A Tale of 3 Cities: Spatial Concentration of Poverty in Toronto

By: Hilda-Matilda Idegwu

Labelling Toronto as an “urban hub of vitality” is a blatant disregard of the significant amount of the city’s population experiencing poverty at alarming rates. 

Waking up every morning on the corner of King and Portland (famously known as the Entertainment district) it’s easy to notice the hustle and bustle of workers in their 20’s and 30’s rushing to feed the hungry mouth of capitalism in the towers encircling the Financial District that symbolize the city’s success. But beyond the midsection of Toronto’s subway line one and northwest of line two holds the true realities of 46% of immigrants, 33% of racialized groups and 30% of people with disabilities living within pockets of poverty. This spatial concentration of poverty has created a city divided by the harsh realities of income segregation. While higher-income households have benefited from policies and structures that provide socio-economic safety nets, the same can’t be said for the most vulnerable in our city. 

What if it didn’t have to be like this? What if low-income communities could become more prosperous, and well-off neighbourhoods become more equal and accessible? Increased socio-economic integration could improve the situation by bringing people together; if such integration can be accomplished through progressive policy, then the question becomes a matter of how and when. Reversing these realities is not an impossible task but needs the urgent implementation of progressive policies that promote socio-economic integration.

A study between 1970 and 2005 coined the three cities operating within Toronto’s neighbourhoods. These distinct areas were grouped based on income disparities. City #1 was primarily high income, found in the city’s centre, City #2 was mainly middle-class, and City #3 unsurprisingly concentrated with generally low-income individuals. The wealth divisions were far from the most relevant discovery but rather the alarming changes in these neighbourhoods revealed a budding issue in Toronto – a growing spatial concentration of poverty. While the high-income neighbourhoods increased slightly in those 35 years, the middle-income neighbours shrank drastically and the low-income increased substantially. We continue to see these trends in 2021, much so after a world pandemic. 

Urban inequality in Toronto has produced a rich city filled with poor peopleNeighbourhood Improvement Areas like Malvern, Black Creek-Hummer Summit and Jane and Finch may not ring a bell to residents living in within the midst of the city’s prosperous neighbourhoods; surrounded by world-class amenities, blog-TO featured restaurants and a frivolous amount of newly renovated dog parks. The former draws a blinding parallel from the latter.  A walk-through one of these neighbourhoods would reveal underfunded schools and community centres, decaying high-rise buildings and children parks and of course exploitative pay-day loan companies (often missing in middle-class communities) preying on the vulnerability of poor residents suffering from a widening-wealth gap. 

Naturally, the housing crisis has dramatically contributed to income segregation within the city. As houses become more unaffordable, lower-income households are forced into public housing communities. Although public housing is an appealing policy on the shopping list of your average well-intentioned liberal, it is not a safe haven of affordability. Artificial zonings end up propagating greater inequality and ghettoization, limiting access to quality health care, education, childcare, and other forms of social services in the good name of “public housing”. As a result, long-term oppressive structures that limit the opportunities and living standards of marginalized people come into play. 

The age-old social policy of public housing needs an Extreme Makeover: Housing Edition. Urban planners and policy makers who believe the solution to the housing crisis is building neighbourhoods of high-rise flats to house the growing community of racialized, low-income and disabled citizens need to consider the long-term effects.

From an economic standpoint, providing rent subsidies to low-income households is a tactical way of increasing their incomes and providing the opportunity of relocation into well-integrated neighbourhoods of choice. The younger generation become benefactors of rental assistance programs and inclusionary zoning laws (beyond face-value) that promote mixed-income neighbourhoods. Such policies not only reduce homelessness but relocates households into neighbourhoods that have lower rates of poverty, with access to better quality of education, reduced crime rates and overall well-funded communities. Studies show that families with children who are provided such opportunities exhibit positive social behaviour and are more likely to receive higher standard of education which leads to better job prospects. The same can’t always be said communities that are regularly underfunded and overlooked which continues the cycle of poverty for many families.

The spatial concentration of poverty in Toronto can be gradually reversed by policies that increase access to housing that is more affordable for low-income families and expand social services to the margins of our communities where help is urgently needed. Implementing major policies now will be a gradual but necessary step towards a more equitable spatial distribution across the city.

We need transformative socio-economic and governmental policy conditions in order to tackle this issue but also a societal paradigm shift where elitism no longer places the marginalized in our community’s fringes. 

The negative externalities of spatial poverty affect us all. The benefits of tackling this issue are endless.

Hilda-Matilda’s compassion for the underrepresented and lived-experiences has led her towards an academic and professional journey in Public Policy. Her primary goal is to dissect policy concerns and develop action plans that promote political stability and public good without compromising the needs of the marginalized. She’s a first year Master of Public Policy candidate of University of Toronto’s Munk School seeking to navigate the institutions and complex frameworks that currently exist. She is a strong believer that when done well, evidence-based policy can lead to social transformation without overlooking the tangible experiences of individuals and their communities. Hilda’s policy interests lie in breaking down barriers in education, assuring government accountability, promoting inclusion beyond representation and fiscal policies in the Global South. Hilda is currently a consultant at the Public Good Initiative, a Global Ideas Institute Mentor and the Director of External Affairs at Munk School’s Black Student Association.

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