Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation

This blog post has been written by Michelynn Laflèche, United Way Greater Toronto’s Vice President of Strategy, Research & Policy. She is one of the co-authors of Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation report.

The GTA is more divided than ever. How did this happen? Our beacon to the world is that we’re a place that is fair, safe, and comfortable in our diversity. Indeed, Toronto’s motto is “Diversity is our Strength”.

But, the findings in Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation reveal that we are telling ourselves a 35-year old story about fairness and opportunity. One that is simply not accurate in today’s GTA. I believe that evidence-based research is the first step towards meaningful action. And this data — the most robust source we have to date on income inequality — tells a troubling story. It should spur us all to action with a new level of urgency.

So, how did we get here? It’s about a lot of things, but mostly it comes down to the economy and the labour market, and the decisions we have made as a society that have shaped them. At a personal level, it’s about access to the opportunities to build a good life. And this data shows that in today’s GTA, access to opportunity is not shared equally.

First, we need to understand today’s economy and how it’s different from 35 years ago. The economy has certainly seen some ups and downs over the last three decades, but overall it has grown and prosperity is up.

But that prosperity is not shared by everyone. The kinds of jobs in our labour market have changed. More jobs are precarious. Young people today are entering a labour market that is radically different from the one their parents and grandparents enjoyed. There aren’t as many secure jobs with benefits and opportunities to advance. The cost of living has increased. There’s a lack of affordable housing. Put simply, it costs more to get by, but incomes haven’t kept pace, especially for young people, immigrants, and racialized people.

Decades of research have told us that in societies where income is more unequal, access to opportunity — the things you need to build a good life — is also unequal. Rising inequality is making the circumstances you can’t control — like your age, race, where you come from, and even where you live — matter more than individual effort. That means that those who are doing well continue to do well, while those who are not, continue to struggle.

Why? Partly because as people earn less and some fall behind, people get grouped together. We saw how this plays out spatially in our previous report, The Opportunity Equation in the GTA. The GTA, once made up of a majority of evenly-spread middle-income neighbourhoods, is now made up of high- and low-income neighbourhoods geographically separated from each other.

Those low-income neighbourhoods are also disproportionally populated by immigrants and racialized groups. The end result is that racialized and immigrant groups don’t have as much access to the opportunities that provide a higher income.

This trend was confirmed in our Getting Left Behind findings: those who were at the top in 2011 were doing better by 2017, and those who were at the bottom stayed just where they are. And yes, it was immigrants and racialized people who were left behind.

Behind this sits another problem we don’t much like to talk about in the GTA, because we like to believe that diversity is our strength. The massive scale of the 35-year growth of income inequality, whereby immigrants and racialized groups are so clearly being left behind compared to white and Canadian-born groups, demonstrates that contrary to our claims, we have made diversity a barrier. Even to me as a researcher who has been watching this closely for decades, this is shocking.

We must come to terms with the reality that this can’t be happening by chance, this can’t be happening because of different skills, education, cultural practices. This can’t be happening without discrimination of some form — direct or indirect, intentional or unintentional, individual or systemic. It is all at play in different ways, and it is time for us to face that truth.

The extremity of the findings in this report make the issue of inequality in our community #UNIGNORABLE. It is time to face it head on. It is time to fix it. Our report outlines a few recommendations. If we start there, together and immediately, we can not only channel our 35-year old story, we can write an even better one for the twenty-first century and beyond.

While these findings are bleak, I am still hopeful that we can make meaningful change. The reason we tell ourselves the stories about the promise of the GTA as a place that is fair, safe, and diverse is because we want them to be true. It’s an ideal that we, in all our glorious diversity, share. That gives me hope. But let’s face the truth bravely together, so that we can take the right actions.