern-day food banks were created as a temporary solution for people struggling to purchase enough to eat. Now, the PROOF research project (proof.utoronto.ca) has shown that only 20 – 25% of people who are food insecure access food banks.

After more than 35 years of operating, food banks are more prevalent than ever, and the need continues to grow. At our agency, we get calls regularly from people looking for help to get food. Regional food bank hours are limited, and the vast geography of York Region can make access a challenge for many. While we try to bridge the gap by having grocery cards available for people who come directly to us seeking food, that’s not always possible. We know the desperation and distress of people in our community — neighbours — who have come face to face with hunger: bare cupboards and no simple solutions.

A diverse group of men and women volunteering as Community Cooks

We need to address these immediate needs effectively, but we cannot continue to do so without also taking on the systemic issues that keep people in poverty. The research around the social determinants of health is clear about the devastating effects of poverty and the by-products of poverty, like food insecurity and social isolation. And while community food programs bring people together to grow, share and cook healthy food, with great benefit, they alone are not enough.

To provide lasting change, we need to address the causes of food insecurity and to change the mindset that food programs or charity will solve the problem. We must acknowledge the true cost of poverty and invest in eliminating it. The provincial government’s Basic Income Pilot is one such encouraging attempt — an initiative that provides people with the essentials they need to build their own path out of poverty. Already, early reports from participants talk about the dramatic positive impacts on their health, well-being and self-esteem.

This provincial election is our chance to come together and let our elected representatives know what matters most to us: an Ontario that is fair, equitable and inclusive — for everyone.

Supportive Housing: One solution to homelessness

Portrait of Anne Babcock wearing black sweater and seated at brown benchAs President and CEO of WoodGreen Community Services, Anne Babcock has helped build WoodGreen from a single location with 40 staff members to a $50 million organization with 36 locations, 750 staff and 1,000 volunteers serving 37,000 people each year. With a deep understanding of community needs and services, she is also widely acknowledged as a leader in the development of innovative programming, including Homeward Bound, a best-in-class model of supportive housing that is now being successfully replicated in other communities across Ontario.

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WoodGreen Community Services is proud to be part of Ontario for All. This new alliance convened by United Way is bringing old and new community partners together to make the most of this provincial election campaign by highlighting five priorities we know to be fundamental to a fair and inclusive Ontario. Ensuring that affordable, appropriate and safe housing is available to all is one of our Calls to Action — and an issue that WoodGreen can speak to from a place of experience and success.

We know supportive housing works to break the cycle of poverty and gives people the tools they need to move forward on a new path to opportunity. We’ve seen it, and we have the evidence to prove it.

An excellent example of supportive housing at WoodGreen is Homeward Bound. Piloted by WoodGreen and unique in Canada, Homeward Bound is an innovative program to help inadequately housed or homeless mother-led families earn college diplomas, start careers, and achieve economic self-sufficiency.

Made possible by funding from the Local Poverty Reduction Fund, WoodGreen engaged external evaluation experts at Constellation Consulting Group to objectively assess the impact of Homeward Bound on single mothers who have graduated since 2012.

The objective has been to better understand the outcomes, successes and challenges of Homeward Bound so that the program can be continuously improved and effectively scaled going forward.

We examined changes in housing status, employment, and income source from when survey respondents began Homeward Bound to where they reported they are today. The evaluation revealed important learning about the impact of Homeward Bound — and remarkable outcomes:

Infographic by woodgreen about percentage of people housed in homeless shelters

The wraparound supports the women at Homeward Bound receive are key to its success and, as the evidence shows, what really breaks the cycle of poverty for women and their children.

Woodgreen Homeward Bound infographic about wrap around supports

If we truly want to build an Ontario where everyone belongs, we must commit to affordable, appropriate and safe housing as a priority.

And, if we want to achieve lasting, meaningful change for all members of our society, no matter the barriers they face, we must invest in supportive housing.

Making progress on poverty

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daniele-zanotti-2017Our guest blogger this week is Daniele Zanotti, President & CEO of United Way Greater Toronto. With more than 20 years of experience in the public and non-profit sectors, he has earned a reputation as an accomplished, strategic, and energetic leader. During his tenure, the organization has applied an increasingly regional lens to its work, collaborating with organizations and community partners in Peel, Toronto and York to fight local poverty in all its forms.

In 2008, something transformative happened in Ontario.  The provincial government introduced the Ontario Child Benefit, direct financial assistance to low-income families with children.  It was a cornerstone of the Poverty Reduction Strategy that was unanimously adopted by all three parties at Queens Park and supported by a wide network of community organizations across Ontario, including United Way. The OCB helped lift tens of thousands of children out of poverty at a time when the province was hit hard by one of the worst economic recessions in recent memory.  The OCB proved that when implemented right, bold policy and investments that put community at the heart of decision making can help build a stronger future.

Ten years later, the fight against poverty is still very much on.  Despite progress that has been made in reducing child poverty, much work remains to be accomplished.  Day after day, many community organizations are once again stepping up to raise their voices on the issues that matter to the residents they serve.  The movement is called Ontario for All – it has gained momentum across Toronto, Peel and York Region, and become a new front in the newly-merged United Way Greater Toronto’s fight against local poverty.  United Way has brought together many of its funded agencies and other community partners to work together on highlighting five priorities that are critical in creating an inclusive, connected and prosperous province where everyone belongs.  They are:

• Fully implement the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
• Build an economy with fair and equitable opportunities and decent work for all
• Create pathways out of poverty by ensuring that everyone has income security and the supports they need to live with dignity
• Ensure affordable, appropriate and safe housing is available to all
• Invest in inclusive, healthy communities with affordable and quality childcare and public education, pharmacare and dental programs, transit and transportation, and community programs and services

These five priorities have been shared with all four parties in Ontario, with the invitation for them to work with Ontario for All partners in including these in their election platforms.  But beyond helping to put a focus on poverty reduction during the campaign, this process has done something more powerful. It has built an uprising of care in neighbourhoods across the region, where at least 150 conversations have happened and more are underway. At least 80 organizations have endorsed the five priorities, and all political parties and their candidates are being encouraged to make poverty reduction a focus of their work.

United Way and many community organizations have co-created a plan to engage each other, their boards and staff, residents, volunteers, local election candidates and the media on why these five priorities are important for our communities.  So poverty reduction is making its way into agendas of board meetings, local resident circles, media interviews and online social media activity.

Because, our hope remains, any or all of these priorities could become the bold, transformative investments that the OCB was in 2008.  And that is one way to secure a brighter, more secure future for our communities.

How our merger makes us stronger

Peel. Toronto. York Region. No matter what part of the GTA we call home, we’re all facing the same challenges: deep-rooted poverty in all its forms.

That’s why United Way Peel Region and United Way Toronto & York Region have merged—effective April 1, 2018. As the backbone of our local community-services sector, the new United Way Greater Toronto will be better positioned to fight local poverty with even more fervor. Here’s how:

More donors, volunteers and partners: More thinking—and acting—on solutions to social challenges is inherently beneficial: combined resources. But, with that also comes the cross-pollination of ideas; for instance, solutions that work for a community in Mississauga might be the “missing ingredient” for a community in Markham facing similar challenges. It’s a regional lens that brings even stronger local impact.

Watch the video to hear from Daniele Zanotti, President & CEO, on how the merger will fuel a more powerful Uprising of Care within our region.

More supports for people, close to home: Just as Steeles Avenue delineates the “divide” between Toronto and York Region, there are prescribed—but otherwise invisible—boundaries that separate Peel from Toronto and York Region. The merger will only deepen the connection between our 200+ funded agencies across the region, helping them work more collaboratively and efficiently on the front lines of our communities.

More innovation and impact: Our groundbreaking research often encompasses Greater Toronto, revealing shared and urgent issues that we must collectively overcome. Working together, we can be more holistic and innovative in our response to these issues. Examples include our ongoing support of Community Benefits Agreements—ensuring that local residents are employed on local infrastructure projects—and the expansion of our Career Navigator program (as well as our partnership with NPower Canada), which gives young people the education, training and support they need to build meaningful careers.

Homelessness from a filmmaker’s lens

 

Krista Loughton
Writer & Director
Us & Them

Us & Them is a powerful documentary that delves into one of the most pressing issues facing our region: homelessness. Imagine a City spoke with Victoria-based writer and director, Krista Loughton, to learn about her journey creating an emotionally rich film that shatters misconceptions and demands change.

1. Where did the idea for Us & Them originate? What inspired you to shine a light on the issue of homelessness and poverty?

My interest in shining a light on the issue of poverty goes way back. At 18, I visited Zimbabwe and was disheartened that 80% of the population was sleeping on dirt floors every night. I wanted to return to Africa to help, but life didn’t take me back to Harare. Several years later, I realized I didn’t have to go back to Africa to help people—I just had to go downtown.

2. Us & Them was a labour of love 10 years in-the-making. After being immersed in the issue of homelessness for over a decade, what would you say is the most surprising thing you learned from the experience?

I was surprised by the depth of insight and compassion the people whose lives I followed—people who quickly became friends—had when it came to dealing with pain and trauma. It was eye-opening for me—showing me just how much work I had to do on myself in order to address the pain I was experiencing as well.

3. What are some common misconceptions about how people end up on the streets and why was it important for you to shatter those misconceptions?

From the start, I knew these people were struggling and that my film would show the pain they were experiencing. But, while making the film, more layers were uncovered. The stereotypes are all wrong. People experiencing homelessness are not lazy. For many, childhood trauma, mental health challenges and substance abuse as a means of coping with trauma, come into play. This creates a situation where managing life becomes extremely difficult. A vulnerable person can’t just get a job or pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Systemic issues, like a lack of affordable housing, also keep them on the street.

4. What is the one key takeaway you hope viewers walk away with after watching your film?

I want people to leave the theatre and never look at a person who lives on the street the same way again.

5. Many people feel unequipped to help people experiencing poverty. Do you have advice for people who want to help, but don’t know where to start?

