By Saeed Mohamed
On November 3rd, 2015 the City of Toronto published TO Prosperity: Toronto Poverty Reduction Plan, a 48-page interim policy report receiving unanimous City Council approval. For the first time, poverty reduction strategies have been formally introduced into the 2016 City Budget, also marking the first time all levels of government have been on board with poverty reduction.
TO Prosperity is a 20-year plan that aims to address the “effects, trajectories, and causes of poverty” while taking action on six different issue-areas. This plan has huge implications on newcomers, Syrian Refugees, low-income people, the homeless, and working-class communities.
However, the policy plan’s timeline leaves room for procrastination by the municipal government. In the 2015 budget, the City of Toronto allocated $25 million to informal “poverty reduction” initiatives supporting individuals, families and neighbourhoods. This year now that the plan has been officially legislated, poverty reduction has received less funding. Expecting a total of $75 million towards poverty reduction investments in the city of Toronto after a $50 million 2016 budget increase, we have significantly fallen short of that goal, receiving merely a fraction of that this year. Because TO Prosperity’s claims of transit equity, housing stability, quality jobs and liveable wages have not come into fruition, the 20-year formula adopted without a fixed annual commitment to funding will allow for governmental inaction and a lack of accountability.
The 2015 poverty reduction plan aims for transit fare equity, suggesting lowered fare prices on adult, student and senior fares and passes. But in the last year, the City has instead increased student Metropass prices as well as moving adult cash fare to $3.25. These increases to the adult fare are disproportionately more damaging to low-income, TTC-reliant communities.
In 2016, the total estimated homeless population nears 6,000, with thousands of those people living either on the streets or in city-administered shelters. Receiving even less prioritization, “invisible homelessness” is a growing issue as well. People are living from couch to couch, without stable housing. For a city as affluent as Toronto, this is unacceptable, and this is something TO Prosperity admits to in their policy plan.
The report lists housing stability as one of its top “issue-areas”, saying, “low-incomes do not need to sacrifice basic needs to live in decent conditions”. But the City provides little to actually address very basic aspects of housing: affordability and liveable conditions.
If the City had our interests in mind, young people would have a lot more opportunities to find work.
As waiting lists for Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) only get longer, working class people are forced to turn to private housing. On average, most people spend about 30% of their household income on rent in Toronto. For low-income households working minimum wage jobs, that number is much higher. Based on a series of BASICS interviews in the Markham and Eglinton area, residents are forced to spend as much as 80% of their income on rent. Is this what the City calls affordable? And what is the quality of housing that people are able to access? Should we have to pay 80% of our income for mould and mildew growing on walls, water damage, poor ventilation systems, and broken amenities?
The labour market in the City has made it increasingly difficult for marginalized communities to make a decent living. Full-time, continuous employment with benefits at a liveable wage should be the City’s goal. Krish, an international student from India studying business at Centennial College said the TO Prosperity plan does not address the issues that he and his peers are experiencing while attending school. “As an immigrant, as a student, there is nothing for us”. Unstable, minimum-wage paying jobs are the reality instead for most recent immigrants, single-parent households, youth, and racialized groups living in poverty today.
Without being able to sustain a liveable income, how will housing, transportation, and even basic needs like food and clothing become affordable to the working-class?
TO Prosperity introduces the concept of a “liveable wage”, however, the concept has failed throughout various levels of government. The idea will continue to be pushed aside with the convenience the self-appointed 20-year timeline provides. In Toronto, for a person to prosper and meet basic expenses like rent, food, childcare, transportation and clothing they need to be working full-time at $18/hr.
The City also stated its interest in providing quality employment opportunities multiple times. However, the poverty reduction strategy does not provide a clear plan for stable youth employment. Youth unemployment in Toronto is amongst the highest in the province at 18%. Roowens, who is a Sir Wilfred Laurier Secondary School student in grade 11 works a job that pays him commission based on the number of sales he makes. He pointed out, “if the City had our interests in mind, young people would have a lot more opportunities to find work”.
The municipal government often pays lip service to the systemic barriers that result in poverty. They mention the importance of accessible transportation, affordable and liveable housing, and good employment yet they do not provide any clear or coherent plans to make these things a reality. The fact that people have to pay 80% of their income on rent exposes how wide the income disparities are in Toronto, and the City does not seek to change this class difference.
Organizers in the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), who have made a list of demands to City Hall to address poverty, and have been fighting government claw-backs to social funding for two decades reject the Poverty Reduction Plan as a farce. “Clearly, though, it would be a mistake to deal with the City’s Poverty Reduction proposals as a serious effort to address poverty.” OCAP organizers feel that the plan is “a political tactic to create a false expectation that the problems in peoples’ lives are being addressed so as to divert their attention away from building movements of social resistance.”
Income disparity will remain so long as the people that benefit from exploitation are in positions of power. An increasing global trend exists where the rich get richer and the poor get significantly poorer, and this trend has been evident in Toronto as well. The report states that between the years 1970 to 2005, the percentage of low-income neighbourhoods in the City more than doubled from 19% to 53% and the amount of middle-income neighbourhoods were cut in half, falling from 66% to 29%. Over the same period of time, rich, high-income neighbourhoods in Toronto grew from 15% to 19%.
This is not an accident, this is deliberate. Poverty is a necessary condition for profit and the concentration of wealth to exist. Wages were never meant to be liveable, they are a way to minimize production costs. The state does not see the people as people, but instead as labour. And you need the labour of the many to maximize profit for the few.
Poverty will not be eradicated or even significantly “reduced” through the generosity of the City of Toronto. This year, the City uses a 20-year-timeline to avoid accountability. But in 20 years, there will be a different excuse. So should we sit around and wait for a handout from the City that will never come? Or should we stand up and work together to demand and create better lives for ourselves and our families? The decision is ours to make.