Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Can we end poverty?

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

Ask the Expert: How are health and poverty related?

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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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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.

5 community events you can’t miss

Toronto Islands, C.N. Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium, Canada’s Wonderland. With the season halfway over, chances are you’ve already visited one of these summer hot spots. So we put together our own list of community events happening right across our region. Get outside, have some fun and get to know a new neighbourhood.

1. HOPE Community Garden BBQ – August 11, 2016

Community Garden BBQLooking for an event that brings together residents, young and old? The 5th Annual HOPE Community Garden BBQ takes place August 11 in Vaughan. It’s organized to celebrate the seniors who help grow and nurture the community garden, many of whom participate in this project through wellness programs funded by United Way. It’s a great opportunity for elderly residents, who are more likely to experience isolation, to participate in a community-building event. Come for the BBQ…and stay for an action-packed day full of intergenerational fun!

2. Dragon Boat Race for United Way – August 13, 2016

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Taking place in beautiful King City, the Dragon Boat Race for United Way is more than just a fundraiser; it’s a community-building opportunity with something for everyone. Watch the paddlers race to support their region while enjoying music, yummy BBQ, and plenty of activities for kids. With 100% of the fundraising from this event going directly to changing lives across our region, it’s sure to be an incredible day!

 

 

 

3. Good Food Market at CICS – August 12 and 26, 2016

Good Food market option 1Show your support for a local community garden in Agincourt by visiting the Good Food Market at the Centre for Immigrant and Community Services, a United Way-supported agency. It’s a great way to get affordable, seasonal, and organic veggies and to see firsthand the vital role innovative urban gardening programs play in helping get healthy, nutritious food to the nearly one in 10 households in Toronto that experience some level of food insecurity.

4. Moonlight movies in the park – August 12-13, 2016

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Want to enjoy a fun flick with your family in some of Toronto’s many beautiful parks? Park People, a non-profit organization, has teamed up with parks and recreation centres across Toronto—including United Way agencies—to bring movies to the masses this summer. Malvern Family Resource Centre is co-hosting The Lego Movie at Little Road Park on August 12 and Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office is co-hosting Madagascar at RV Burgess Park on August 13. Bring your own snacks, camping chairs and blankets and grab a spot for some blockbusters that also bring communities together.

5. Scarborough Community Multicultural Festival – August 5-7, 2016

Multicultural eventCome out to this 3-day festival to celebrate the cuisine, music, and art of the many diverse cultural communities that make up Scarborough. This year, the festival will also host a Canadian citizenship ceremony to welcome some of the nearly 75,000 newcomers who arrive in Toronto and York Region each year. So get out to Scarborough Civic Centre this summer to celebrate your own cultural background or learn something new about your neighbour.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us how you’re getting to know your community this summer!

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.

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.

 

What is the precarity penalty?

Our guest blogger is Dr. Wayne Lewchuk, co-author of The Precarity Penalty: The impact of employment precarity on individuals, households and communities―and what to do about it. Wayne is also a professor at McMaster University’s School of Labour Studies and Department of Economics.

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The Precarity Penalty

Today, PEPSO, a research partnership between United Way Toronto and McMaster University releases its new report, The Precarity Penalty: The impact of employment precarity on individuals, households and communities―and what to do about it. The Precarity Penalty examines the social and economic effects of short-term and insecure employment. It asks, what are the challenges facing workers in short-term employment in terms of getting ahead, establishing healthy households and participating in community life. The findings are troubling.

Uncertain future employment prospects can increase anxiety at home.  Lack of benefits can make even small unexpected medical costs a crisis.  Unpredictable work schedules can make finding suitable childcare very difficult.  The short-term nature of the employment relationship can limit a worker’s access to the training needed to get ahead. Together, the added challenges associated with insecure employment represent The Precarity Penalty.

In short, precarious employment not only creates significant stress on individuals and families today, it also creates conditions that can trap those who are in precarious employment from opportunities to get ahead.

