Poverty is migrating outward in Canada's largest city, with an annual food-bank tally showing soaring need in Toronto's inner suburbs such as Scarborough and Etobicoke.
In total, 896,900 people visited a food bank across Toronto in the year to March, a 1.4-per-cent increase from a year earlier and a level still 12 per cent higher than during the recession, according to the annual count by the Daily Bread Food Bank.
The geography of hunger is shifting. Demand at food banks is subsiding in the city core, down 16 per cent since 2008, while in the inner suburbs of North York, Scarborough and Etobicoke, demand has risen 45 per cent in the past seven years. Several factors are driving the change, among them shifts in the labour market with a prevalence of low-paying service jobs; a hot housing market which is making the city less affordable for lower-income families; and social-assistance payments that haven't kept up with the cost of living, the study said.
As a result, food-bank usage in these inner suburbs is "bursting at the seams to accommodate such a rise in need in a relatively short period of time," the report said.
Visiting a food bank is often a last resort for people short of cash. In Etobicoke, Angela Graham lost her job in 2012. After three months of unemployment, she swallowed her pride and went to the food bank.
"At my age, I thought, 'How did I get here?' I've always worked, I'm not on welfare, I've never applied for subsidized housing, nothing like that," says Ms. Graham.
She's now back working full-time as a telemarketer. But with five children and no child support, and at pay of $13 an hour, ends don't meet. Rent consumes $1,600 for a two-bedroom apartment, leaving her with little left to pay for food, hydro, gas, clothing and medication. She's looking for more affordable housing, but isn't finding any. She's diabetic, but says she can't afford the time off work for medical appointments, and money to buy insulin.
"I'm trying my best, because I try to show my kids, I don't want to sit on welfare and sit at home. I've always worked," says Ms. Graham, 41, who has a college business-management certificate and worked in sales and event planning. "I'm just not progressing."
As for housing, "no one can afford to live in the downtown core. It's just way too expensive."
The Daily Bread findings dovetail with other research. A study this year by the Metcalf Foundation's John Stapleton found Toronto has the highest incidence of working poverty in Canada, at 9.1 per cent of the population. The fastest growth in working poverty between 2006 and 2012 was in the inner and outer suburbs, he found, while the city core saw a drop in the portion of residents who are working poor (which he defines as those who earned at least $3,000 from a job, but whose income still falls below the low-income measure which equates to about $19,500 for a single person).
Research by the University of Toronto's David Hulchanski has also found new concentrations of poverty in "poorly serviced inner suburbs" amid job polarization and rising real-estate prices and gentrification in the city core.
"A consequence is that we're increasing the social divide in the city," said Prof. Hulchanski, which in turn erodes social cohesion. "Cities have been always divided, we always had rich and poor areas – but the prediction was they're going to be even more divided if these trends continue and that the divides will be even greater.… That, in fact, is what has happened. The greater divide means there's a smaller middle."
The tally shows more women are food-bank clients than men, especially in the inner suburbs. A third of recipients are under 18. More than half have a disability. Half are single people. More than one in seven have some college or university. One in eight say employment is their main source of income. And the share of recent immigrants has fallen.
People are relying on food banks for longer stretches of time. The median length of time people come to a food bank has risen to two years, twice as long on average as in 2008, suggesting "people are having a harder time climbing out of poverty," the report said.
The analysis is based on a count of the number of people served, along with 1,086 food-bank-client survey responses and information from interviews and focus groups.
Nearly four in 10 adults said they go hungry at least once a week, and 16 per cent said their children go hungry at least once a week. The main reasons why people came to a food bank were because of a job loss, being new to an area and just settling in, or due to a disability. The most common reasons why people skipped meals was to pay the rent.
Home prices in Toronto have climbed 78 per cent in the past decade, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. Average rent in the city has gone up too, by 18.1 per cent for a two-bedroom apartment in that time, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.
Average rent in Toronto is $1,026 with utilities, according to the Canadian Rental Housing Index. The current rate for a single person receiving social assistance is $656 per month; for singles getting disability payments (ODSP) it is $1,098.
Average monthly income among those coming to food banks in Toronto is $763, Daily Bread says, meaning that after rent and utilities are paid, people are left with $6.67 on average to pay for everything else, including food, transportation and prescriptions.
Toronto was recently ranked as the best city in the world to live by the Economist. "We see that as we attract people to live and invest in Toronto, we are also pushing people out," the report said.
Ms. Graham, who arrived late at the food bank last Wednesday after her shift, selected some boxes of macaroni, salsa and some yogurt. Pickings are slim at the end of the day. Perishables, like bread and milk, tend to run out fast. Sometimes her kids go to school without breakfast because food is scarce. September is particularly stressful as back-to-school fees pile up.
She figures a small increase in her pay, to $16 an hour, and more affordable rent of about $1,200 would give her some breathing room, and raise her family's standard of living. For now, she feels she's slid backward, earnings-wise, from a decade ago, when she felt like she was on the brink of entering the middle class.
"I'm grateful for living in Canada," she says. "But there are so many problems in this beautiful city of ours."