Surveys Show Why We Need to take the Poverty Reduction Strategy Seriously
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Surveys Show Why We Need to take the Poverty Reduction Strategy Seriously

The once-heralded poverty reduction strategy needs more attention, including to what the data told us about the city.

At 7 a.m. on Saturday, six people lined up outside the Parkdale library branch. The woman at the front of the line had clearly been there for a while; she was sleeping, propped up by her elbow. They were there to get Museum and Arts passes—free family passes for a range of cultural venues in the city. Line-ups start as early as 5 a.m. The branch doesn’t open until 9 a.m.

Toronto’s library system plays a vital role in supporting access to programs and services of all types—functional, educational, and recreational. In the last three decades, libraries have faced enormous transformational forces, losing none of their old functions and gaining a slew of new ones as technology advances.

Because of its vast array of programs and services, the Toronto Public Library is identified as a key partner in Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy—TO Prosperity. The strategy began development in 2014 at the urging of Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) to take action on the widening income gap in the City.

The strategy was passed by council in November 2015.

Heading into 2017, the strategy is still not fully funded.

Image from the City of Toronto.

Image from the City of Toronto.

That’s right. The strategy that Mayor John Tory spoke of as, “one of the most important decisions, one of the most important commitments that we’re going to make as a council during this entire term without even knowing what else is going to come up over the next three years” isn’t fully funded.

To help inform the strategy, the City did a public consultation in 2014 and 2015. One of the results of the consultation is a collection of firsthand stories and insights about living in poverty in Toronto, made available as an open data set on the City’s open data portal.

Survey and questionnaire consultation data such as this provides a less common and generally less well-used type of open data set, one full of qualitative information. Shared experiences, anonymized, and accessible.

As Howard Tam, Principal of urban consultancy ThinkFresh Group puts it, “this kind of consultation data should be shared across City divisions—making the best use of people’s time and investment in participating in a consultation, and recognizing that what matters in one consultation will matter to many other related projects in the City.”

The single comment that follows below from a participant in the poverty reduction consultation provides a grim picture of a common life in Toronto. It touches upon all the tangible issue areas of the poverty reduction strategy—jobs, food, housing, transit, and access to services. Emphasis added:

“because I get paid hourly, and have no benefits, when I get sick I still have to go to work because otherwise I don’t get paid. I’m a single mom and if I don’t work, I can’t pay rent. I have a very bad back…I can’t do anything about it because physio is too expensive. I would have to work for 3 hours to pay for 15 minutes.

When my daughter has trouble getting ready in the morning, and then I’m going to be late for work, I don’t feel I can justify buying her breakfast…I can’t set the precedent because I can’t afford it…but then she goes to school with nothing to eat, we fight, and I hate myself.

Because we don’t have a lot of money to pay to do things, we actually have found some amazing ways to have fun together for free. The City’s libraries, and parks and hanging by the lake, Parks and Rec and the welcome policy. It’s fun. Except now she’s 8 and that is fun for her. I’m worried about when she gets older and there are school trips and events with friends. I’m scared our one computer will break down. Because I can’t afford to fix it.

I’m scared to complain to my landlord about anything, because I live in a nice area and it’s clean and safe and I don’t want him to think that i’m too much trouble.

I’m really tired. Because I don’t get to stop. I always have to be doing something. working, cleaning, cooking, travelling on the TTC to get to work (takes forever), stressing out about being late.”

This is life in Toronto for many. Full of never-ending fear and subsistence. In this context, access to programs and services for fun, education, and belonging are critical.

The Toronto Public Library is holding a hackathon on September 17 and 18 to explore the impact of some its programs that connect to the poverty reduction strategy. It’s a chance for the civic tech community to take part in learning more about this work, as well as other issues and approaches related to poverty reduction in Toronto. Topics specific to the library that will be explored include: internet access, provision of tech programs and services, and access to youth services.

The event is free and registration is now open.