Given that insecure employment is the fastest growing form of employment, we should all be concerned about what this means for our families, our children and our communities.

A new body of research (see references below), much of it focused on the troubles in the U.S. economy, suggests that public policy has fallen short, and at times exacerbated the challenges facing precarious workers. These policies have exposed workers to more economic uncertainty, reduced supports that help build healthy families and made it more difficult than in the past for workers to negotiate improved working conditions. There is evidence that Canada’s own public policy environment has not fared much better in terms of protecting vulnerable workers.

What policy has enabled, policy can change.  It is not inevitable that a growing number of Canadian workers find themselves in relationships that make it difficult to get ahead. The mechanisms we use to regulate labour markets, including how contracts are negotiated, how we set and enforce employment standards, how we support workers between jobs, how quality training is provided, and how workers can finance unexpected health costs and old age were all formed when permanent full-time employment was the norm.

We need to revisit these mechanisms in light of the spread of less secure employment and ensure that our public policies match the realities facing Canadians today.

Other countries have accepted this challenge. Canada can do the same.

REFERENCES

David Weil, The Fissured Workplace

Lawrence Mishel, The State of Working America

Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality

 

 

Calling on the community for mental health support

May 4-10 is Mental Health Week. An opportunity to learn, talk, reflect and engage Canadians on issues related to mental illness.

Research tells us that one in five Canadians will be affected by mental illness each year. We also know that as many as one in three individuals who experienced mental health challenges in the past year were not able to access the support they needed.

The community plays a vital role in supporting individuals with mental health challenges, including frontline, crisis intervention support.

Bell—a workplace leader in mental health awareness, care, access and research—invests in United Way agencies across the country providing frontline crisis intervention services. This investment speaks to the increasing interest in ensuring that critical and immediate supports are in place for people facing mental illness.

For example, Distress Centres, one of United Way’s funded agencies, offers a year-round, 24-7 crisis support telephone line that answers more than 80,000 calls each year. “We are a point-of-first-access for people who are considering suicide or experiencing a mental health crisis,” says Karen Letofskty, the agency’s executive director. “There’s universal access on the phone. If you’re home and you’re feeling immobilized, or if you have financial or transportation issues, you call can us. There’s no fee for service and you can choose to remain anonymous.”

The agency also works with its numerous community partners to provide referrals, offer phone-based support to vulnerable seniors, conduct community education sessions and provide in-person counselling to families who have experienced the loss of a loved one by suicide or homicide.

Frontline, community-based support for at-risk groups— including newcomers and youth—is also of vital importance. Canada’s youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world and stigma prevents many young people from seeking the support they need.

YouthLink, a United Way agency that offers a weekly, walk-in counselling service for individuals aged 12 to 21, offers the crucial mental health support young people need, right when they need it—no waitlists, no appointments, and no fees required. Watch one young man’s inspirational story on his journey from struggling with severe depression to receiving the life-changing support he needed.

“It takes a community to support an individual experiencing emotional difficulty in a crisis,” says Letofsky. “That person is best served when we work together in a coordinated way to ensure that there’s a continuum of service, whether it’s during an acute time or a treatment phase. We all need to be sitting around the table and working together in support of that individual.”

Planning for change in Tower neighbourhoods

Jennifer-Keesmat_606x544As the City of Toronto’s Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat is committed to creating places where people flourish.  Over the past decade, she has been recognized by the Canadian Institute of Planners and OPPI for her innovative work in Canadian municipalities.  Most recently, Jennifer was named as one of the most influential people in Toronto by Toronto Life magazine and one of the most powerful people in Canada by Maclean’s magazine. Her planning practice is characterized by an emphasis on collaborations across sectors, and broad engagement with municipal staff, councils, developers, business leaders, NGOs and residents’ associations.  Jennifer is also a member of United Way Toronto’s  2015 Campaign Cabinet. Imagine a City spoke to Jennifer on why community consultation is key to building more livable neighbourhoods.

