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politics

Minding the Gap

A new report authoured by 44 average Torontonians sheds light on Toronto's growing economic inequality.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nguyenbrian/"}Brian Nguyen{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Toronto neighbourhoods are increasingly becoming polarized by income. The middle class that once reigned supreme is quickly eroding—part of a trend that has become more and more apparent over the past four decades. Housing prices in the city are skyrocketing as the recent recession continues to cause job loss.

Considering all of this, it is no surprise that attention is being paid to the widening and increasingly evident gap between the rich and the poor. Tuesday night, a report on this topic was released by Diaspora Dialogues, the University of Toronto Cities Centre, and MASS LBP. It recommends ways of alleviating some of these problems locally, using ideas drawn from a panel of 44 randomly selected Torontonians, whom the study’s authors say are representative of Toronto’s demographic mix.

When the project was being planned—prior to the Occupy movement—the implications of the growing income gap had yet to penetrate the public consciousness. This was the impetus for the study’s authors to put together the Toronto Residents’ Reference Panel on Household Income.

The panel of 44 randomly selected participants met over three Saturdays in November and December 2011 to talk about their lives in the city, to hear from experts, and to discuss their individual senses of how Toronto is changing. The panel eventually concluded, on the basis of this experience, that if income inequality continues to divide Toronto, the city’s public consensus on new investments in public education, health, transit, and multiculturalism will erode.

The panel’s research builds on the 2010 University of Toronto Cities Centre Three Cities in Toronto report, which was authored by the centre’s associate director of research, David Hulchanski. Using numbers from the 2006 census, Hulchanski found that Toronto is divided into three socio-economic strata: in some parts of Toronto, the average income (at around $88,000 in 2005) is 20 per cent or more above the average individual income for the census metropolitan area as a whole. In other parts of Toronto, the average income is within 20 per cent above or below the average. But in a large and growing part of the city, the average income (approximately $27,000) is 20 per cent or more below the average. The overall findings of this report show that the number of middle-income neighbourhoods in Toronto (areas where the average individual income is within 20 per cent of the city average of $40,704) has gone down dramatically since the 1970s, creating a social divide that Hulchanski says will widen greatly in the coming years if left unaddressed.

So why does this matter? If the middle-class disappears, what is the impact? Why ask 44 Torontonians to give up their Saturdays to talk civics?

“Income matters,” said Hulchanski. “The bigger the gap, the more likely that you destroy real democracy.”

Together, the panel put together 97 recommendations based on seven themes (taxation, economics, and employment; transit; housing; health; immigration, diversity, and culture; community development and services; and education and equity). While the findings and proposed solutions are certainly not earth-shattering or exhaustive, they are a reflection of the mood of a group of average Torontonians—albeit only the few Torontonians who participated in the study. According to Hulchanski, the recommendations are realistic and not onerous to implement.

Here are some of the highlights from the report:

Taxation, Economy, and Employment

The panel found that employment and labour policies do not adequately protect low-income earners, and that current tax and economic policies do not sufficiently support the entire city’s needs, promote innovative entrepreneurial growth, or allow for integrated GTA-wide services.

To alleviate this, the panel argues for the reinstatement of the City’s vehicle-registration fee. They also suggest adding a new tax bracket for high earners. At the same time, they decided that substantial increases to the City’s property tax would increase pressure on low- and middle-income earners.

The panel suggests that now that Toronto’s workforce is made up of a growing number of part-time, flexible, and contract workers, the provincial and federal governments need to modernize employment insurance and review other income supports, because these workers may be underserved by existing programs. The panel also wants a minimum wage that keeps up with inflation.

Transit

The panel found that the lowest-income parts of the city are underserved by public transit, that interconnectivity between different GTA transit systems is poor, and that transit is underfunded due to a poor understanding of the impact it has on the city’s “competitiveness, liveability, and inclusivity.”

The panel, like some city councillors, is in favour of sticking with something like the Transit City light-rail plan, as they believe that this will help Toronto’s poorest residents commute to employment hubs, health services, educational opportunities, and social and cultural activities. On top of this, they recommend a transit-pass subsidy for low-income Torontonians.

Panel member Basil Onyenanu, who moved from Nigeria to Toronto just two years ago, feels that transit is flawed in this city, and that more should be done to ensure a seamless transfer between transit systems. He joined the panel in order to have his voice heard.

“The Toronto transit system has one boss,” he said, “the Brampton transit system has another, but they need to get together and talk.”

“We don’t care about the money,” he added. “It is about having just one card to be able to move from bus to bus.”

To accomplish something like that, the panel recommends accelerating the adoption of Presto, the region-wide integrated fare system.

Housing

The panel found that the supply of affordable housing in Toronto is insufficient, and that this drives up rents and purchasing prices, leaving middle- and low-income residents vulnerable. They also decided that communities are becoming economically segregated, and that residents are becoming more isolated—substantially in agreement with the Three Cities report.

In light of this, the panel recommends the introduction of income-based supports for families in “precarious housing” situations (which means that they are spending more than 30 per cent of their gross income on rent). The panel also recommends that the City continue to encourage greater density and mixed-use, mixed-income developments.

Health

The panel found that Toronto doesn’t do enough to promote health and well-being in all areas of the city.

Recommendations for fixing this include using zoning to ensure that all residents have access to fresh, healthy food. The panel would also like there to be more community gardens.

The panel also recommends the creation of more incentive for health care workers to provide overall patient care and wellness, as opposed to the current fee-for-service model. They’d also like to see measures taken to encourage family doctors and nurse practitioners to practice in poorer parts of the city.

Immigration, Diversity, and Culture

The panel decided that the settlement process for new immigrants requires improvements. They think it is confusing for people trying to access support services. They also noted that skilled and educated immigrants have trouble finding adequate employment.

They recommend that the government work to create clarity on what newcomers to Toronto can expect (including the likelihood of finding a job in their field), and, at the same time, put structures in place that allow people to upgrade their skills or get accredited.

What Comes Next

Notably, the report’s first two transit recommendations (which focus on restoring Transit City) may in fact see light of day as early as today—much to Hulchanski’s delight, as he does not agree with the current administration “throwing away 10 years of planning.”

“There’s something wrong with what Rob Ford and his people want to do,” he said.

In terms of building support for the other recommendations, a copy of the report will be sent out today to politicians at every level. A number of civic leaders have already been engaged, explained Dana Granofsky, MASS LBP’s director of operations. Granofsky said some politicians have already expressed interest, but she declined to provide specifics.

The full report, including information about the selection process, can be found here. The findings will also be on display as a part of an Urbanspace Gallery exhibition called “Mind the Gap” that runs until March 20.

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