There’s lots of simple ways to help, including:

  1. Smile or say hello to people who are living on the street.
  2. Educate yourself about the issues in your community.
  3. Talk to people involved in local advocacy efforts to see how you can lend your voice. Everyone can advocate in their own way. You’ll know you’ve found the right platform by how it makes you feel.
  4. Volunteer. Any amount of time you can spare will help—just do what you can.
  5. Donate. Whether it’s donating slightly used clothing to a local shelter or money to United Way or one of its community agencies, you can help provide crucial supports to people experiencing homelessness.

How has this experience personally changed you as a filmmaker—but also as a person?

The experience has shown me how powerful the medium of film is to educate people and raise awareness about important issues. As a person, it has also helped me uncover the dogged tenacity at my core to tell stories about issues where there is a blatant injustice. I will undoubtedly take these learnings with me into my next project.

Ask the Expert: What happens when kids don’t get the best start in life?

anita-khanna-head-shot

Anita Khanna
Director, Social Action & Community Building
Family Service Toronto

Anita Khanna is the Director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto, a United Way-supported agency that helps promote the health and wellbeing of children and families. She’s also the National Coordinator of Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition that works to build awareness and support for ending child poverty. Imagine a City spoke with Anita for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn what happens when kids don’t get the best start in life.

1. What sort of supports do children require in order to get the best start in life?

Prenatal programs, access to nutritious food, a stable home environment and opportunities to develop language, cognitive and social skills are just some of the supports that help children start life on a high note. Community connections are also important. From a very young age, children pick up on whether their families are reflected and respected in their community. Whether a family is racialized, Indigenous, are newcomers, LGBTQ+ or led by single parents, they need to be appreciated and accepted.

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2. How important are the early years (ages 0-6) when it comes to childhood development?

The early years are the most important time in our life for brain development, learning, behaviour and health. These years are crucial to a child’s future wellbeing, self-esteem and physical and mental health. Spending quality time with family, one-on-one interaction with caregivers and educators in childcare settings, stimulating learning opportunities and affirmation of one’s value are vital in laying a solid foundation.

3. Across Canada, nearly 1 in 5 children—and their families—lives below the poverty line. How does poverty create gaps, or inequities, when it comes to the early years?

Side effects of poverty related to inadequate or unsafe housing, stress within a household and a lack of proper nutrition have a major impact on a child’s health, as well as their performance in school. If a child moves from school to school because of an unstable housing situation or because their parents are precariously employed, it puts a lot of stress on the child.

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4. What are some of the lasting effects across a child’s life-span when they don’t get the best start in life?

Limited access to stimulating learning opportunities can delay literacy and vocabulary development. Disruptions in school may occur because a child is unable to focus because of poor nutrition. Both of these scenarios can lead to lower levels of education and can be precursors to having difficulty securing work as an adult. Constant stress can also lead to long-term physical and mental health conditions. Not only can these issues persist into adulthood, but sometimes they can never be undone.

5. What role can the non-profit sector play in ensuring children (including those living in poverty) get the best start in life?

The non-profit sector plays a vital role in helping children get a strong start in life. Creative play and literacy programs, as well as after school supports are often the first things that come to mind, however, wide-ranging supports for families are also important. Employment programs, parent groups and newcomer settlement supports can help families find more solid footing, helping to address core issues they face as a result of living on a low income. Non-profits are nimble and close to the ground and we should ensure community members have a voice in shaping programming. We should also keep track of emerging trends and requests from the community to help shape our services and inform our advocacy for social justice. It is important that we raise our voices to talk about policy and program changes that can improve the lives of the families we work with every day.

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6. How can investing in children make an important, lasting impact on the social, economic and physical wellbeing of our community?

Children are sponges that reflect the environment they’re in, and as the next generation of thinkers, workers and creators a lot is riding on their wellbeing. Activities that boost confidence and encourage problem solving help kids develop important skills and confidence. When we foster those skills, and adequately support their families through smart public policies, we help build children up for success. Ultimately, healthier children grow into healthier adults. Investing in children’s well-being and reducing poverty is a foundational investment in strengthening our communities and our country.

What should I do if I see someone “sleeping rough” this winter?

More than 5,000 people spend their nights in shelters, or out in the open, in the city of Toronto. That’s the official number, but the actual number is probably a lot higher, says Sanda Kazazic, drop-in coordinator for St. Stephen’s Community House, a multi-service United Way agency that offers employment and housing supports, among other resources, to local residents. And when you spot someone sleeping outside in the cold, it’s natural to want to help. But what should you do? Here are three suggestions:

Want to make a difference for someone experiencing homelessness or poverty? Give the gift of winter warmth by clicking on the image.

1. If you see someone on the street who looks as though they’d be comfortable being approached, offer to buy them a hot cup of tea, coffee or cocoa. “Not everyone will accept something directly from a stranger on the street,” says Kazazic. “But often if you ask them what they need, whether it’s a hot drink or a sandwich, they will tell you.” She says to start with a simple “hi” and take it from there.

2. Always look people in the eye and acknowledge them. “You don’t know the circumstances that brought them to the street,” says Kazazic. “And they’re no different from anyone else you might meet on the sidewalk.” Sometimes, just a smile goes a long way. On really cold nights, you can ask if they know where to go to get warm, and direct them to the nearest shelter or Out of the Cold drop-in program. This is especially helpful for newcomers, who may not know what resources are available in the city, says Kazazic.

3. Volunteer your time or make a donation. During the winter, shelters often operate at capacity and are desperate for help. Let the experience of meeting someone on the street inspire you to do more. “Contact an agency or drop-in program to find out how you can get involved,” says Kazazic. “It’s a great way to put a human face to a pressing social problem and to bridge a big gap in our community.” If time is an issue, donate toiletries or cold-weather gear—sleeping bags, gloves, hats and warm socks are almost always in demand, although it’s best to call your local shelter to see what they need most.

If you see someone on the streets who looks like they could use some help, call 311 to reach Toronto’s non-emergency line for access to the city’s outreach services or contact Streets to Homes, a 24-hour, city-run program that offers street respite. If the person is unresponsive or seems to be in an emergency, never hesitate to call 911. For additional information, call 211 or visit the website to find community supports in your neighbourhood.

4 ways Community Hubs can help a friend in need

If a friend mentions they need job hunting tips, legal advice, or even housing help, do you know where they can access resources? In many cases, the answer is the same for each of these issues: their local Community Hub.

Community Hubs provide everything from seniors’ programming to English classes for newcomers to information for parents, all within one space.

“Many people might not even realize that their neighbourhood has this wealth of resources all under one roof,” says Alex Dow, United Way’s Director of Neighbourhoods. And even if they can’t directly help, Community Hubs can connect an individual with further resources.

Here are four reasons why it’s worth checking out your local Hub:

1. Hubs address multiple needs

Often someone who needs help in one area could use a hand in other ways as well. A newcomer who needs English classes can also access employment support. Someone who is struggling with parenting can get support along with counselling services. In fact, these “wraparound” supports provided by Community Hubs are vital to overall well-being and help create a strong social safety net across our neighbourhoods. United Way’s Hub in Rexdale, for example, provides everything from health services to social programs, as well as legal help and cultural assistance.

2. The whole family can find support

All of the hubs offer a variety of programming specially tailored to local residents. Go to United Way’s Bathurst-Finch Community Hub and you’ll find seniors’ programs, breastfeeding support and childcare. AccessPoint on Danforth provides health care, LGBTQ+ programs and youth peer mentoring. “The Hubs are really designed for people of all ages,” says Dow. “You might come in looking for a program or a service for your child, but if an elderly parent lives with you, you’ll find activities for them, too.”

3. They create opportunities to volunteer

Don’t be surprised if your friend wants to continue going to the local Hub after receiving the help they needed. “After accessing services, many people like to give back,” says Dow, and there are many different types of opportunities to pitch in, including working in a community garden, running classes, helping with promotions, participating in workshops, or leading cooking classes or playgroups.

4. Hubs help people connect

The connections and friendships that can come from Community Hubs are one of their biggest advantages, says Dow. That’s because meeting neighbours and learning more about the community’s needs can lead to increased engagement with the neighbourhood and a better understanding of the issues that are affecting it—not to mention a desire to help.

Looking to access services at a Community Hub near you? Try calling 211, a helpline supported by United Way, to connect with one of these vital community resources in your neighbourhood.

Surprising ways community centres can help

When you’re searching for help—whether you need legal advice, mental health resources or financial aid—Cynthia Drebot, Executive Director of the North End Women’s Centre in Winnipeg, says you should look first in your own community. “It’s not just a matter of convenience,” she says, “it’s because the organizations often understand the needs of their community and tailor their resources to suit them.”

One of the best ways to find these resources, she says, is by asking other people in your network. In fact, community organizations get most of their clientele by word of mouth, and that can often lead to resources that you may not realize are right in your own backyard. Case in point: family resource centres, which offer a variety of services, from helping people access food and housing to programs for literacy and social activities.

And once you find an appropriate organization, you may be surprised by the extent to which they can help, says Drebot. Many of the organizations work to decrease the barriers that prevent people from being able to get help in the first place—for example, the North End Women’s Centre provides transit tokens for those who need help getting to the Centre to attend workshops, and free on-site childcare for women who are accessing its programs. Through the Centre, women can work at a thrift shop in exchange for the organization paying their damage deposit or their hydro or phone bill.

“We have women who come to our drop-in who may have originally walked in the door not knowing what we do, but we can set them up with up to a year of free counselling to work through the challenges they may be facing, such as domestic violence. They can also sign up to take a mindfulness or self-esteem workshop with a group of other women,” says Drebot. “And that idea of connecting with other women is huge—it reduces that sense of isolation.” That’s something that is valuable to everyone.

By connecting with others in your neighbourhood, you may receive far more than you expect—not just a solution to that original problem, but a circle of support that will help in all areas of your life.

