Have Mayor Tory and Council Delivered on Poverty Reduction?
With Toronto Council’s term ending it is a good time to ask: have Mayor John Tory and city councillors lived up to their strongly voiced commitment to tackle poverty?
In 2015, council unanimously adopted “TO Prosperity,” a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy that aims to ensure, by 2035, that “everyone has access to good jobs, adequate income, stable housing, affordable transportation, nutritious food and supportive services.”
Mayor Tory called TO Prosperity “one of the most important commitments” of council.
Toronto has the highest child poverty rate among large Canadian cities. It also has the widest gap between rich and poor, with stark economic inequities dividing our city along lines of race, gender, immigration status, ability, age and other equity dimensions.
Dozens of cities across Canada have poverty reductions strategies. Municipalities can reduce poverty levels and mitigate the impacts of poverty by leveraging good jobs through infrastructure and service spending, ensuring that taxes and fees are fair and equitable, and improving access to affordable services.
Mayor and council have taken several significant actions:
- Transit is now free for children, TTC fares have been reduced by 30 per cent for social assistance recipients and two-hour transfers are being implemented.
- Toronto has become the first city in Canada to implement a social procurement program to improve access to city contracts by equity-seeking groups.
- There has been some expansion of key city services, such as child care, recreation programs, school nutrition programs, library services, youth hubs and shelters.
However, only half of TO Prosperity actions for 2017 were completed, and new operating funding for TO Prosperity fell from $93 million in 2016 to $14 million in 2018 (a tiny fraction of the city’s $11 billion budget).
It is difficult to assess the impact of the strategy due to its lack of clear targets for success. However, progress appears to be limited. Food bank use remains above 2014 levels. Shelter use has more than doubled since 2014. The wait-list for subsidized child care remains high, at 14,000 children despite provincial investments, and the wait-list for social housing is rising, now exceeding 100,000 households.
TO Prosperity also aims to change how decisions are made.
The city has incorporated an “equity impact assessment” in its budget planning process in order to better consider the impacts of planned service level changes on low-income people and women. However, numerous budget decision deemed to have a negative impact have still proceeded.
The city has set up a Lived Experience Advisory Group to bring the voice of people who have lived through poverty into planning processes, but this advisory body lacks clearly defined influence or authority.
Finally, council has failed to adopt new revenue tools in order to fund its poverty reduction strategy and related service improvements, leaving a cash-strapped city unable to support a level of housing, transit, child care or recreation programs that would actually meet community needs.
In sum, thousands more residents do have access to jobs, housing, transit, child care, recreation programs and others services as a result of council decisions over the past four years. However, these modest service expansions have hardly put a dent in long waiting lists, or in Toronto’s high levels of poverty levels and inequality.
One hopeful sign is that council has adopted clear and fairly relatively ambitious targets for the expansion of supportive housing, TTC fare discounts for low-income riders, subsidized child care, and community recreation programs over the next four years. Whether or not these targets are achieved will depend on the actions of the mayor and councillors who are elected on Oct. 22.
In the lead up to voting day, every resident in Toronto can be an advocate for a more just and livable city by asking candidates whether they will support the full funding and implementation of the city’s poverty reduction plan and related strategies over the next four years. (The Commitment TO Community coalition will be posting candidate responses at prosperityplatform.ca)
With this information, Toronto residents can cast a vote for a more prosperous and equitable city.
Michael Polanyi is a Community Worker at the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. Leila Sarangi is Executive Director of Springtide Resources. Both were members of the City’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Advisory Committee.