Coming after a string of leading indices ranking Toronto high as a world-class city, a new report released on November 14 takes some shine away from its laurels. Quoting latest Statistics Canada data, The Hidden Epidemic: A Report on Child and Family Poverty in Toronto (PDF) said the city, along with Saint John, New Brunswick, leads 13 major Canadian cities in child poverty. Equally troubling is the fact that at 29% it is on the rise again after gradually decreasing to 27% in 2010 from a high of 32% in 2004.
Providing all children equal opportunity to thrive and succeed – regardless of income, race, gender or disability – is a deep-rooted Canadian value. Yet this latest report shows that not all children in Toronto start life on an equal footing:
- The number of low-income children increased by over 10,000 between 2010 and 2012, to 145,890.
- There is stark inequality in children’s lives across its neighbourhoods. Low-income rates ranged from 5% to over 50%, reflecting the massive and growing polarization of income.
- Poverty has colour as it varies significantly by race and ethnicity. Data from different sources show people of African and Middle Eastern backgrounds are about three times more likely to be living on low incomes than are those of European backgrounds.
- Children of indigenous heritage and from recent immigrant families, children with disabilities and those with parents who are disabled, and children living in female-led lone-parent families are also more likely to live in poverty.
‘Double whammy’ for children living in poverty
The writers of the report recognize that child poverty is not separate from family poverty. It persists because family income from employment, social assistance and other income transfers is too low, and because access to services and programs is unaffordable. However, they choose to shine the light on children because poverty delivers them a double whammy. While affecting their present, it affects their future as well.
The report lists four “opportunity gaps” that impact children living in poverty:
- Access to nutrition: Inadequate nutrition can have devastating and enduring impacts on behavioural and cognitive development, capacity to learn and reproductive health.
- Access to housing: Quality housing is a critical determinant of child and youth health and has been shown to impact immediate and long-term physical, mental and social health.
- Access to education: “Readiness to learn” is a proxy for optimal children’s developmental health at school entry and is assessed by the Early Development Instrument (EDI). It is a critical marker for future academic success. Students who are vulnerable on any one of the EDI scales are more likely to perform below expectations in later school years.
- Access to Recreation: Recreation serves multiple purposes in healthy child development. Children from lowest-income families are about half as likely to participate in extracurricular activities compared to those from highest-income families.
Report is a ‘wakeup call’ for Toronto
The reaction to the report has been overwhelming in the media (see links below).
Mayor-elect John Tory was quick to promise to lead the fight against poverty. “If ever there was a wakeup call, this would be it,” Tory said in an interview in advance of the report’s release. He added it would take the work of citizens, unions, churches, politicians and other organizations to make a dent in these latest figures. “We cannot and we will not be able to solve this problem solely on the basis of resources coming from municipal taxpayers.”
The report also comes at an opportune time for City Hall. In April 2014, Toronto City Council directed City staff to partner with communities to develop a Poverty Reduction Strategy for release in late 2015. They can be guided by the following suggestions offered by the report:
- The strategy should be driven by broad-based resident engagement, and should address the root causes of poverty, including inadequate access to market incomes, income support programs, and community services and supports.
- The strategy should have specific timelines and targets for reducing poverty, regular public reporting on progress, and adequate funding and staffing to ensure effective coordination.
- The strategy should be informed by solid, publicly available research on the geographic and demographic distribution of poverty in Toronto, and effective interventions to reduce poverty and its inequitable distribution.
- Finally, since the City cannot reduce poverty on its own, the strategy needs to build a strong partnership with leaders of all sectors of society, including business, labour and community. It needs to advocate strongly for provincial and federal policies and programs to reduce poverty.
Links to reports
- The Hidden Epidemic: A Report on Child and Family Poverty in Toronto (PDF)
- Toward a Poverty Elimination Strategy for the City of Toronto (PDF)
Links to opinions and media articles
- Keep the promise to end child poverty: Arthur Bielfeld, Toronto Star opinion
- 25 years after Ottawa’s pledge to end child poverty, it’s time to hit ‘reset’: Toronto Star
- John Tory deserves support for his campaign to roll back child poverty: Toronto Star editorial
- Toronto children need more prosperity, not more charity: Christopher Hume, Toronto Star
- Almost a million Canadian kids in poverty is an acute emergency: Elizabeth Lee Ford-Jones, Toronto Star opinion
- John Tory pledges to work at reducing child poverty in Toronto: Jennifer Pagliaro, Toronto Star
- Almost 1/3rd of Toronto kids live in poverty: David Woodard, NEWS talk 1010
- Toronto tops Canada in child poverty rates: CBC News report