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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 ...

In 2005, this was $16,536 for a single person living alone. This figure is far lower than other definitions of poverty.

WHO ARE THE WORKING POOR?

According to Metcalf’s study, working people living in poverty are younger than average. They’re more likely to be immigrants. They’re more likely to be single, but if they have a family, chances are they’re a single parent or there’s only one breadwinner in the household.

Their education levels are, on average, lower than working people who aren’t poor: About 48 per cent have high school or less, and 52 per cent have some higher education.

But, significantly, they are working – a lot: On average, they work almost as many hours as people who are employed and making a decent living, and the working poor are likely to have multiple sources of income.

(The Metcalf Foundation’s study uses the most recent income and demographic information available – the 2006 census. The figures are dated, especially given the huge economic shifts post-2008, but researchers say the trends the maps show are instructive. They hope to update their data once Statistics Canada comes out with more detailed census information next year.)

TRANSIT MATTERS

A constant over the past decade is that socioeconomic mobility relies on ease of physical mobility. With the significant exception of Regent Park’s dense pocket of downtown destitution, the areas with high rates of working poverty tend to be places that don’t have access to good public transit.

Swaths of the inner suburbs, built for car-driving 1950s households, are now home to people who work but don’t make enough to get by – and are often stuck there.

City planners like to say Toronto has a great transit system – for a city of one-million people.  But with a population close to three times that, it’s nowhere near adequate.

A SLICE OF SCARBOROUGH

For the past several years, the area just northeast of Danforth Avenue and Victoria Park Avenue has been host to one of Toronto’s highest concentrations of working poverty. The area is 14 times denser than the city average. Almost all its residents (99.7 per cent) live in high-rise apartments. After-tax income for an average household is about 40 per cent the Toronto average. More than two-thirds of residents came to Canada as immigrants, but most are citizens.

And they’re educated: Almost 37 per cent of those over 15 have a university diploma or degree. That education level is somewhat of an anomaly. So, too, is the area’s transit situation: It’s right beside the Bloor-Danforth subway, so mobility is less of an issue. The area’s housing stock and its concentration of recent immigrants play a role.

“Employment is a huge issue in our area,” says Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, who remembers snaking lines of unemployed outside her husband Lorenzo Berardinetti’s MPP office almost as soon as the recession hit in late 2008.

“I wouldn’t say its really gotten better. People are still finding it hard to find good employment.”

THE BIRCHMOUNT CORRIDOR

The authors of Metcalf’s study point to the Birchmount corridor to illustrate the challenges facing the city’s lowest-earning workers. The strip runs from Steeles almost to the water, through several priority neighbourhoods – Steeles L’Amoreaux, Dorset Park and Kennedy Park. These are pockets of poverty Toronto designated years ago as areas underserved by municipal resources. Targeting resources to community groups in areas like Steeles L’Amoreaux has paid off, but this corridor still lacks some of the most basic local services.

While areas with a significant percentage of the working poor are scattered all over the city, the maps demonstrate a shift to the city’s east end: Some of the census tracts with the sharpest increase in working poverty are east of the Don Valley. Lower prices, and towering, decades-old rental buildings, make the sprawling residential areas an affordable place to live.

A NEIGHBOURHOOD’S EYE VIEW

Researchers in Toronto and Hamilton are trying to figure out how precarious employment affects communities at the micro-level. They’re focusing on two places in Toronto: the eastern side of downtown, near Parliament, and the Weston Mount Dennis area, in the city’s northwest. Eastern downtown is a traditionally gritty few blocks in a rapidly gentrifying area; Weston Mount Dennis, has been hard hit by industrial closures.

“We decided to do this on a neighbourhood level and sort of drill down a bit more: It’s a smaller economic unit,” says Ryerson University professor Grace-Edward Galabuzi. “Are there services in the neighbourhood, economic opportunities in the neighbourhood, that could mitigate some of that precariousness?”

The working hypothesis, he says, is that unstable work affects individuals and families but it also undermines a community’s coping mechanisms, making it harder to bounce back.

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