A game-changer for affordable housing

Pedro Barata, 
SVP, Strategic Initiatives & Public Affairs, United Way Toronto & York Region

Our guest blogger this week is Pedro Barata, Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives & Public Affairs at United Way Toronto & York Region. He has experience working within, and across community-based organizations, strategic philanthropy, and various levels of government.

Toronto has some titles that we’ve got to shake. The GTA is the child poverty capital, income inequality capital and housing poverty capital of Canada. These trends must be reversed. And the solutions start with housing.

In 2016, Toronto had some 200,000 households in core housing need, struggling to pay the rent, living in under-repaired homes or in crowded or dangerous conditions.

Our own research has shown that the GTA is more divided along income lines than ever. Increasingly, you’re either “have” or “have not”. While the incomes of the highest-earners in the GTA have risen, the lowest incomes have flat-lined. The opportunity equation is broken, and we need to make a change.

Housing affordability is at the heart of shifting income standards in our region. In Toronto, close to one in five households spend more than one third of their before tax income on housing—that’s the highest rate in the country, ahead of all other major urban centres.

Average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Toronto:
1990: $689
2015: $1326 (92% increase)

Toronto average annual income (in 2015 dollars):
1990: $46,107
2015 $50,479 (9% increase)

The numbers tell the story. More people in the GTA are spending more of their income on simply getting a roof over the head. Pathways to opportunity must be built on a basic foundation of economic security. But how can you succeed if you can’t secure a home? If you can’t make rent, you can’t afford the other necessities to thrive in life: food, warm clothes, child care, a phone.

Fortunately, today the Federal Government announced a game-changer: a Canada Housing Benefit. That’s a cash subsidy to help people close the gap between lower incomes and rising rental costs. And it’s the missing piece—along with new builds and repair of existing housing—to help lift more families out of poverty.

This benefit—focused on renters—will reduce homelessness and make housing affordable, and faster, for renters in crisis and those without shelter. The ”portable” in this benefit means that tenants can carry it with them through the private, social or co-op market. It’s innovative and it means that people can go where work and personal needs take them. It’s also an important piece to avoid rent inflation.

The portable housing benefit just makes sense. Most other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries have balanced strategies that support both supply and rent supplements. It’s really good news that Canada is doing the same. We know that income is not keeping pace with housing affordability, and we know that inequality in our region is only going in one direction—up.

Rent supplements are essential in the fight against homelessness. The growing success of the Housing First approach to tackling homelessness depends on access to rental supports than can be quickly deployed and can help a new renter hold their housing during the key transition period out of homelessness. Coordinated with provincial and local governments, a new housing benefit gets at the heart of poverty and income inequality by filling the gap for those who need it the most.

66% of people experiencing homelessness say that what they really need to end their homelessness is help to pay Toronto’s high rents.

These kind of policies are crucial to compliment the local community work that United Way and our partner organizations do every day. We welcome the federal government’s leadership today. Together with the recent increases to the Canada Child Benefit and enhancement to work income supplements, the federal government is making great strides toward a national poverty reduction strategy.

In the face of our own findings of the growing gaps in our region, this is the kind of approach that can give us hope for long-term change.

5 ways to trick yourself into saving

When it comes to saving money, it can sometimes feel like you have to give something up in order to make any progress—but it’s hard to maintain motivation if you feel like you’re constantly depriving yourself. Luckily, “there are ways to save without feeling the pinch,” says Michelle Dagnino, Executive Director of the Jane/Finch Community & Family Centre, a United Way–supported agency. She works with families, many of whom are living on a low income, to help them find ways to save while still paying the bills. Here are her tips for making saving easier on all of us.

1. Thwart add-on costs

Dagnino often sees issues arise when people purchase big-ticket items that have recurring costs they didn’t factor into their budgets. “They think of a major purchase as a one-time cost, when, in fact, there may be additional associated fees attached,” she says. Think kids’ activities that require uniforms or equipment, or a new vehicle that needs insurance and gas. She suggests doing some research and making a budget that includes all of those costs. Ultimately, you may have to decide on a vehicle that uses less gas, or choose sports that have fewer add-on expenses, but then you won’t have to dip into savings when bills come due.

2. Start saving automatically

You can’t spend money you don’t have, right? So pretend that you don’t have it. Set up a savings program with your bank that automatically diverts a percentage of your paycheque to a savings account you can’t access with your debit card. Chances are you won’t even miss that spending money, and you’ll see your savings grow.

3. Pay down your debt

The old adage is true: it is important to pay yourself first. That is, unless you have significant debt. Accumulating interest can hobble your ability to save long-term, so it’s worth diverting funds to debt repayment. First you need a plan, which should include switching to low-interest credit cards. Once your debt is gone, set up an automatic withdrawal that deposits the money that would have gone toward it into your savings.

4. Learn what you don’t know

Think you’re financially savvy? You may be missing crucial information that could help you get ahead. And no, you don’t have to spend money to get educated. “Communities offer free resources that provide excellent opportunities for saving,” says Dagnino. “The library is a great place to start for courses on financial literacy.”

5. Shop smarter

Bad shopping habits can zap your savings. “Establishing healthy patterns around purchasing can help you spend less,” says Dagnino. Planning ahead is key. If you’re running out to the corner store because you forgot to pick up dish soap on your weekly grocery shop, you’re paying higher prices for convenience. Shopping around for the best prices will also help you save. For example, farmers’ markets or urban farms sell fresh, healthy, organic food without the high price sometimes found in big-name grocery stores. Case in point: Black Creek Community Farm at Jane and Steeles sells produce without the markup.

To learn more about some of the difficult financial decisions faced by people living on a low income, try our online poverty simulator and challenge your perspectives on poverty. You can also brush up on your financial skills or find additional support in your neighbourhood by calling 211 or visiting the Jane/Finch Community & Family Centre, an agency committed to advancing financial literacy through support services, such as income tax clinics and workshops.

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.

Changemakers to watch: Jesse Thistle

Homelessness. It’s not simply an issue of not having a place to live. It’s complex, interconnected with other issues like mental health and addiction that combine to trap people in an endless cycle. People experiencing homelessness become disconnected, isolated and left on the fringes of our community. But, according to Jesse Thistle, this week’s Changemaker, understanding homelessness—particularly for Indigenous people—gets us all one step closer to finding a way to tackle it that goes beyond a hot meal and a place to sleep.

WHO: When it comes to understanding Indigenous homelessness, Jesse is more connected to his work than most. “For 10 years I experienced episodic homelessness,” says Jesse, who is Metis-Cree. “I was struggling with addiction and was in and out of jail. I started to notice that there were a lot of people like me in prison, on the streets and in shelters.” In fact, in Toronto alone, approximately 15 per cent of all homeless individuals are Indigenous, yet they make up less than 1 per cent of the city’s population. After overcoming addiction, and with sheer will, determination, and tons of support from his mentor, Carolyn Podruchny, and wife, Lucie, Jesse made it his life’s mission to study the issue in an effort to use his experience to help others. He’s become a top Canadian academic and has received a slew of awards for his work including being named a Trudeau and Vanier Scholar. In 2016, the PhD student became the National Representative for Indigenous Homelessness for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH).

WHY: Jesse is helping to literally “write the definition” of Indigenous homelessness for the COH. Plus, through scholarly work, advocacy and storytelling, he’s working to help all Canadians better understand the issue and collectively move us closer to finding long-term solutions. “Indigenous homelessness really isn’t about not having a place to live—it’s about a loss of relationships,” he says. “If people don’t have good relationships, they become disconnected from society. Growing up, I didn’t have those supports and it led to my homelessness.” Jesse’s lived experience, academic insight and passion to help others has not only made him one of the leading experts on how social issues like homelessness stem from historical trauma—it’s made him one of Canada’s most impactful voices of Indigenous advocacy. “When I look at the person that I once was—an addict, criminal, homeless, without an identity—I can’t help but want to help others out of that position.”

WHAT’S NEXT: You’ll be seeing a lot of Jesse in 2017. Just a few weeks ago, he was featured in a CBC Radio interview exploring his ancestry, as well as his current work studying 20th century road allowance communities—makeshift Metis settlements built along roads and railways in northern Saskatchewan. In October, he’s hoping to release the definition of Indigenous homelessness at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference, and will also be featured in a TVO special that offers an in-depth look into his Metis-Cree family history.

GOOD ADVICE: 

3 things you might not know about poverty

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_SnapshotDid you know that 1 in 5 adults in Toronto and 1 in 7 people in York Region live in poverty? It’s true. Every day, individuals and families across our region face homelessness, unemployment, a lack of affordable housing and the effects of deepening income inequality. These startling facts are a vital reminder that there is still much work to be done in addressing this complex issue.

Here are three things you might not know about poverty here in Toronto and York Region:

1. Nearly one-third of all children in Toronto live in low-income households: According to a 2014 report, 15 of Toronto’s 140 neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 40% or more. Fifty-five neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 30% or more. In places like Regent Park, Moss Park and Thorncliffe, child poverty rates climb to more than 50%. Poverty in childhood can have a lifelong impact—affecting a child’s ability to grow, develop and learn. It is up to all of us to address this growing issue and to work together to make investments in children and families that will have a lasting impact on the social, economic and physical well-being of our whole community.

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 2. Poverty is concentrated in certain neighbourhoods: Entire neighbourhoods are falling behind when the gap between those who are doing well financially—and those who are not—continues to widen. The number of low-income communities in 2005 was 271, compared to 97 in 1970, leading to a geographic concentration of poverty, particularly in Toronto’s inner suburbs. Our research also shows us that income inequality has grown faster in Toronto than in other major Canadian cities, outpacing both provincial and national averages. Opportunities to build a good life—including quality jobs, affordable housing and meaningful social networks—aren’t equally available to everyone.

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3. Poverty impacts decision making: A lack of food or money can cause people to focus obsessively on the object of scarcity, leaving less “mental bandwidth” for other aspects of a person’s life. That’s according to Dr. Eldar Shafir, professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and the co-author of Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much. “There’s a lot of data indicating people living in poverty don’t do well with decision-making. So the question is: Are they in poverty because of bad decisions, or are the bad decisions somehow the result of poverty?” says Shafir. Watch the video below to learn more about psychological issues related to poverty.

