Budgets Speak Louder Than Words: gender equity in the City of Toronto

Emily Wong

Special thanks to Adryan Bergstrom-Borins for additional comments on this event.

How do we improve gender equity in the City of Toronto? Budgeting might not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, that was precisely the focus of “Gender Equity in the City Budget” —Toronto’s first public meeting on how to incorporate gender equity into the way Toronto budgets.

What is gender-responsive budgeting?

Gender-responsive budgeting (GRB) is a framework used to analyze budgets in order to assess how policies and programs have different impacts on different genders. A GRB analysis takes into account issues such as unpaid childcare and the impact of public services, all from a perspective that focuses on who would benefit from particular budget allocations. For example, women are more likely than men to cite childcare as a barrier to employment. Keeping that in mind, a gender-responsive budget would allocate more funding towards childcare, with the aim of offering women better access to the job market.

Gender Equity in the City Budget

On January 19, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27) hosted a town hall meeting where attendees had the opportunity to provide input on how the city could budget in a way that is more equitable towards women. To inform the discussion, Wong-Tam provided a brief explanation for the $91 million shortfall in Toronto’s operating budget for 2017, noting that there is already $10 million planned in service cuts set to take place; the city is still deliberating where to make further cuts or raise revenues to cover the remaining $81 million. Other speakers outlined some of the gendered barriers faced by women in Toronto, and explained the positive effects that gender-responsive budgeting have had in other countries on improving gender equity.

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Participants at the town hall were asked to prioritize areas for funding, and select appropriate revenue tools, to make up the shortfall in the Toronto budget. By law, Toronto is required to pass a balanced budget (i.e. the city cannot run a deficit). As a result, given the city’s strained fiscal resources, allocating more money towards any service would require cuts in other areas, and/or increased revenue. During the consultation portion of the evening, the town hall sought to answer the question: which revenues and cuts would be fair and progressive?

The discussion raised several key points:

  1. Service priorities: Affordable housing, public transit, and childcare were the main areas identified as requiring greater funding in order to improve gender equity.
  2. Areas for cuts: There was widespread support amongst participants for a decrease in the priority of police funding. Other areas highlighted for reallocation included programming like the Canadian National Exhibition, and international events such as the Pan Am Games.
  3. Data collection: There is little gender analysis in poverty analysis done by the city. For instance, data on wealth disparity does not include information about gender. Gender-disaggregated poverty data would provide more clarity in terms of understanding how different genders experience poverty, which could then inform more targeted and effective budgetary interventions.
  4. Additional concerns: When allocating the provision of services, the city must pay attention to midtown/outer Toronto, not simply the downtown core. Participants also discussed the necessity of incorporating more accessibility features into the city for people with disabilities.

Potential setbacks

While the goal of improving gender equity may be easy to support on the surface or in theory, actually implementing a gender equity lens into the Toronto operating budget would not be without contention. For example, participants would have elected to rearrange the budget through slashing funding to the police and to the Ex, as well as raising taxes on property and alcohol. These decisions would likely prove controversial.

Moving forward on GRB

Although budgets may tend to appear gender-neutral at first glance, many times they are not. In fact, the allocation of resources and provision of services can and do have a gendered impact. However, gender-responsive budgeting is not just about women. Even though the focus is on gender, the budget reallocations suggested at the town hall would have benefits for other groups including immigrants, refugees, racialized people, seniors, and other social groups at greater risk for poverty. Prioritizing the funding of social and community programs improves the welfare of all people who need to access these services.

At the end of the day, incorporating a gender equity lens into the budget is an important step towards reducing structural disadvantages faced by marginalized groups. Will Toronto choose equity? City Council votes on the 2017 budget February 15th and 16th.

Emily Wong is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. She received her Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Geography from Queen’s University. Her policy interests include urban and social policy, with a focus on equity and sustainability. When not buried in stacks of grad school readings, she enjoys being outside, preferably surrounded by mountains and/or trees. 

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