One of your key priorities as Chief Planner is to make neighbourhoods across Toronto more livable. What does this mean exactly? Livable communities are complete communities. They’re neighbourhoods where you can undertake many activities, and access most services, within walking distance from home. Things like work, childcare, doctors’ offices, food shops, community centres and playgrounds.  In order for neighbourhoods to be safe and to thrive, they need lots of diversity. They need diversity in terms of ages groups, in terms of uses and in terms of how you can move and walk around.

We know that livability in our city’s inner-suburban “Tower Neighbourhoods” is a serious challenge. Toronto contains the second largest concentration of high-rise buildings in North America. Today there are more than 1,000 of these concrete towers across our inner suburbs. When they were designed in the 1950s primarily for the middle class, they were designed for one “use” only—housing.  Tower Neighbourhoods weren’t planned to be diverse. You couldn’t go to the doctor, you couldn’t buy groceries, you couldn’t go to a restaurant. They quickly became less desirable places to live than other vibrant urban centres. They weren’t well-connected in terms of their pedestrian access and they weren’t connected to transit. These communities were subsequently abandoned by the middle class and became landing pads for new immigrants, many living in poverty.

United Way’s Tower Neighbourhood Renewal strategy aims to improve quality of life for residents in these high-rise communities. An important part of this strategy is consulting with residents who live there and engaging them in the planning process. We consult with thousands of residents in this city every year. But one of the things we’ve discovered is that the participants in our planning process are generally white, middle-class homeowners. Last year, as a result of collaborations with a variety of different partners, including United Way Toronto, we were able to bring in voices from Tower neighbourhoods that desperately needed to be at the table: voices from immigrants, voices from marginalized residents, voices from people struggling with poverty, voices from people that don’t have English as a first language and voices from people who are more reliant on social services in our city. These are the people that typically have a really hard time accessing our processes in the first place. United Way has worked very hard to build trust and relationships within the communities that we would like to better engage in our planning processes. They’ve helped us to understand the poverty that exists in this city and the need to work more intensively in the Tower Neighbourhoods.  Broadening participation in our city building processes underpins creating an equitable city for all Torontonians.

What was the outcome of this community consultation? As a result of tremendous on-going analysis and new collaborations that have involved United Way Toronto, Public Health and the Tower Renewal Office—to name just a few of the players—approximately 500 existing apartment sites in Toronto’s inner suburbs have been identified for inclusion in a new zone—the Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) Zone. Zoning is essentially the regulations and laws that we have in City Planning that determine which uses—commercial, residential, etc.—can go where. The RAC Zone bylaw loosens up what types of uses are permitted in these Tower communities. For example, it will allow small shops, food markets, cafes, learning centres, barbershops, doctor’s offices, community centres and places of worship that are of benefit to local residents. This is a key step towards creating more complete, livable, walkable communities in Toronto’s Tower neighbourhoods.

Talk about some of the other ways you’re engaging Torontonians in the city planning process? We are broadening participation in City Planning with the goal of making Toronto the most engaged city in North America—at least where planning is concerned. We’re beginning to see social media as an essential tool for communicating engagement opportunities with the public and for people who might not otherwise feel comfortable participating in a community meeting due to physical, financial, family or work constraints. As part of our extensive Eglinton Connects study, for example, 25% of participants heard of the opportunity to participate through social media. We’ve also been working with the City Manager’s Office to pilot IdeaSpaceTO, which is a social media tool that facilitates a high-quality online discussion between residents and the City.

 

Why civic engagement matters

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Our guest blogger is Tina Edan, a member of The Maytree Foundation’s communications team. Tina has worked on leadership, storytelling and advocacy initiatives in the non-profit sector for more than 15 years.  

We talk a lot about resident and civic engagement. But what does it really mean? And why is it so important to building a stronger, united city?

We know from our research that people are healthier when they feel like part of a community and when they can count on family, friends and neighbours for support.

They’re also more likely to stay and raise their family in a neighbourhood where they have strong social connections to the people who live there.

