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:

Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?

zuberi-portrait-united-way-2016

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.

dsc_5314

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.

dsc_2184

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.

dsc_4356

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.

dsc_8651

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.”

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?

DSC_8624

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.

Toronto’s first-ever anti-poverty plan passes

Citycouncil_PovertyReduction

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.

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.

 

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:

 

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?