Want to learn more about how your support is changing the lives of people living in poverty? Subscribe to Imagine a City to read the latest insight from thought-leaders across our community and stay up-to-date on important social issues.

What is “hidden” homelessness?

Stephen Gaetz Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

Stephen Gaetz
Director, Canadian Observatory on 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, made up of nine mostly suburban municipalities, homelessness is a growing issue with its own set of complex challenges. One in 7 people also live in poverty.

Imagine a City spoke with Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, co-author of a report with United Way about youth homelessness in York Region and York University professor about what we can do about it.

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Want to make a difference for someone experiencing homelessness or poverty? Give the gift of winter warmth by clicking on the image.

1. Homelessness is often hidden: “There’s often public perception that homelessness is a downtown issue, but it’s not,” says Gaetz. “There’s poverty in the suburbs, but it’s often hidden.” A lack of affordable housing is a serious community issue in York Region—housing prices have soared in the past decade and the rental market is dismal. With the wait list for rental housing higher than the number of units, individuals and families experiencing poverty have no choice but to stay in inadequate housing. For example, some “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.

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2. Homelessness is spread out: When we think of Toronto, the city’s busy urban core often comes to mind. But in York Region, where its nine municipalities don’t have a downtown centre, services and supports are situated few and far between, making them difficult to identify and access. As a result, mobility is a major issue and homelessness is dispersed. “The transit infrastructure in York is largely built to accommodate privately-owned vehicles making it tough for homeless individuals to move throughout the region and access services,” says Gaetz. “People often have to leave their communities to access help. In turn, they lose their natural supports—including family, friends and neighbours—all key factors that can help someone move forward and avoid homelessness.”

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To better understand this issue in York Region, United Way led the region’s first-ever Point-in-Time Count. “Determining the extent, demographics, and needs of those experiencing absolute homelessness—in shelters and on the streets—at a single point in time is key to reducing it,” says Michelynn Laflèche, Director of Research, Public Policy & Evaluation at United Way Toronto & York Region. “This information will help us inform strategies to champion change in the region.”

3. Community supports are sparse: Unprecedented population growth in York Region and higher proportions of newcomers and seniors have led to service gaps that make it hard for individuals to access crucial support. Gaetz says in Toronto, for example, there are roughly 4,000 shelter beds for the city’s 2.6 million residents. However, in York, there are only 130 beds for a population of 1 million. “Emergency supports are good quality in York Region, but there are not a lot of them,” says Gaetz.

LeavingHomeReportFor example, Blue Door Shelters, supported by United Way, operates the only family shelter in York Region providing food, counselling and a safe and supportive refuge for homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless. Adds Gaetz: “If community services aren’t visible in your neighbourhood, you might assume they’re not there. This causes people to either uproot and go to Toronto for support, or not access crucial services at all.” But Gaetz says an increase in more than just emergency supports is needed in the region. “We need to prevent people from becoming homeless, while also supporting others to move out of homelessness,” he says. “Shifting our way of thinking from emergency response to prevention and transition can have a big impact.”

Looking for a unique way to give back this holiday season? United Way’s Warmest Wishes ensures necessities like clothing and food are there for people experiencing poverty at a time when they need it most. Visit Warmest Wishes to make your gift today.

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.

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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.

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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.

Ask the Expert: How are health and poverty related?

kwame-mckenzie-2

Kwame McKenzie
CEO, Wellesley Institute
Psychiatrist, CAMH

Kwame McKenzie is the CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based non-profit research and policy institute that focuses on advancing population health. Also a CAMH psychiatrist, he’s a leading expert on the social causes of mental illness and making our health system more equitable. Imagine a City spoke with Kwame for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn how health and poverty are related.

1. Is there a connection between income and our health?

There’s a strong link between income and health. But, it’s not just about the amount of money you make and what you can buy, it’s what your whole life is like as a result, including where you live, work and the food that you eat. These factors—the social determinants of health—influence the health of individuals and even entire populations, putting vulnerable people at a higher risk of having poor physical and mental health and decreasing their life expectancy.

2. What are some examples of the social determinants of health?

On top of income, other factors that greatly affect our quality of life include gender, disability and race. Health is also determined by our ability to access quality education, nutritious food, adequate housing and social and health services. Another big factor is job security and working conditions.

3. How does poverty influence a person’s physical and mental health?

Living in poverty greatly impacts a person’s physical and mental health. For example, living on a low income means you’re going to be living in less adequate housing where air pollutants or mould could cause asthma. What we eat is a major indicator of our health status as well, and for many people living in poverty, accessing good, nutritious food is financially and physically not feasible. This could lead to very serious conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Precarious work is another major factor that brings with it a host of health concerns. Workers without job security often lack holidays, benefits or sick days and spend long hours commuting to work. This causes high levels of stress and anxiety as a result.

Unfortunately, all of these factors produce a vicious cycle, which both psychologically and physically makes a person more vulnerable to illness, even down to something like the flu. Once you’ve got one illness, you’re more likely to get another.

4. What are some of the best ways to address these issues to improve the well-being of Canadians?

Studies show that the healthiest people are in economies where they’ve decreased poverty, the gap between rich and poor and started really investing in people. That means ensuring access to good jobs, increasing food security and giving kids the best start in life. This last piece is especially important. Studies show a child’s resilience to both physical and mental problems is linked to the amount of face-to-face time with their parents. You can imagine how poverty has a generational impact. It produces a trajectory, which means increased risk of illness through childhood into adult life. That’s why the early years are so important. We have to make sure that children get proper nutrition and have access to child development programs and high-quality daycare to ensure kids get a good start in life.

United Way has a big hand in addressing these issues. They glue society together and make sure that people living in poverty or who are marginalized don’t fall between the cracks. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the biggest improvement we’re going to get in-house. Without United Way, all of the problems that we have with the social determinants of health and poverty would be magnified significantly.

5. Why is this an issue that affects all of us?

Healthy people can mean healthy communities, but healthy communities also breed healthy people. It’s a two-way street. Income inequality is important, because without a healthy economy and a healthy society, then people will not thrive. Ultimately, we need to focus on creating a society that’s inclusive and supportive of everyone in our community.

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What if you could turn a parking lot into a community garden?

What if you could turn an unused parking lot into a community garden?

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Pretty cool, right? That’s the idea behind a recent bylaw called Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zoning that will give high-rise tower communities in priority neighbourhoods greater control over local development.

Why does it matter? Because in addition to creating opportunities to bring in new jobs, shops and services,  RAC zoning can also help to transform tower neighbourhoods into vibrant, livable and walkable communities.

United Way was proud to play a key role in bringing this new legislation to fruition by working with partners, including the City of Toronto and ERA Architects.

Watch this video to hear more from our very own Pedro Barata, VP, Communications and Public Affairs, on what’s next for this exciting initiative.

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.

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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!

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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.

3 things you should know about income inequality

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_Good-to-knowWhen most of us think of income inequality, we think about gaps between those who are doing well financially and those who are not. But you may be surprised to learn that income inequality is about much more than just a pay cheque.

Here are 3 more things you might not know about income inequality:  

1. It undermines fairness: With the rise of income inequality, it’s not simply your effort that determines whether or not you’re going to do well. Increasingly it’s circumstances beyond your control including your background, where you were born, how much money your parents make or your postal code,” says Pedro Barata, United Way’s VP of Communications & Public Affairs. This creates deep divides between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” undermining fairness and creating an environment where hard work is no longer seen as a guarantee for success. Watch this video to learn more about the importance of ensuring individuals and families across our region have equal opportunities to build better lives and stronger futures.

2. It makes entire communities feel “invisible:” “People living in poverty will often talk about lack of access to material items such as money for transit or food. But they may also mention their inability to do things like buy a birthday present for a friend, go to the movies or catch up over a cup of coffee. Sometimes they can’t afford to leave their house,” says Barata. “All of this adds up to social isolation and feeling excluded. People living in poverty will often say they’re invisible.” There is also a tendency towards thinking that the voices of people living on a low income aren’t important. “Who gets to talk to politicians? Who gets quoted in newspapers? Who gets to go to meetings? For a variety of reasons, it’s typically not people living on a low income,” adds Barata. “Often they’re too busy holding down a number of jobs and they live in communities that are too often left out of decision making processes. The consequence? Entire neighbourhoods become divided along income and social lines and we don’t live up to the promise of being a region “where everyone can come from all walks of life and live in harmony.”

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3. It deflates our hope for the future: Rapidly growing income inequality is worrisome to all of us. In a recent report conducted by United Way, 86% of survey respondents indicated that they felt the gap between those with high and low incomes is too large. A joint Toronto Region Board of Trade and United Way report also points to a decidedly gloomy outlook as only the smallest number of citizens believe the next generation will experience the progress achieved by previous generations. In fact, for the first time in a century, young people are expected to be materially less well off in adulthood than their parents. For youth facing additional barriers—including poverty, lower levels of education and discrimination—the challenges are even greater. 

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To learn more about how we’re working together with our partners to bring hope, fairness and opportunity to individuals and families across our region, read this guest post from Michelynn Laflèche, United Way’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation.

The bottom line on social procurement

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Denise Andrea Campbell
Director, Social Policy, Analysis and Research
City of Toronto

As the City of Toronto’s Director of Social Policy, Analysis and Research, Denise Andrea Campbell  has worked tirelessly to champion poverty reduction and youth success strategies in priority neighbourhoods. She has advised on strategy for leading foundations including The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and has also worked internationally on race and gender policies in numerous United Nations forums. In her guest blog post, Denise discusses how the City’s new social procurement program is helping create pathways to prosperity.

In 2006, community leaders in Flemingdon Park asked me why the City couldn’t hire young people through its procurement process.