Vibrant communities are built from the ground up. This means engaging and enabling the people who live in these communities—big and small— to enact the changes they want to see. Changes they know will help other residents, and entire neighbourhoods, thrive.

The best part about resident and civic engagement? No project or initiative is too small. Sewing clubs. Little free libraries. Community gardens.  All have the power to bring residents together, encourage local leadership, cultivate creativity and strengthen neighbourhoods.

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Another example?  The Toronto Youth Summit, hosted in partnership with United Way Toronto on March 21 and 22, which asked our city’s young people how they would create possibility for youth in Toronto. To read some of their inspiring ideas, click here.

 

 

Need some more suggestions on how to get engaged with your city? How to transform ideas into action? Here’s a sampling of civic engagement initiatives and activities across Toronto—and Canada:

  • What better way to generate new ideas than over a meal? In October 2014, through 1000 Dinners TO, 1,000 people hosted dinners for up to 10 people across the city. They discussed how to make Toronto an even better place.
  • We Are Cities is a national campaign that engages Canadians to shape a vision and action plan for building cities that are exciting and healthy places to live, work and play.
  • These days, if it’s an idea worth following, it has a hashtag. #2forTO is a campaign initiated by Metro Morning to activate civic engagement in our city through small, achievable commitments from creating street libraries to picking up litter.
  • If you’re looking for a menu of opportunities to share, discuss and create the future of Toronto, you’ll want to check out Shape My City, a platform that aggregates ideas from people across the city on how to improve life in Toronto.
  • And finally…there’s 100in1Day, a city-wide civic engagement festival co-presented by United Way Toronto and Evergreen. On June 6, 2015, you can join thousands of Torontonians as they engage in small-scale events—everything from taking over parking spots to planting gardens—that result in stronger, more connected and resilient communities.

Through connection we can cultivate ideas; through action we can make change. And today, we have more opportunities to engage than ever.

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

 

 

Designing a blueprint for social change

sm_Zahra EZahra Ebrahim is the principal and founder of archiTEXT, a design think tank and consultancy in Toronto. She is also the recipient of a 2014 Bhayana award for her role in the Community Design Initiative and teaches design at OCAD and the University of Toronto. Imagine a City spoke with this up-and-coming urban designer to discuss how design can be a powerful vehicle for social change.

Tell us a little more about archiTEXT and the idea behind ‘design thinking’: Our organization works primarily with the public sector—government, charities and not-for-profits—to help support community projects. Design thinking brings an added layer to projects by finding ways to engage communities—particularly those that might otherwise be left out of the process—throughout the entire life cycle of the project. This approach takes analytical thinking and equally values imaginative thinking so that communities can really take ownership of both the process and the outcome. Designers and architects are so well positioned to understand people. By strengthening our ability to understand the experience of other human beings, we can design projects that have the highest impact possible, even with limited resources.

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The transformation of The Storefront is 50% complete and will include an additional 6,000-sq.-ft. of internal/external space.

Describe the Community.Design.Initiative: This project is a unique collaboration between architects, designers, artists, urban planners, academics and residents that is transforming East Scarborough Storefront-Tides, a United Way Toronto-funded agency, into an innovative, 10, 000-sq.-ft. community services hub in Toronto’s priority neighbourhood of  Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). We engaged 75 local youth—many of them facing barriers like poverty—in the design, fundraising, permitting, zoning and building of this inner suburban community agency. We started six years ago and we’re about half-way done. This past summer, we installed a splash pad and sports structure and we’re about to launch a capital campaign to expand even further. This project is a great example of finding ways to engage people who wouldn’t ordinarily be involved in a multi-year building initiative like this.

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The Sky-o-Swale, a splash pad and sports structure designed by local youth, was installed last summer.

