United Way report tracks where poorest live and what’s needed to help
By Kris Scheuer
(Originally published May 13/04 for Town Crier.)
Regent Park is home to two of the very poorest of Toronto’s 522 neighbourhoods.
This may not be a surprise, but what is disheartening is a higher percentage of the community is poor compared to 10 and 20 years ago and of those, who are poor, their level of poverty is more severe.
Poverty levels are defined, in this case, using Statistics Canada’s low-income cut-offs (LICO). A two-parent family with two kids living on a combined income of $36,247 or less is considered poor.
In the United Way’s ‘Poverty by Postal Code’ report released on April 5, it defines four levels of poverty from lower, moderate, high (2x national 1981 average) and very high (more than 3x the national average). It compared 1981, 1991 and 2001 levels of poverty.
In one of Regent Park’s communities, 72.8 per cent of families are living in very high poverty.
But unfortunately, this is not an anomaly.For example, in 1981 thirty Toronto neighbourhoods fell into the categories of containing very high poverty rates (4 communities) or higher poverty (26 neighbourhoods). By 2001, 120 neighbourhoods fell into these two categories (97 higher poverty, 23 very high).
In 1981, North York had zero very high poverty neighbourhoods, by 2001 it had seven such communities.
One of the findings is the lack of support services and resources available, especially in Toronto’s suburbs, explained Frances Lankin, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Toronto.
One major misconception is that poor people are just those who are on social assistance. Most of the poor are working; they just aren’t pulling in decent incomes.
In poor neighbourhoods, 90 per cent of the people are working and in very poor neighbourhoods it is 87 per cent, Lankin told the Town Crier. “But the jobs are often at minimum wage.”
One of the problems is that minimum wage has been frozen for almost a decade until the Ontario Liberals raised it by 30 cents on Feb. 1 from $6.85 to $7.15 per hour.
Meanwhile, inflation has gone up 15 per cent in 10 years and housing costs are up 30 per cent, she said. “So they are 45 per cent worse off than 10 years ago.”
It is said that people should not be spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent or housing. In 1991, 12.6 per cent of tenants were spending more than a third of their income on rent and by 2001 this rose to 43.2 per cent. Just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they have access to affordable housing and if they do, their income may be so low that the rents are still too high.
This doesn’t just impact adults of course.
“Where parents are working two or three jobs the kids have nothing to do after school but hang out at the mall or ravine, which makes them ripe picking for the streets,” Lankin said.
As a society we need to be providing young people with productive things to do, she added. The next phase is to track the number of parks and recreation services, community centres and after school programs in each community.
In 1991, there were 80,590 children under 14 years of age living in higher poverty neighbourhoods. A decade later there has been a 100 per cent increase to 160,890. More youth are also residing in higher poverty neighboourhoods. In 1991, there were 60,940 youth in this situation and by 2001 it was 97,520.
“There are few or no support programs for these kids and that is a disaster waiting to happen,” Lankin stressed. “We need to interfere now. The impact is we are closing off opportunities for them.
“We wanted to get a sense of where the most urgent needs are so we can focus our attention, but also to draw attention to the government (as we can’t do this alone).”
Part of the problem is that school boards have raised user fees and many volunteer organizations can’t afford the rates and neither can poor families.
As one North York mother told the United Way: “What does it say when our schools won’t welcome our kids, but a drug dealer around the corner welcomes him with open arms?” Lankin expressed.