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Community leaders knew that youth employment was key to neighbourhood development in Toronto. They knew that the City, together with United Way was committed to taking action on neighbourhood improvement with the recent launch of the first Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy. And they saw City construction projects—part of the City’s annual budget of $1.8 billion for goods and services—as a perfect opportunity to train and hire under-employed young people.

They believed the City could make it happen.

We did. It took us 10 years.

Procurement in a large institution like the City is often inflexible, governed by policies, laws, and decades-long industry practices that create seemingly insurmountable barriers to targeted spending.

But we also knew, as the community knew, that social procurement could be a game-changer.

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Social procurement has the power to create pathways to prosperity. Research indicates that Aboriginal and minority-owned businesses create jobs in their communities. The social enterprise business model  is all about creating social and economic benefits for marginalized groups. So if even 5% of our annual procurement were leveraged to create economic opportunities for those in poverty, that could be a $75 million investment towards inclusive economic development.

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Hawthorne Food & Drink, a social enterprise supported by the Toronto Enterprise Fund—a partnership between United Way and all three levels of government—employs individuals facing barriers including poverty and homelessness.

So we continued to push.

Working closely with partners, we began pilot initiatives to train and hire youth in a Weston-Mount Dennis youth space renovation in 2008, thanks to United Way funding. The City also worked with Toronto Community Housing and the Daniels Corporation to embed workforce development into the supply chain of the Regent Park Revitalization. And given my division’s focus on social development, we made sure to set an example, procuring from social enterprises whenever possible. A big win came in 2013 when City Council adopted a Framework for Social Procurement to move us from one-off successes to institutional practice.

Researching other jurisdictions, piloting approaches in City contracts, and building partnerships allowed us to have the evidence, the workable model, and a solid policy for Council to consider.

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United Way–supported social enterprises like Interpreter Services Toronto, which trains and employs newcomer and refugee women—are now in a better position to compete for, and benefit from, City contracts as diverse suppliers through the Toronto Social Procurement Program.

Three years and nine pilot projects later, on May 3, 2016, Toronto City Council unanimously adopted the Toronto Social Procurement Program. The program drives inclusive economic growth in Toronto by encouraging buyers and vendors to do business with certified diverse suppliers, including those owned by people from equity-seeking communities and social enterprises in all City procurement. A particular focus will be on contracts below $50,000 for which smaller businesses like social enterprises are better able to compete.

This 10-year journey has been long, and isn’t over yet. We’re taking steps to build a broader social procurement ecosystem. We want to create a climate that allows businesses owned by equity-seeking communities—women, racialized and Aboriginal peoples and newcomers—and social enterprises to compete for City contracts on their own or as part of a partnership. With the support of the Atkinson Foundation and with the participation of the United Way, we are also leading the AnchorTO Network to spread social procurement practices across all of Toronto’s public sector institutions.

So the next time community leaders ask us to create economic opportunities for their residents, we know we have built the foundation to now answer ‘yes.’

Food for thought on food security

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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.

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  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.

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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.

Changemakers to watch: Michael Braithwaite

Meet Michael Braithwaite. He’s a passionate champion who’s made it his life’s work to ensure young people facing barriers have every opportunity for a promising future. As the Executive Director of 360°kids, he’s not only providing a safe haven for at-risk youth, he’s pursuing innovative, out-of-the-box ideas to tackle homelessness in York Region.

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Michael Braithwaite
Executive Director, 360°kids

WHO: Michael has a long history is the social services sector. Before taking the lead at 360°kids, a United Way–supported agency, he spent over two decades with the YMCA—spearheading everything from day camps in Niagara Region to a men’s shelter in downtown Hamilton and employment programming in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. But as a father of three, Michael is especially drawn to the youth demographic. “My kids look no different than the young people that I work with everyday,” he says. “I like working with youth because they have so much to offer. If they matter to just one person, that can be the hope they need to turn their life around.”

WHY: In March, 360°kids was named “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards. And with good reason. Thanks to a partnership with the Regional

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Municipality of York, 360°kids is operating out of a new 20,000-square-foot facility in Richmond Hill, increasing its youth drop-in capacity. Prior to the expansion, there were only 27 shelter beds dedicated to youth throughout the rapidly-growing region. “Housing is a major issue in York Region, especially for young people who are experiencing issues at home,” explains Michael. “These crucial spaces allow youth to live semi-independently while accessing the supports they need to get back on their feet.”

Michael celebrates 360°kids' award for "Best Non-Profit" at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

Michael celebrates 360°kids’ award for “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

It’s an issue Michael knows well—because it hits close to home. For years, his sister struggled with addiction and mental health issues, and, at just 16, found herself in and out of precarious housing. “It can happen to anyone and any family,” says Michael. “This cause drives me because if my sister had access to an organization like 360°kids growing up, she might have broken that pattern a long time ago.”

But Michael’s impact is more than just bricks-and-mortar improvements. His team has also been the brains behind 360° Experience, which invites business and community leaders to experience a day in the life of homeless youth—braving the cold, hunger and isolation. “I wanted to do something that really has an impact,” he says. “You might only endure these struggles for one day, but it’s an experience that will last a lifetime.”

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

WHAT’S NEXT: Drawing on innovative ideas from across the globe, Michael is now piloting a preventative program—in partnership with Raising the Roof—that will see outreach workers visiting schools to identify early signs of struggle that could lead to homelessness. He’s also working to create the first LGBTQ youth shelter in York Region, and plans to have 360°kids become the first Night Stop-accredited agency in Canada—a UK-based program that matches individuals and families who have space in their home to young people in need. “It would only cost $4,000 a year to place a child in an actual home—whether it’s a couple whose grown children have moved out or a senior who feels isolated and could use some extra help around the house,” he explains. “It would be beneficial to both parties, and the best part: a child would have a real place to call home.”

GOOD ADVICE:

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Join us in ensuring young people have access to the opportunities they need to thrive. Subscribe to Community Matters and see all the good work people like you make possible.

UPDATE: What is the precarity penalty?

Our guest blogger this week is Michelynn Laflèche, United Way Toronto & York Region’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation. Prior to joining United Way, she worked as a consultant with Civic Action and was Chief Executive of the Runnymede Trust, a leading social policy and research charity in the UK.

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Michelynn Laflèche
Director, Research, Public Policy and Evaluation
United Way Toronto & York Region

Job precarity is having a negative impact on the wellbeing of our residents—it’s something we’ve been talking about in our research for some time now.

What we’ve discovered in our newly released report, The Precarity Penalty: Executive Summary York Region is that this issue is widespread across York Region.  In fact, more than 40% of workers are in jobs with some degree of insecurity.

York Region—a place many consider affluent—is not immune to the problems facing Toronto’s downtown.

Our data tells us that people’s anxiety about work is interfering with their personal and family lives. More than half of the people surveyed earning low or middle incomes are experiencing this type of anxiety. The uncertainty of not knowing if and when you’ll work can be socially isolating.

Precarity-Penalty-YR-Bucket 3Not having access to childcare is another huge challenge for York Region residents—63.6% say it interferes with their work-life. How do you schedule your child’s daycare if your work schedule changes weekly or daily?

These challenges are real and significant, but they don’t paint the entire picture.  We also learned that in some instances, York Region residents actually fare better. Based on the sample size, we can’t draw definitive conclusions, but can make some interesting comparisons. We found that York Region residents who are precariously employed earn 10% higher individual incomes and 7% have higher household income.

All of this data is another important step in guiding and informing our work.  It underscores the need to address the growing issues that surround precarious employment and our commitment to do more.

And we are prepared to do more around this work with the help of our partners across all sectors. We’re committed to building a dynamic labour market, ensuring jobs are a pathway to employment and enhancing social supports for a new and improved labour market.

What is “hidden” homelessness?

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Stephen Gaetz
Director, Canadian Observatory on 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, made up of nine mostly suburban municipalities, homelessness is a growing issue with its own set of complex challenges. One in 8 people also live in poverty.

Imagine a City spoke with Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, co-author of a report with United Way about youth homelessness in York Region and York University professor about what we can do about it.

1. Homelessness is often hidden: “There’s often public perception that homelessness is a downtown issue, but it’s not,” says Gaetz. “There’s poverty in the suburbs, but it’s often hidden.” A lack of affordable housing is a serious community issue in York Region—housing prices have soared in the past decade and the rental market is dismal. With the wait list for rental housing higher than the number of units, individuals and families experiencing poverty have no choice but to stay in inadequate housing. For example, some “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.Suburbs

2. Homelessness is spread out: When we think of Toronto, the city’s busy urban core often comes to mind. But in York Region, where its nine municipalities don’t have a downtown centre, services and supports are situated few and far between, making them difficult to identify and access. As a result, mobility is a major issue and homelessness is dispersed. “The transit infrastructure in York is largely built to accommodate privately-owned vehicles making it tough for homeless individuals to move throughout the region and access services,” says Gaetz. “People often have to leave their communities to access help. In turn, they lose their natural supports—including family, friends and neighbours—all key factors that can help someone move forward and avoid homelessness.”

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To better understand this issue in York Region, United Way led the region’s first-ever Point-in-Time Count on Jan. 20 and 21. “Determining the extent, demographics, and needs of those experiencing absolute homelessness—in shelters and on the streets—at a single point in time is key to reducing it,” says Michelynn Laflèche, Director of Research, Public Policy & Evaluation at United Way Toronto & York Region. “This information will help us inform strategies to champion change in the region.”

3. Community supports are sparse: Unprecedented population growth in York Region and higher proportions of newcomers and seniors have led to service gaps that make it hard for individuals to access crucial support. Gaetz says in Toronto, for example, there are roughly 4,000 shelter beds for the city’s 2.6 million residents. However, in York, there are only 130 beds for a population of 1 million. “Emergency supports are good quality in York Region, but there are not a lot of them,” says Gaetz.