How has this project led to meaningful social change in the Kingston-Galloway community? CDI is about so much more than just a building. The project has dramatically increased the decision making and leadership capacities of local youth. It’s also transformed the community into an amazing place to stay, to build your life and to invest in. Residents know that their contributions are reflected in the projects they’re involved in—and are truly valued by the community. Youth in KGO know that whether they’re going to design a building, a service or an afterschool program, the first thing they need to do is convene the people they want to serve and ask them what they want. There’s this connective tissue that grows between the professionals, residents, youth and social service providers. The social infrastructure has become so strong. The community trusts its own capacity to change itself.

Design isn’t just about bricks-and-mortar. It can also be used to re-imagine processes, projects and services within the social sector. Any examples? Our studio also works with charitable organizations, foundations and governments to help them use design thinking to more creatively approach their projects. We’re currently working with the Ontario Trillium Foundation and its Youth Opportunities Fund to fundamentally change the grant-making process for youth-led initiatives. We also led the design workshops for last year’s 101 in 1 Day, a civic engagement festival supported by United Way Toronto and Evergreen CityWorks. We’re also working with Evergreen and the McConnell Foundation —a co-created national urban agency—to engage citizens in 30 cities across Canada to develop a policy agenda together.

What are you most excited about moving forward? Design thinking is still a fairly new field. If we can continue to approach social change from a design mindset, I think it will be transformative for the social services sector. It will make entire communities more resilient by increasing collaboration and strengthening their ability to understand each other.

 

What matters T.O. you?

Happy New Year! Thanks for visiting our blog and showing interest in the social issues facing our city. Now we want to hear from YOU!

What are the pressing challenges you’d like to read about in the months ahead? Skyrocketing youth unemployment? Toronto’s growing prosperity gap? Affordable housing?

Submit your ideas by leaving a comment at the end of this post. We’ll do our best to convene some of Toronto’s top thought leaders—from government, business, labour, community and education sectors—to discuss ways we can all work together to create the best Toronto possible. A Toronto where everyone has the opportunities they need to thrive.

United Way’s 2014 campaign video captures all that is made possible when we work together.

And don’t forget! If you haven’t already, subscribe to our blog to have our latest posts delivered right to your inbox every two weeks.

Here’s to a New Year full of possibility for everyone who lives here. Knowledge of the issues is the power to make a difference. We hope you’ll join the conversation.

The Top 5 stories that warmed our hearts

 

We live in a great city. A city known for its cultural diversity and the welcoming, generous spirit of its residents. A city rich in possibility for everyone who lives here.

As 2014 draws to a close, we thought we’d take the opportunity to compile some of the most heartwarming videos, stories and pictures that tugged at our heartstrings and made us all grateful to call Toronto home.

ImogenphotoA LITTLE LEMONADE STAND WITH BIG HEART: We couldn’t help but be inspired when a seven-year-old Toronto girl named Imogen and her Dad dropped by our offices last September to surprise us with a $75 donation to United Way. Imogen wanted to do something for her city, so she set up a 25-cents-a-glass lemonade stand to raise money for individuals living in poverty. That’s a lot of lemonade! But more importantly, it’s also a pretty enormous gesture of kindness from such a pint-sized fundraiser-in-training.

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Photo credit: Lindsay Foster Photography

THE PRIDE OF PARENTHOOD: This breathtaking photo of two Toronto fathers holding their baby boy for the first time took the Internet by storm when it went viral last June. Little Milo was born to a surrogate mother during last summer’s WorldPride festival. “This is a moment of pure love and acceptance. Milo is surrounded by unconditional love and he will grow up knowing many different types of families and accept everyone. Love has no colour nor gender nor sexual preference. Love is unconditional,” wrote Milo’s dads, both Toronto teachers, in a Facebook post on birth photographer, Lindsay Foster’s Facebook page. A beautiful celebration of all types of love.

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A team of Nahom’s Access Alliance colleagues climbed the CN Tower in his honour.

