Toronto is becoming a city of stark economic extremes as its middle class is hollowed out and replaced by a bipolar city of the rich and poor – one whose lines are drawn neighbourhood by neighbourhood.
New numbers indicate a 35-year trend toward economic polarization is growing more pronounced: The country’s economic engine, which has long claimed to be one of the most diverse cities in the world, is increasingly comprised of downtown-centred high-income residents – most living near subway lines – and a concentration of low-income families in less dense, service- and transit-starved inner suburbs.
Three years ago, University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski published a paper on Toronto’s “Three Cities,” illustrating a growing socioeconomic disparity among the city’s census tracts. But the three-way divide Prof. Hulchanski and his fellow Cities Centre researchers described is swiftly being reduced to two, according to a new paper they will release Wednesday. Toronto, a predominantly middle-class metropolis just three decades ago, is increasingly dominated by two opposite populations – one with an average income of $88,400, and another of $26,900.
These two groups live in different neighbourhoods, work in different sectors, send their children to different schools and have divergent and unequal access to city services and public transit. Even the 905-area suburbs outside of Toronto are seeing a dramatic drop in the proportion of middle-income earners in their population, the report finds.
Those in the lowest-income areas are also more likely to be immigrants and visible minorities.
“It’s only going to become worse,” Prof. Hulchanski said. If the trend continues, the paper suggests, Toronto in 2025 will have a concentration of high-earners along the lakefront and the city’s subway lines surrounded by low-income areas – with almost nothing in between.
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It also seems to contradict Toronto’s most prized mottos – “Diversity our strength” and “The city that works.” Neither of those rings true any more: Toronto’s diversity is becoming balkanized, turning it into a weakness where it could otherwise act to the city’s advantage. The creation of economically polarized pockets of high- and low-income residents means Toronto simply won’t “work” as a municipal entity.
“We used to brag about it,” Prof. Hulchanski said. “ ‘Toronto’s an efficient city – it works.’ We know now that’s not true.
“To have so much poverty in one geography and for it to be so deep and for the social distance to be so large … that isn’t healthy.”
In a five-year period alone, average incomes declined in 34 of the city’s census tracts (about 7 per cent of its total) – 23 of those areas became predominantly low-income. At the same time, 12 areas became high-income and nine earned “middle-income” status.
This has to do with the exclusion of immigrants from the labour force. As the Toronto City website boasts, Toronto's population is quite cosmopolitan, absolutely and relative to other Canadian cities. A variety of sources suggest that new Canadians just aren't fitting into the labour market, as evidenced by current unemployment rates.
While jobless rates dropped both nationally and locally – to 7.6 per cent Canada-wide, the lowest level in two years, and to 6.7 per cent from 9.2 per cent earlier this year in Toronto – unemployment is ramping up for people who have come to Canada in the past five years.
In Toronto, 19.7 per cent of recent immigrants are unemployed. That’s far higher than the 13 per cent who were jobless just a year ago, and nearly three times the jobless rate for Canadian-born residents.
It’s not unusual for immigrants to be hit harder by recession and to take longer to recover their job prospects. But Toronto relies more on immigrant labour now than it has in the past: As of 2011, virtually all of the city’s job-market growth depends on immigrants.
“Because of the fact that more than 50 per cent of our residents are foreign-born, there’s a sharper thrust and a higher stress for us to do really well,” said Ratna Omidvar, president of the Maytree Foundation.
What’s perennially missing in a city with a plethora of disconnected services and growing socioeconomic stratification, advocates argue, are the tools to connect immigrants to jobs. To this end, the federal government has pledged $2.3-million in funds to help Torontonian immigrants integrate – cash that has gone to programs started in May of this year.
And a new initiative through Scotiabank is teaming up with the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council to try to link immigrant professionals with their Canadian counterparts.
Immigrants who’ve arrived in Canada since the financial crisis face a growing Catch-22 of employment barriers, says TRIEC executive director Elizabeth McIsaac. They are at a disadvantage from the start, and the longer their lack of Canadian experience bars them from the job market, the harder it is to join and the longer their unemployment is a drag on the rest of the economy.
“If you landed in the middle of a recession and you didn’t get your first opportunity, your time out of the market exacerbates the challenges you had getting into it.… It begins to have a multiplying effect – a real scarring effect on immigrants.”'
The gap between immigrant and native-born worker incomes is taking an extra generation to close, a combination of competition from guest workers and the semi-legal labour market, a lack of Canadian-recognized credentials, and--quite possibly--the continued exclusion of new Canadians from the closed social networks of established employers and professional groups which let people join the labour market at a level befitting of their skills.
So. Ontario--including Toronto--may be doing better than in Québec in integrating immigrants into the mainstream labour market, and it's certainly doing a better job of avoiding creating a metic class than countries with less porous immigration regimes like Germany. Even with a national economy that has been performing quite strongly relative to most of its First World peers, this still isn't good enough to avoid creating a very problematic social and geographic pattern of relative deprivation linked to ethnic and national origins in Ontario's, and Canada's, largest city. This can lead in very negative directions. On ethical grounds alone, this is unacceptable.
Any suggestions as to how Toronto--and other cities--could pull out of this? Getting a sufficiently dynamic labour market, and associated economy, is key. Is there best practice to be productively shared?