LeavingHomeReportFor example, Blue Door Shelters, supported by United Way, operates the only family shelter in York Region providing food, counselling and a safe and supportive refuge for homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless. Adds Gaetz: “If community services aren’t visible in your neighbourhood, you might assume they’re not there. This causes people to either uproot and go to Toronto for support, or not access crucial services at all.” But Gaetz says an increase in more than just emergency supports is needed in the region. “We need to prevent people from becoming homeless, while also supporting others to move out of homelessness,” he says. “Shifting our way of thinking from emergency response to prevention and transition can have a big impact.”

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What does homelessness look like where you live?  Visit ProjectUnited, for eye-opening videos, audio and written stories of people experiencing poverty right here at home. Conceived and created by two engaged Ryerson University students, ProjectUnited is a volunteer-driven partnership with United Way that aims to raise awareness of the barriers people face in our community.

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What if you had to choose?

2015_Make_The_Month_Homepage_SlideImagine having to choose between eating or keeping a roof over your head? Or what if staying home to care for your sick child could cost you your job? For 1 in 4 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region, these daily scenarios are a harsh reality. That’s because when you live in poverty—there’s no easy decision.

Thankfully, many of us don’t have to make these difficult choices. But how do you understand poverty if you don’t live it?  For Make the Month Day, we’re inviting you to try out United Way’s digital poverty experience to get a better idea of what it’s like to live on a low income. Let us know what you think and test your knowledge of poverty in Toronto and York Region by completing this quiz.

For detailed answers, click here.

3 things you should know about income inequality

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_Good-to-knowWhen most of us think of income inequality, we think about gaps between those who are doing well financially and those who are not. But you may be surprised to learn that income inequality is about much more than just a pay cheque.

Here are 3 more things you might not know about income inequality:  

1. It undermines fairness: With the rise of income inequality, it’s not simply your effort that determines whether or not you’re going to do well. Increasingly it’s circumstances beyond your control including your background, where you were born, how much money your parents make or your postal code,” says Pedro Barata, United Way’s VP of Communications & Public Affairs. This creates deep divides between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” undermining fairness and creating an environment where hard work is no longer seen as a guarantee for success. Watch this video to learn more about the importance of ensuring individuals and families across our region have equal opportunities to build better lives and stronger futures.

2. It makes entire communities feel “invisible:” “People living in poverty will often talk about lack of access to material items such as money for transit or food. But they may also mention their inability to do things like buy a birthday present for a friend, go to the movies or catch up over a cup of coffee. Sometimes they can’t afford to leave their house,” says Barata. “All of this adds up to social isolation and feeling excluded. People living in poverty will often say they’re invisible.” There is also a tendency towards thinking that the voices of people living on a low income aren’t important. “Who gets to talk to politicians? Who gets quoted in newspapers? Who gets to go to meetings? For a variety of reasons, it’s typically not people living on a low income,” adds Barata. “Often they’re too busy holding down a number of jobs and they live in communities that are too often left out of decision making processes. The consequence? Entire neighbourhoods become divided along income and social lines and we don’t live up to the promise of being a region “where everyone can come from all walks of life and live in harmony.”

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3. It deflates our hope for the future: Rapidly growing income inequality is worrisome to all of us. In a recent report conducted by United Way, 86% of survey respondents indicated that they felt the gap between those with high and low incomes is too large. A joint Toronto Region Board of Trade and United Way report also points to a decidedly gloomy outlook as only the smallest number of citizens believe the next generation will experience the progress achieved by previous generations. In fact, for the first time in a century, young people are expected to be materially less well off in adulthood than their parents. For youth facing additional barriers—including poverty, lower levels of education and discrimination—the challenges are even greater. 

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To learn more about how we’re working together with our partners to bring hope, fairness and opportunity to individuals and families across our region, read this guest post from Michelynn Laflèche, United Way’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation.

 

3 things you might not know about poverty

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_Good-to-knowDid you know that 1 in 5 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region live in poverty? It’s true. Every day, individuals and families across our region face homelessness, unemployment, a lack of affordable housing and the effects of deepening income inequality. These startling facts are a vital reminder that there is still much work to be done in addressing this complex issue.

Here are three things you might not know about poverty here in Toronto and York Region:

1. Nearly one-third of all children in Toronto live in low-income households.

According to a report released last year, 15 of Toronto’s 140 neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 40% or more. Fifty-five neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 30% or more. In places like Regent Park, Moss Park and Thorncliffe, child poverty rates climb to more than 50%. Poverty in childhood can have a lifelong impact—affecting a child’s ability to grow, develop and learn. It is up to all of us to address this growing issue and to work together to make investments in children and families that will have a lasting impact on the social, economic and physical well-being of our whole community.

Test 2. Poverty is concentrated in certain neighbourhoods.

Entire neighbourhoods are falling behind when the gap between those who are doing well financially—and those who are not—continues to widen. The number of low-income communities in 2005 was 271, compared to 97 in 1970, leading to a geographic concentration of poverty, particularly in Toronto’s inner suburbs. Our research also shows us that income inequality has grown faster in Toronto than in other major Canadian cities, outpacing both provincial and national averages.  Opportunities to build a good life—including quality jobs, affordable housing and meaningful social networks—aren’t equally available to everyone.

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3. Poverty impacts decision making.

A lack of food or money can cause people to focus obsessively on the object of scarcity, leaving less “mental bandwidth” for other aspects of a person’s life. That’s according to Dr. Eldar Shafir, professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and the co-author of Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much. “There’s a lot of data indicating people living in poverty don’t do well with decision-making. So the question is: Are they in poverty because of bad decisions, or are the bad decisions somehow the result of poverty?” says Shafir. Watch the video to learn more about psychological issues related to poverty.

Want to learn more about how your support is changing the lives of people living in poverty? Subscribe to this blog to read the latest insight from thought-leaders across our community and stay up-to-date on important social issues.

Toronto’s first-ever anti-poverty plan passes

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Toronto City Council voted overwhelmingly on July 7 to approve the interim report on the city’s poverty reduction strategy: TOProsperity. The plan calls on a collaborative, community-driven strategy to tackle the effects and root causes of poverty. United Way played a key role in the development of this strategy, by helping residents in priority neighbourhoods connect with city staff during the public consultations that took place.

Here are three things you need to know about #TOProsperity moving forward:

1. A final report on the city’s Poverty Reduction Plan will be presented to city councilors in the fall. The plan will outline a roadmap on how the City and its partners will implement the key recommendations contained in the strategy, including short- and long-term targets and a multi-year funding plan.

2. 2035: The deadline set to achieve an equitable city with opportunity for all Torontonians including: access to good jobs, adequate income, stable housing, affordable transportation, nutritious food, and supportive services.

3. United Way will continue to work with community facilitators and residents to engage people with lived experience of poverty in the implementation phase of the strategy.

Residents speak up on poverty reduction

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United Way community facilitator Harriet Cain

The City of Toronto recently released its Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy,which calls on a collaborative, community-driven strategy to end poverty. The City of Toronto partnered with United Way to ensure the strategy was reflective of those voices with lived experience of poverty. Working together, we helped identify 23 community facilitators from priority neighbourhoods and community agencies/groups. We then partnered with the Maytree Foundation to train residents to lead small group discussions aimed at engaging community members in the process. A total of eight, City-led “Days of Dialogue” were held across Toronto earlier this year.  Imagine a City spoke to Harriet Cain, one of United Way’s community facilitators, on why it’s vitally important for residents with lived experience of poverty to add their voice to the conversation.

Tell us a little bit about yourself: I’m originally from Barbados. I moved to Toronto in the late 1980s. I lived in Brampton for a year and then moved to Scarborough. I came here on a work permit from my country and I had high hopes for building a good future. But I didn’t get a lot of help from friends and family when I first got here. Back then there were no Community Hubs and it was hard to access social services. I found it difficult to pay the rent and my work as a cook and personal support worker was never steady. I relied on food banks.

Tell us a little bit about your neighbourhood: I currently live in Taylor Massey, which is considered a priority neighbourhood. It’s a big community, and many times, you cannot walk from one part of the neighbourhood to another without having to go around something. These physical barriers cause us to be isolated from one another. It’s quite dismal and dark in some parts of the neighbourhood. In terms of food, I would call our community a ‘food desert.’ Healthy, fresh food is far away from us. We also find that the grocery stores around here are expensive. We are a very diverse community. We have European, Caribbean and South Asian cultural groups. But many of us are struggling for food, for rent, for jobs and for childcare. It’s very frustrating for the women who have professions and can’t find jobs that utilize their trained credentials. Mental health is also a challenge for many people in our neighbourhood.

How did you become involved in Toronto’s Poverty Reduction consultations? Describe your role as a Community Facilitator. I have been a volunteer with United Way’s Action for Neighborhood Change in Taylor Massey for about seven years. I was really happy when they asked me if I’d be interested in helping to lead small group discussions among residents with lived experience of poverty.  My job was to listen to the others, to make sure they understood and to motivate them to add their voice. I helped keep the dialogue running. I was able to use my own experience of living in poverty to help other residents clarify, and expand on, their own challenges and experiences.

How important was United Way in helping facilitate these discussions? United Way has long-term, well-established relationships with residents and community groups/agencies in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods. They helped the City bring residents to the table to have these important conversations. They helped give us a voice and allowed our voice to get stronger and to get bigger.

 What did you hear from residents at these community consultation sessions? We heard from a wide cross-section of people across Toronto. They’re struggling for food, they’re struggling for rent, they’re struggling to get daycare so that they can go to work. One young woman we heard from had just graduated from college and was frustrated because she couldn’t find a job. She had to give up her apartment and move back home because there was no money coming in. Lots of residents spoke about their struggles accessing healthy, affordable, nutritious food. We also heard a lot about employment. Some residents felt they were being discriminated against because of their postal code even though they had all the credentials for the job. Many of the people we spoke with were employed, but were earning minimum wage. They were working two jobs but still unable to purchase healthy food. They found it very difficult to find extra money to take their children to extracurricular or entertainment activities, even just once a month. Finding money for transit was problematic too.

