Seen and Heard: The Growing Income Gap in Toronto

Shannon Brooks

On October 15th, 2015, United Way hosted an open discussion on income inequality entitled, “What’s next on the agenda and what can we do?” The panelists included Kofi Hope, David Hulchanski, Susan McIssac, and Graeme Stewart, each armed with a different set of background knowledge on the topic of social inequality in Toronto. In light of the recent federal election, change has been the forefront of the country’s mind. But what about Toronto?

As someone interested in urban policy, I was challenged by a question posed by an audience member:

“How do we engage with policymakers to work on the problems faced by Toronto?”

The onus will continue to be placed on policy thinkers and advocates to address Toronto’s challenges. And with change ringing in our ears in the aftermath of the federal election, these bells should also alarm us into action at a municipal level. As new reforms line up on the docket for Canada, social policy at the urban level requires a new and fresh spin to respond to the challenges outlined in this talk.

The landscape of Toronto’s income gap has been growing in strides since the 1990s. David Hulchanski, a social work professor at the University of Toronto, explained this concept through the term “income polarization.” Toronto once was defined by its middle class, but has shifted to a slight growth at the top and an immense influx of individuals joining at the bottom of the income distribution. Specifically, housing within Toronto has become overrun by upper class condominiums, and development is concentrated in wealthy areas. The challenge of housing infrastructure is that is based upon targeting the rich, while further weakening lower income areas that require assistance.

Graeme Stewart, one of the panelists, works as an architect in the city. He explained that Toronto has played a highly reactionary and defensive role when it comes to lower income areas and development. Poor zoning has resulted in this problem, but enhancing the zoning projects in areas like Scarborough, Rexdale and North York is where the solution lies. The necessary response to housing inequality is zoning research throughout the city to change low growth areas, and hopefully increasing market investment and business investment to boost revenues.

Policy-makers are tackling income inequality head on. David Hulchanski’s research highlights four problems that are immediately addressable:

  1. Labour Market: there are fewer middle-income paying jobs and many more minimum wage positions that provide little to no benefits or job security. To close this gap, the private sector must respond in order for individuals to be well-compensated for their work. Ultimately, job training and equal access to university institutions for training are needed to create equal opportunity.
  2. Rising Cost of Housing: the cost to rent or buy a home has gone up significantly across Canada, but especially within the city of Toronto. There is a need for development of lower-cost housing projects, instead of the continued expansion of expensive waterfront condos.
  3. Cut Backs in Social Spending: with tax cuts undercutting social programs, the largest group that it impacts are lower socio-economic groups who need access to these programs. The government must invest in programs that assist in empowering disadvantaged youth and engaging with the needs of communities.
  4. Discrimination: We see the results of housing discrimination and the effects of skin colour in being able to rent from certain landlords with a strong bias against particular ethnicities or cultural backgrounds.

So, how do we develop these lower income areas? Kofi Hope, a local activist who was on the panel, put forth the key element: community empowerment through youth involvement. He outlined the need for youth to be at the front lines: these are the individuals who are facing racialized underemployment and unemployment. They are the ones who have experience over-policing, police carding, and the growing inequality in the criminal justice system. Hope advocated for support and partnership to create programs, while also creating systemic solutions that combat income inequality.

And one must ask: which policies could we use to tackle these equity issues? Susan McIsaac, President and CEO of United Way, explained the need for policy modification that focuses on direct services, working closely with people and advocating for their rights. She explained that, in areas where there is concentrated poverty, there is also an absence of services. Youth in marginalized areas need partnership with different generations to work together to find solutions through creativity and sharing experiences.

However, the question posed by the audience member was only partially answered. The question not only asks how we work with policy makers, but also questions how we can formulate policy that responds to housing inequality and the various other social injustices facing Toronto. What policies need to be implemented to address other areas like transit, social services, immigration, and integration?

I believe an important mechanism for change is first creating stronger policy in the private sector to ensure job protections, including raising the minimum wage as well as development of these low-income neighbourhoods. Another idea was outlined, which is to invest in social programs that solidify the support of communities and assist those at the bottom, instead of aiding those at the top. But how do we engage? Do individuals want to engage? In a system of cyclical oppression, these responses seem surface-level. To fix a growing gap requires strong civic action and the involvement and alignment of all individuals, including those in office. Kofi Hope, a University of Toronto alumni, reminded the audience about the importance of involvement and activism in student life as an important form of expression. Individual participation is crucial for forming engagement across the city.

For further understanding of social equity and the problems facing poverty in Toronto, try the United Way’s challenge on the website It is a simulation game that takes you through the daily decisions of a low-income individual. 1 in 10 Canadians are experiencing this lived reality.



Shannon Brooks is a current MPP candidate at the University of Toronto, Class of 2017. Some of her policy interests consist of immigration and refugee policy, social policy, housing, and environmental policy. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Honours from Carleton University with a double major in Law and Human Rights. She is passionate about social justice, and aspires to work within the international community. 


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