STEPPING UP FOR A LOCAL HERO: Last September, we lost our dear friend Nahom Berhane to a tragic act of violence. Nahom was a dedicated youth leader and passionate community builder who worked at United Way Toronto’s Access Point on Danforth Community Hub. The beloved father-of-two was well known in Toronto’s Eritrean community and was also a graduate of CITY Leaders, a leadership development program for young people working and volunteering in the city’s social services sector. The impact of Nahom’s remarkable contribution to his community continues to live on. This past October, a group of his Access Alliance colleagues delivered a touching tribute to their fallen friend by climbing the CN Tower for United Way in his honour.

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Photo courtesy of CTV News

THREE BABIES, TWO CITIES, ONE HEARTFELT RESPONSE: We’ve always known that Toronto is made of good stuff. So it’s no surprise that Torontonians rallied in support of three triplet boys from Edmonton who were born with a rare form of eye cancer. Every couple of weeks, this adorable trio and their parents travel to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto where the boys receive treatment. After the family reached out on their blog for help, Torontonians answered their call: offering financial support, a place to stay and even babysitting help. “The support we received really brought us back up,” the triplets’ Mom told CTV. One heartfelt response for three very deserving little tots.

PAYING IT FORWARD: And finally…a nod to our incredible workplace partner, TD Bank, who made a heartfelt investment in the communities it serves with its inspirational #MakeTodayMatter campaign. The idea? To spread out 24 acts of kindness over 24 days in 24 different communities in Toronto—and across North America.

Big win on precarious employment

 

On November 6, the Ontario government passed new legislation that introduces further protections for vulnerable workers.

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PEPSO report highlights new labour reality

United Way Toronto, in partnership with McMaster University, was instrumental in bringing about changes to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, which included a call to government to introduce protections around lost wages for precariously employed individuals.

This new legislation is an important step forward in building a labour market that works.

Read more about precarious employment and its effects here:

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Precarious employment takes a toll

Job loss. Unemployment. Income gaps. Over the past couple of months—and during the lead up to Toronto’s recent municipal election—there’s been a lot of talk about all that ails the city’s increasingly fractured labour market. Job creation has slowed considerably. Toronto’s youth unemployment rate is more than double the national average. And the income gap between older and younger workers is growing at an alarming pace.

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This joint report between United Way and McMaster University examines our region’s rapidly-changing labour market

While the city’s muted job creation tends to grab most of the headlines, there’s an equally concerning labour trend afoot. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen a 50% rise in precarious, or unstable employment, according to research conducted by United Way Toronto and McMaster University.

In fact, more than 40% of people in the Hamilton-GTA region experience some degree of precarity, or insecurity, in their work, which has serious economic and social consequences for Toronto.

As this recent Globe and Mail article points out, “the shift to a just-in-time labour market creates a host of difficulties for long-term planning, eligibility for jobless benefits, and often results in a diminished ability to save.” Erratic hours “also create challenges in pursing an education, arranging childcare and qualifying for a mortgage.”

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United Way’s Michelynn Laflèche recently appeared on TVO’s The Agenda to discuss precarious employment.

“Individuals in precarious work face many challenges,” says Michelynn Laflèche, United Way’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation, who recently appeared as a guest speaker on TVO’s The Agenda to discuss this new work reality. “They earn 46 per cent less than those who are securely-employed. They delay having families, are often unable to pay for their children’s extracurricular activities and experience higher levels of anxiety and stress. Precarity impacts the health of individuals and families and the way in which people can contribute to their communities.”

Fixing the problem won’t happen overnight. But solutions for mitigating the impact of unstable work on individuals, families and entire communities are already underway. “Our research, combined with United Way’s influence, was instrumental in bringing about changes to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act by introducing protections around lost wages for precariously-employed individuals,” says Wayne Lewchuk, a co-author of the “It’s More than Poverty: Employment Precarity and Household Well-being” report and a professor in the economics and labour studies department at McMaster University.

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“Closing the Prosperity Gap” looks at solutions for reducing income and employment inequality

The findings of this report also helped spark a much larger conversation about how to build a better labour market that works for everyone.  “I think we have to make employers in the government, private and charitable sectors understand what the risks are to families, communities and to businesses,” says Laflèche.  “We need to build a case that helps employers think about how to operational their business in a way that  treats people with dignity and respect and provides the kind of support people need to live a decent life.”