Why is it so important for resident voices to be included in Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy? People who are impoverished are not ignorant, we understand our needs. That is a big myth that needs to be removed. Even the uneducated person still knows what they need. If we are going to reduce, or end, poverty in our city, it’s vitally important that the people with lived experience of poverty have a say in how the problem gets fixed. You might not be able to give me everything, but to honour and help me, I believe that you need to talk to me. If I needed shoes, for example, you might think I need shoes with heels. But I don’t even like shoes with heels. It’s important to take the time to really understand how I’m going to benefit from your help.

What did it mean to you to be personally involved in these City-led consultations? I was very moved that the City was at the table with the residents. They heard the voices and saw the faces of poverty.  They heard about our struggles, they heard about our frustrations and they heard that residents are eager to do better. They came into our neighbourhoods and let us know that they are here for us. I am hopeful that we can work together to create real change.

TO Prosperity: Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy goes to City Council on July 7 and 8, 2015, for approval. Follow United Way on Twitter and Facebook for updates and use #TOProsperity to join the conversation.

 

Levelling the playing field for Toronto

Michelynn LaflecheOur guest blogger this week is Michelynn Laflèche, United Way Toronto’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation. She recently appeared on TVO’s The Agenda to discuss our region’s rapidly-changing labour market and is regularly quoted in the media on socioeconomic issues including employment precarity. Prior to joining United Way, she worked as a consultant with Civic Action and was Chief Executive of the Runnymede Trust, a leading social policy and research charity in the UK.

What happens when all Torontonians don’t have equal access to opportunity?

That’s the focus of our groundbreaking new report—The Opportunity Equation. Our research shows us that rising income inequality in Toronto is undermining fairness and causing a divide between Torontonians who are doing well financially—and those who are not.

Opportunities to build a good life—including quality jobs, affordable housing and meaningful social networks—aren’t equally available to everyone in our city.

According to the study— conducted in partnership with EKOS Research Associates and the University of Toronto—income inequality has grown faster here than in other major Canadian cities, outpacing both provincial and national averages. From 1980 to 2005, income inequality has grown by 31% in Toronto, more than double the national rate of 14%.

In 2000, Toronto’s income equality rate surpassed that of other major Canadian cities, and by 2010 found itself in the unenviable top place. People are also worried about this growth, with 86% of our survey respondents indicating that they feel the gap between those with high and low incomes is too large.

The numbers also tell us that hard work is not seen as a guarantee for success. People feel that circumstances beyond individuals’ control, like one’s postal code, family income and background, have become barriers to a good future. Inequality is also deflating our hope for the future. More than half of us worry the next generation will be worse off than their parents.

The result? Entire neighbourhoods fall behind. Our city’s youth face an increasingly uncertain economic future. And the social fabric of Toronto is threatened.

Levelling the playing field for everyone in our city will require the commitment of multiple partners including government, the private sector, labour groups and community organizations.

Our Blueprint for Action lays out three goals and eight priority areas to address the issue of income inequality and its impact on opportunity in Toronto. This includes creating partnerships for youth success and ensuring our city’s young people have the education and employment opportunities they need to build good futures.

It also means leveraging economic development for community benefit, ensuring fairness for all workers and building tools to help promote quality jobs. A renewed focus on affordable housing, poverty reduction and building strong neighbourhoods will also help ensure we can remove barriers to opportunity based on background and circumstances.

The time to act is now. Working together we can restore hope, fairness and opportunity in our city. Learn more here and join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook using #buildingopportunity

 

 

Closing Toronto’s prosperity gap

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Beth Wilson, Toronto Region Board of Trade Chair

Our guest blogger this week is Beth Wilson, chair of the Toronto Region Board of Trade and Managing Partner of KPMG’s  Toronto office. She also leads the auditing firm’s community leadership strategy and has been active on  United Way Toronto’s Campaign Cabinet and with the Women Gaining Ground initiative.

Imagine 520,000 new jobs opening in the Toronto region over the next five years. This is not just an idea but a reality of what we could be seeing based on economic and demographic growth, and the retirement of older workers. At the same time, imagine that despite all this growth, many of our own residents will not be able to tap into these opportunities.

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“Closing the Prosperity Gap” examines solutions for achieving economic and social success.

A report released last week by the Toronto Region Board of Trade and United Way TorontoClosing the Prosperity Gap, reveals the emerging paradox of workers who should benefit from an increase in the number of jobs openings, but could continue to face barriers to accessing these opportunities.This is a prospect that is, quite simply, unacceptable. In a region that prides itself on balancing a high-degree of social cohesion with a high quality of life and economic competitiveness, this potential reality is troubling.

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40% of people in Hamilton-GTA are precariously employed

As the report highlights, we are facing a prosperity gap in our region. It is based on geography, job quality and is generational. We are seeing that where you live determines the level of access you have to services, transit and good jobs. There are also more and more people working in temporary and part-time jobs, often with no security or benefits.

For our young people finding jobs is increasingly difficult — youth unemployment is above 18% across the Toronto region and nearly 22% in the City of Toronto. Newcomers are disproportionately affected as well. In fact, we’ve seen that undervaluing newcomer’s qualifications and experience is costing our economy. As the Board revealed in 2010, the estimated cost to the Toronto region’s economy is between $1.5 billion and $2.25 billion every year.

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Education to employment programs help young people like LaShane succeed

Fortunately, there is a way forward. Closing the prosperity gap is possible, but it requires immediate political leadership and action. During this election, the Board and United Way are calling on all civic leaders to commit to working with business, labour, the community and educational institutions to respond to these big challenges. A better quality of life for residents is not only better for the community as a whole, it’s good for business — it will attract investment, create jobs and spur wealth creation.

We are making an important contribution by providing new labour market forecasts for the region over the next five years. This regional job demand data—a first for Toronto in many years— provides five-year projections based on industry, occupation and geographic locations in the region. The report tells us the fastest job growth is expected to be concentrated in finance, insurance and in professional, scientific and technical services. The second fastest sector will be health and social services.

This information is critical now because it will enable job seekers, career counsellors, and colleges and universities to make informed decisions about career paths and educational programs. By understanding where the region’s labour market is headed, young people, newcomers and others embarking on new career paths can successfully transition into rewarding employment.

The report draws attention to some real solutions that leaders can champion and embrace across the Toronto region. They include ideas like community benefits provisions in major government procurements, intelligent zoning, social enterprise, and nurturing business clusters — all of which will help create local opportunities and strengthen our region.

Overall our report underscores the need for collaboration — having every sector, public, private, labour and non-profit at the table ready to work in new ways.

We can, and must choose to build a strong region with a high quality of life and a growing economy. The time for a more prosperous, productive, and socially inclusive Toronto region is now.

What do these things have in common?

1. A time-pressed CEO, faced with a week of triple-booked meetings and urgent decisions to be made.
2. A person on a diet, counting calories.
3. A low-wage North American city-dweller, counting pennies.

According to Dr. Eldar Shafir—a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and the co-author of Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much—the answer is simple: They’re all facing some form of scarcity.

“When you’re facing a lack—of time, money, food—you tend to focus obsessively on the object of the scarcity,” says Shafir. “That leaves less mental room for other aspects of your life.”

This drain on what Shafir calls “mental bandwidth” explains why poverty can be so taxing, emotionally and intellectually. But poverty, says Shafir, is even more stressful than many other forms of scarcity, because the stakes are so much higher. “If a middle-class professional makes a bad call at work, they might fail at a particular task or project,” he says. “But if a person living at the precipice of poverty makes a bad decision, the result could be far worse—eviction, for example.”

With over half a million people in Toronto living in poverty, that’s a lot of lost bandwidth. And with the release of Ontario’s new Poverty Reduction Strategy, United Way Toronto and the Wellesley Institute co-hosted a presentation and discussion with Shafir last month to dive into the psychological issues related to poverty.

“There’s lot of data indicating people living in poverty don’t do well with decision-making. So the question is: Are they in poverty because of bad decisions, or are the bad decisions somehow the result of poverty?”

Shafir cites studies indicating that people living on significantly low incomes often perform poorly on intelligence tests, when simultaneously contemplating difficult financial scenarios—but those intelligence deficits disappear when the money concerns are removed. Similar results have been observed in people living with any form of scarcity, including time scarcity, which impairs decision-making in a way that also has a measurable effect on intelligence tests.

Comparing poverty to other, relatable forms of scarcity (like the aforementioned time scarcity of the busy executive) help to create what Shafir calls an “empathy bridge.”

“The behaviour of people living in poverty looks a lot less strange when you consider that any form of scarcity lends itself to making snap decision, often bad decisions,” he says. “Like when we’re juggling a lot of demands on our time.”

No surprise, then that he supports public policy that can help with that everyday juggling, and “simply, provide more bandwidth.”

“I believe in government intervention,” he says, “so in many ways Canadians have it better than Americans….The five year plan Ontario has is a wonderful way to conduct policy and think about these things on a regular basis. Just keeping this in the public discussion—that’s one of the most important things we can do.”

Interested in knowing more? Check out this 2011 TedX presentation by Dr. Shafir:

 

Extra! Extra! 2014 City Budget good news for Torontonians

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Nauman Khan,
United Way, Public Affairs

This week we’re welcoming Nauman Khan as our guest blogger. He is a member of United Way Toronto’s Communications and Public Affairs team.  Thanks to a career in broadcast journalism and politics, he has built a strong understanding of how governments influence community building through strategic investments.  He also thinks Toronto is the best city in the world to live, work and raise a family.

It’s budget season in the City of Toronto, and while it may not be the most headline-grabbing time of year, it is one of the most important—this is when key decisions are made about where the City will focus its funding and its efforts over the coming year.

And this year’s budget, approved on January 30, had some great news for Torontonians, making progress in several areas with a strong link to United Way’s priorities.

Of course, United Way Toronto is already working with the City in a number of ways—on our Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy, to close the gap between the inner suburbs and downtown Toronto; on Tower Neighbourhood renewal; on nutrition and food security; and on youth employment opportunities resulting from new transit investments.

