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Armira Varga moved to Canada from Colombia 23 years ago, built a life for herself and her kids and faced the challenges of job loss and having to start a new life. (Moe Doiron / The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron / The Globe and Mail)
Armira Varga moved to Canada from Colombia 23 years ago, built a life for herself and her kids and faced the challenges of job loss and having to start a new life. (Moe Doiron / The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron / The Globe and Mail)

Employment

The poor in Toronto: They're working but not getting any richer Add to ...

Janice Brett was out of work after 24 years and three months working at Scarborough’s Honeywell North Safety, when the worksite safety manufacturer closed its Toronto plant last year. “We were stunned. … All those years working there, we had no benefits. They ran out after six months.”

She sold her house, moved in with a friend in Scarborough, and didn’t realize she’d started grinding her teeth at night until she broke a tooth.

Ms. Brett got a part-time job as a cashier at a Zellers in Pickering, and another as an assistant cook at Chartwell’s. “Those two jobs were not giving me the pay I made at Honeywell.” Now, foodservice diploma in hand, she’s pinning her hopes on landing a full-time job.

“The second week of January I got 4.25 hours,” she says, “Hello? It’s not worth getting out of bed.”

Underemployed immigrants and clustered poverty

Immigrants make up a little more than half of all the working-age population in the Toronto area – but almost three-quarters of the region’s working poor. In 2005, nine of the city’s census tracts boasted more than a fifth of the working-age immigrant population employed and in poverty.

As with the general population, the areas where the ranks of working-poor immigrants are increasing are clustered in the city’s east end, most of them away from transit in areas originally designed for car-owning families of the 1950s.

Martin Vincent came to Canada from the UK just over a year ago. His degrees in politics, war studies and defence studies and years of experience as a police officer and counter-terror co-ordinator haven’t been enough to get him a job in his field; they haven’t even been able to land him a full-time gig.

“Can I get a job in Canada? You’ve got to be joking. Not a chance.”

Right now he’s working part-time at Indigo Books, he says. He likes the company, but the hours aren’t enough to live on.

“I look at it as a job that’s temporary, until I can have a permanent job.”

Groups working with Toronto-area immigrants worry the shift of migrants to other provinces, and the leaching away of federal funds for immigrant settlement will make it even more difficult for newcomers to integrate into the job market.

In the meantime, lower earners who cluster in areas made affordable because of a lack of transportation remain lower earners for that same reason. Once poor people are entrenched in a neighbourhood such as Steeles L’Amoreaux, Weston Mount Dennis or Kingston-Galloway, there’s often little incentive for businesses to invest.

“You have a convergence of not great transit and more affordable housing,” says Colette Murphy, inclusive economies program director at the Metcalf Foundation. “How do you build a strong, resilient economic region and city when you start to see these types of patterns?”

The high cost of low pay

How to do that depends who you ask. And whether you’re trying to get re-elected.

The simplest route is to increase the minimum wage.

There’s no shortage of arguments against it, the most common of which is that it hurts employers, especially smaller businesses, and so harms the economy more than it helps.

But multiple U.S. states are considering doing just that. A study last month from the New York-based Fiscal Policy Institute argued boosting the state’s minimum wage would actually create jobs by increasing the purchasing power of families likely to spend that extra cash locally.

“If you’ve got people coming out of poverty, you’ve got consumers,” says Robin Somerville, an economist with the Centre for Spatial Economics. “There’s no economic advantage to be gained by having the bottom 20 per cent dirt poor and the top 20 per cent filthy rich. It’s just not as efficient.”

But the problem is not just related to wages, but to the uncertainty of the work. Some argue there’s a case for government to step in – either by beefing up public pension and benefit plans or through a working income tax benefit that would top up the annual income of people with jobs.

When the people who are supposed to push a consumer-driven recovery have no discretionary income to speak of, it hurts the entire economy – often much more than the accumulation of wealth at the upper echelons helps it.

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