The Toronto Star by Kara Santokie 23 January 2015
Toronto may be richer than we think, but there are many people in this city who are poorer than we think.
The 2015 budget reminded us yet again that Toronto has a revenue collection problem and not a spending problem. Yet, this problematic budget purports to address an even bigger issue in our city: the fact that nearly half a million people live below the poverty line.
This isn’t set to disappear anytime soon: a new report from the Broadbent Institute suggests that Toronto wages are declining, even while wages across most of Canada are increasing. It may very well be that cutting off your arm isn’t the best way to go on a diet, as Mayor John Tory claims. But it is equally futile to have your left and right arms do two separate things, as this budget does.
The city has earmarked $21 million for various poverty reduction strategies, including two 24-hour women’s drop-in shelters, the continued implementation of previous recreation commitments such as priority centres and youth lounges, and eliminating TTC fares for children. This is all wonderful stuff. They are much-needed initiatives and some were in the pipeline well before Tory was elected. However, new policies such as creeping TTC fares and other completely absent policies such as child care will exacerbate poverty levels.
As part of the City of Toronto’s current poverty consultation process, Toronto Women’s City Alliance, Scadding Court Community Centre and Women’s Habitat recently hosted a community conversation for women living in poverty. Almost 100 women from across Toronto reaffirmed the crucial importance of adequate employment opportunities, accessible child care and affordable housing.
But even while developing a poverty reduction strategy, the city’s budget mostly does the opposite. With only one new child-care centre, no word on new subsidized child-care spaces, and a housing budget that city manager Joe Pennachetti described as “status quo,” we’ve really just put out some buckets to catch the leaks instead of repairing the entire roof.
And who exactly is responsible for the roof? The provincial government has magnanimously offered to give the city a loan at market interest rates. Really? Not only has the province indicated a willingness to impose a loan on its own child, but it has essentially made a non-offer since its own City of Toronto Act forbids the city from using loans to fund operating costs. One can’t help but wonder if Toronto residents aren’t also Ontarians after all.
Things don’t get any better at the federal level. The federal government has been steadily withdrawing around $1.7 billion in annual funding for social housing across Canada for years, not to mention its complete lack of acknowledgement of the importance of a child-care policy for all Canadians.
Women living in poverty remain trapped because unaffordable child care means that they either can’t work at all or their minimum wage budget and schedule don’t fit with existing child-care options. They remain trapped because they have to choose between paying rent and buying food. And their quality of life remains poor because they often have to walk long distances or stay at home because they cannot afford TTC fares for job searches, health appointments or recreational activities.
Taking a long hard look at how the different parts of the budget add up in terms of actual poverty reduction is just a start. Our tiny public subsidy for transit and woefully inadequate child-care system deserve sustained attention and co-operation from all levels of government. It’s an issue of human development, but it’s also an issue of dollars and cents. Study after study confirms how child care is a solid investment that contributes positively to the national economy. Furthermore, the city’s own recent “Next Stop Health” research confirms the symbiotic relationship between transit and health inequities. Expensive transit ultimately costs everyone more in the long run because of increasing health-care costs, lost productivity and increasing unemployment.
The City of Toronto can only attempt to stop the bleeding and that is precisely what it has done in its 2015 budget. It’s time to put our house in order because this roof covers all of Canada. We don’t need a prime minister and premier who barely communicate. We also don’t need an intransigent province that ignores the vital importance of Toronto to both Ontario and Canada.
We do need strong and engaged relationships between all levels of government. Our collective wealth and human potential depend on it.
Kara Santokie, PhD, is the Director of Toronto Women’s City Alliance.