This year’s budget was approved on January 30, and we saw progress in three more areas with a strong link to United Way’s priorities:

Creating more youth lounges
These spaces will provide a wide range of services and, more importantly, physical space, for youth to engage in everything from arts and recreation to networking and career building. City Council approved the creation of 10 such spaces across the city, starting with four this year. (The city will work with United Way and other partners to determine locations.)

Cost of Living Adustment (COLA) increase for community agencies
COLA is critical to ensuring that these agencies are able to meet inflationary pressures, so City Council went a step further and approved additional funding for agencies that had been recommended by staff to receive public funds—but which had not been approved to in a previous version of the budget.

Improving student nutrition
The Student Nutrition Program (SNP) helps deliver nutritious snacks across Toronto’s schools, especially in neighbourhoods where families may struggle to feed their children well. Not only did City Council approve an inflationary increase to cover the cost of food, but it also passed two other investments: to expand the program to more schools, and increase the City’s share in the total cost of SNP.

Sometimes we can take for granted that really important things are happening at City Hall, that have a direct positive impact on the lives of everyday citizens. While these aren’t the kinds of things that always grab the public and media attention, this year’s budget included a lot of great news—and it really should have made bigger headlines.

Warming up winter for everyone

As Canadians, we’ll go to almost any lengths to fight the winter’s chill. Consider: In 1996, a city councillor in Saskatoon endorsed spending $80 million to build a climate-controlled glass atrium, to be called “Atreos,” over part of that city’s downtown. (No, it didn’t happen.)

To date, no one has proposed building a giant glass dome over Toronto. There are certainly some of us who might appreciate it, however, especially as we head into the coldest months of the year.

There is no “easy” time to be living on the streets or in and out of shelters, but winter is certainly the hardest. The season brings us a lot of news about the hardships faced by Torontonians who are homeless, and with over 5,000 people estimated to be in need of a place to sleep on any given night, there are only about 4,000 shelter beds city-wide. (The city opens up emergency beds open when the temperature drops to 15 below, but not enough to make up the difference—and besides, spending the night outside in any sub-zero temperature is dangerous.)

But it’s not just people who are homeless for whom winter poses unique challenges. It’s everyone struggling to make ends meet, and in 2013, that’s more Torontonians than ever before. According to the City of Toronto:

  • 87,000 Torontonians are on the wait-list for affordable housing, almost as many as there are units in total (approximately 95,000).
  • Between April 2012 and March 2013, there were 1,120,000 visits to food banks in Toronto.
  • Use of shelter beds went up 3.6 percent from 2011 to 2012—nightly use consistently exceeds 90 percent of available spaces.

And more than 557,000 people—one-fifth of the city’s population— are living in poverty. Many live in our inner suburbs in under-serviced tower neighbourhoods, where, astonishingly, up to 60 percent of residents don’t have driver’s licenses. This means they rely on public transit and their own two feet to get around low-density, suburban communities, where a walk to the store is a lot longer than a quick trip down the block.

Of course, there are ways you can help, like visiting our Warmest Wishes 2013 Gift Catalogue and purchase one of United Way’s winter-care gift packages: everything from a Personal Care Kit to a full Winter Outfitters Package full of warm clothing. It’s a small thing, but it makes a difference.

Whatever we do this holiday season to make 2014 easier for our neighbours, let’s be thankful we live in a city full of so many caring people.

Warming up winter

Winter is still officially three weeks away, but we all know Canadian seasons don’t exactly stick to the calendar’s stipulations.

And as November turns to December, and the weather turns colder, sharper and harsher, we’re starting to hear a lot more about Torontonians who are struggling–whether experiencing homelessness or facing personal circumstances that make the winter months difficult. Fortunately, there are some excellent community agencies working in our city that are helping to turn up the heat in a slew of ways—from warm clothing to hot turkey dinners. Here are a few examples that United Way donors help support and they top this year’s “Nice” list:

  • Sistering serves a sit-down turkey dinner for over 300 low-income women living with homelessness or health issues. Guests also receive a $25 gift card to purchase food, clothing and other essentials. The cost for each meal and gift is tiny for lifting spirits that high. (For more on Sistering’s work, check out Toronto Star‘s profile from this summer.)
  • Many adults living with severe mental illness find themselves isolated from their families, which is especially painful during the holidays. The Canadian Mental Health Association of Toronto provides winter clothing and personal-care items, along with small gifts that parents can give to their children.
  • Jessie’s—The June Callwood Centre for Young Women welcomes 150 young moms and their children for a festive meal and pictures with Santa. And what’s a visit to the man in red without a small gift to mark the occasion? It’s one small way that your support makes a big difference. (Local blog She Does the City featured a moving personal story about a young women’s experience at Jessie’s.)

These are just a few of the many examples of how community agencies and generous donors are making our city a better place this winter, and throughout the year. Drop us a line in the comments and let us know what you think Toronto needs as the mercury drops.

When good advice goes bad

This week, Imagine a City is joined by guest blogger John Stapleton, founder of Open Policy Ontario and a fellow with the Metcalf Foundation. He has some much-needed financial advice for low-income earners, just in time for Financial Literacy Month. Here, he provides a rundown of what low-income earners really need to know, and how the financial-services industry can serve them better. (For more, see his comprehensive report, “Planning for Retirement on a Low Income.”)

People living on low incomes might wonder how the financial advice they receive differs from the advice given to middle- and high-income earners. The reality? It doesn’t. That’s a problem, because it can be toxic to those facing poverty. They live in a parallel universe where most, if not all, of the rules are different.

When assisting low-income people, for instance, many advisors will tell them to max out their RRSPs, forget about Tax Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs), and wait until 65 or later to sign up for Canada Pension. They’ll also be advised to look closely at their taxes to capitalize on tax credits.

This is the same advice given (rightfully) to middle- and high-income earners, but for people making ends meet on lower incomes, it’s exactly wrong.

Low-income retirees are likely to receive something called the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), paid in addition to Old Age Security. So they should actually do the following: cash in their RRSPs before age 65, load up their TFSAs (if they have any savings), and apply for early CPP, around age 60. They should also forget about the non-refundable tax credits they will likely not need.

So, why is the right advice typically not given to low-income earners?

Two reasons: The first is that the GIS is an entitlement—the dreaded “E” word—and not a tax credit. Financial advisors are loathe to tell anyone to organize their affairs to maximize entitlements because entitlements are often seen as a drain on the public purse in a way that tax credits are not. The second is that the financial-advisory community doesn’t generally know much about the GIS.

Perhaps there’s a third reason. I’ve heard it before: there simply isn’t much money to be made advising low-income earners. And that’s true if information isn’t tailored to their specific needs, but if these individuals got the right advice up front, they would have money. A lot more money. Maybe financial institutions would even be justified in charging them for it. It’s just good, useful advice, after all.

Making the most of what we make

DSC_6265Maria is a 24-year-old single mother to three young children, living near Jane and Finch in Toronto. While taking care of herself and her family as she looked for employment, she found that her limited finances didn’t stretch very far. At least, they didn’t until recently.

At a local community agency, Maria enrolled in a financial literacy workshop that is tailored to people living on a low income. She learned the basics of how to track her finances, how credit ratings are determined and other important financial information that gave her the foundation to realize a new financial future for herself and her children (you can read more of Maria’s story here ).

The barriers faced by Maria are like those of countless Torontonians who are not only living on a low income, but also facing other mounting challenges, including an unemployment rate of 8.6% in the Greater Toronto Area (above the national average of 6.9%) and record levels of household debt.

November is Financial Literacy Month, a great time to reflect on why financial literacy matters, why it’s a skill we have to learn and, in terms of the information offered, why one size doesn’t fit all. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting some information about United Way’s work in financial literacy , profiling some of our incredible partners and other organizations who are doing impressive work in the community on this very issue. You’ll also meet a few people whose lives were changed when they connected with programs geared to their particular situation. Check it out this month by liking us at Facebook.com/UnitedWayToronto and following us on Twitter.

By subscribing to the blog, you can join us November 18, when we tackle the gap between the financial literacy advice that is generally offered and the needs of lower-income earners—and why that gap is a serious concern.

What’s community all about?

What does community mean? We tried answering it ourselves in our 2013 campaign video.

Of course, it’s tough to pin down (and you can let us know if you disagree). There are 2.7 million of us in the city, and over six million in the GTA, and no two will answer quite the same way. Every street, household, church, mosque, temple, community centre and workplace is a community in miniature. Every international diaspora is its own community—and Toronto has representatives from 230 countries. As well, every one of us belongs to multiple communities, and each one changes every single day, as people move in and out, face success and setbacks, are born and grow old.

So nailing down exactly what we mean by community is a slippery task, but let’s start with the city’s 140 designated neighbourhoods.

Fortunately, the city makes it easy to take a very detailed, very local look at every single one of these neighbourhoods, with Wellbeing Toronto, an interactive map on the city’s website that breaks down a huge amount of data about each neighbourhood. You can zoom right down in on your community, and examine everything from income levels to tree cover to how many Urdu speakers there are nearby. And you can compare that data with the same information for every community in the city—it’s an illuminating look at Toronto. (And, if you’re so inclined, an easy way to wile away an hour or so with the wealth of data provided.)

You might start to notice a few things. Like a troubling discrepancy between the communities with the highest and lowest incomes. In fact, the data makes plainly visible the conclusions of the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre, whose influential report “The Three Cities Within Toronto” highlights the growing divisions between Toronto’s communities on the basis of ethnicity, income, and geography. Our own research, Poverty By Postal Code and Vertical Poverty in particular, adds more insight into this widening gap, showing how poverty is concentrating in some of Toronto’s inner suburban neighbourhoods.

But there’s good news: While we can discuss endlessly what “community” means, there’s consensus that we have a wealth of data about those communities. The data and research  shows us exactly where our challenges are. Now we just need to tackle them—and each community has its role to play.

We’d love to hear what community means to you—what is your community, and what do you think of when you hear the word?