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.

Why dignified access to food matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Cause for concern, cause for action

Last week, Matthew Mendelsohn, director of The Mowat Centre, spoke for an audience of United Way donors and partners about the fast-growing problem of precarious employment.

“Precarious” probably isn’t a word you want to associate with your paycheque. But 40% of workers in the GTA and Hamilton are working in jobs that exhibit some degree of precariousness: stringing together short-term contracts, working several part-time jobs instead of a full-time position, or working freelance, among other non-traditional work arrangements. (Traditional employment being full-time, on-going, and usually with benefits.) Some are more vulnerable than others, of course—many freelancers and consultants choose that flexibility. But employment precarity has increased nearly 50% in the past 20 years, and while it’s most prevalent among low-income earners, it’s fast becoming a middle-class issue as well.

As Mendelsohn describes the issue, it’s all about risk: Who bears it, and who takes responsibility for it.


Traditionally, the burden of risk—of an employee falling sick, having an accident, getting laid off—was borne by the employee, the employer and the government. But with the rise of precarious employment and the erosion in the “social contract” between employers and employees, that burden is shifting, in a big way, to individuals. What does all this mean? Essentially, people facing uncertainty are likelier to postpone fundamental life decisions: starting a family, buying a home, etc. More troubling, says Mendelsohn, rates of intergenerational mobility—the assumption that young people will be at least as well off as their parents—has been eroding, throwing into doubt the “Canadian promise” that has been so attractive to newcomers.



Of course, some people prefer non-standard working arrangements—they appreciate the added flexibility in a dynamic economy. The challenge is to implement public policy to make non-traditional working arrangements, well, work better. This means investing in social infrastructure – housing, transit, childcare, recreation, early childhood education—to ensure the burden of risk is once again more evenly shared between government, employers and individuals. Below, Mendelsohn addresses just a few of the realistic public policy responses to the rise of precarious work.

For a really in-depth look at the issue, check out It’s More Than Poverty: Employment Precarity and Household Well-being, a report prepared earlier this year by United Way and Hamilton’s McMaster University. And be sure to share your thoughts or experiences about this emerging economic reality.

Time for solutions: Job insecurity is not inevitable

PEPSO-reportYesterday, at a full-day symposium with McMaster University and the Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) research group, United Way Toronto launched the ground-breaking It’s More than Poverty report. Representatives from the private sector, labour, government and non-profit organizations gathered to discuss the growth of precarious jobs—those without benefits and those with uncertain futures.

Confirming the anecdotes

This new report, based on a specially commissioned survey of over 4,000 respondents, confirms what our communities and member agencies knew, anecdotally, five years ago: that precarious work has grown in prevalence; that it impacts workers’ well-being; and that it is more prevalent among recent immigrants and people from racialized groups. The data also shows that the impacts of precarious work are more severe for people with low income, which remains a big concern for all of us. Additionally, we found that precarious work has spread—into all sectors, across the entire GTA and Hamilton region, and among all demographic groups and all income groups.

On some indicators, middle-income earners in insecure employment were even experiencing more challenges than low-income earners in secure employment.

Emerging questions

The report’s counterintuitive findings surprised us, and others. Some of the reaction focused on the issue of choice, in response to the finding that being in precarious work was affecting middle-income individuals and families. Could people earning middle incomes—between $50,000 and $100,000 a year—really be precarious? Wasn’t the kind of work that these earners were doing, like knowledge jobs at colleges and universities, or freelance design and other creative jobs, something they chose to do? Didn’t many of these workers live in households where one partner had a secure job and the other could afford to work on short-term contracts (and did so as part of a chosen lifestyle)?

The answer is split: yes, middle-income jobs can be precarious; and, no, it’s not all about choice. Choice is a complicated issue. We know that many in Toronto cannot choose the opportunities available to them. Indeed, over half of survey respondents employed in insecure work said that they would prefer more secure work. Our data also showed that, if the survey respondent was in a precarious job, their partner was more likely to be in a precarious job, too.

But the real issue for all workers in precarious jobs, whether they choose these jobs or not, is that the conditions in which they are working are harmfully affecting not just the workers, but also their families and their communities. Our labour market is no longer creating enough jobs that are pathways to income and employment security.

Continuing the conversation

As was so energetically discussed yesterday, we (as a society) got here one decision at a time. So the good news is that vulnerability and insecurity are not inevitable: we can escape this growing trend, decision by decision. It will take time, it will take clear ideas on what to do, and it will take a widespread coalition to make the necessary policy and social change, but it is not impossible. Our task, now, is to make this change happen.

Karina Aparicio: A city with no limits

What I imagine for Toronto is a city with no limits. A city that is culturally diverse and self accepting of all differences no matter of age, race, religion, beliefs and gender. A city that knows how to ground themselves and help those who are in need of help without expecting anything in return; a city that sees all classes of people as equal, stigma no longer branding any person.

What I imagine for Toronto is a city where we are interconnected with each other; person to person, hand to hand and heart to heart. That together we as a city will raise above discrimination, hate, differences, oppression, and poverty. We will enrich ourselves with knowledge, education, and acceptance; so that we may lead as a city so that other cities may be able to follow our steps and create more positive change.

Because as one small city, the good we do today will make a big difference in our lives for a better tomorrow and perhaps the rest of the world.

Karina Aparicio is a hopeful student striving to become a social worker, to help bring a positive change in today’s society. 

Kyla Kelley: Stepping out of our comfort zones

I imagine a city where we are not afraid to support each other.

I imagine a city where streetcar riders will not uneasily look the other way as a group of teenagers verbally taunt a fellow passenger.

I imagine a city where others will join me as I challenge the group of youngsters to show respect to all people, rather than avert their eyes and bury deeper in their phones and papers as they do now.

I imagine a city where the taunted man will sit up straight and thank me, rather than looking down and telling me not to bother supporting him, that “it’s really not a big deal”.

I imagine a city where we are brave enough to admit it IS a big deal, and to actually do something about it – not by blogging and commiserating in the safety of our peer groups, but by actually acting when these situations present themselves.

I imagine a city where all citizens are proud to step out of their comfort zones and support each other at EACH and EVERY opportunity.

Kyla Kelly is a married mother of one and expecting her second. She works in downtown Toronto and used to live in Roncesvalles but chose to leave Toronto when she started a family. Why? She felt she couldn’t afford to buy a home in a neighbourhood which felt safe for her family and where neighbours would look out for one another. 

It’s never too late to change your life

When things were at their worst, I never imagined that one day Jully Black would be the guest speaker at a graduation banquet. Someone famous from my own Jane and Finch neighbourhood came back to say “way to go.” Pretty amazing. At my worst, I couldn’t even imagine attending a course, let alone graduating. Thanks to Women Moving Forward (WMF), I can now actually imagine building a pretty great life for me and my son. Continue reading

No one understands a woman like another woman

Anne-Marie welcomes our photographer to The Redwood where some of the agency’s clients have gathered. One of the core values of the organization, respect, is displayed on the door, reminding the women not only what they deserve from others but what they owe themselves.

Three years ago, I got to be a mentor to a young woman taking part in United Way’s CITY Leaders program. She was ambitious, hard working, and just starting to build her career in social services. She called me the other day to tell me about her new job at a community agency and I was so excited to hear about her work and the progress she’s made. Continue reading

Let’s get the conversation started…

Picture of Susan McIssac, President and CEO, United Way TorontoEach day, United Way works with individuals and organizations across Toronto to build a better city for us all. It’s something we’re deeply committed to and passionate about. But even as we work it’s good to take a step back and reflect from time to time — to think about the kind of city we’re working to create.

Continue reading