By Laurie MonsebraatenSocial Justice Reporter
Mon., May 6, 2019
If you were a Black man living in Toronto in 1980, you were probably making about the same income as your white neighbour. But today, it’s a dramatically different story.
Average incomes of racialized people in the Toronto region have stagnated or dropped over the past 35 years while incomes of non-racialized residents have soared, according to alarming new research by United Way Greater Toronto.
Shaunette Tomlinson has finally landed a career-track position in finance and administration at the Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Centre, after years of struggling to find meaningful work, despite diplomas in marketing and medical administration. (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)
The earnings gap was barely noticeable in 1980. But by 2015, for every dollar earned by non-racialized Torontonians, racialized residents made an average of just 52.1 cents, says the agency in a report being released Monday.
“The growth of income inequality is undermining the promise that ‘diversity is our strength’ — and that’s a problem,” said United Way president Daniele Zanotti.
“We know that in a less equal society, circumstances that are beyond your control — like the colour of your skin, the postal code you are growing up in — are now having a greater influence on your outcome,” he added. “For a region to be great, it needs to be great for everyone.”
The report, based on micro-data from the latest census, reinforces other Canadian research, the agency says. But it shows for the first time how income inequality impacts racialized people in the Toronto region to a much greater degree than in the rest of the country. And the findings are the same regardless of whether they are newcomers, long-time immigrants or Canadian-born.
Toronto region becoming more divided along income lines
“There are lots of other reports that say the same thing, but we didn’t really expect to see it … so dramatically,” said Michelynn Laflèche, the United Way’s vice-president of research and policy. “This one really shocked me.”
Language and education are often blamed for the disparity, Laflèche notes, but other studies refute that explanation.
“There is something else going on in the labour market that can only come down to discrimination and exclusion,” she said.
The United Way uses Statistics Canada’s definition of “visible minority” to describe racialized people, who in many neighbourhoods in the Toronto area make up the majority of residents. They include people who describe themselves in the census as South Asian, Chinese, Black, Filipino, Latin American, Arab, Southeast Asian, West Asian, Korean or Japanese.
The report, titled “Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation,” is the third instalment in the United Way’s research on how effort and access to opportunity result in varying degrees of success for residents.
Monday’s report, which examines the impact of racial identity, immigration status, age and gender, shows these factors increasingly have become barriers.
Coupled with the United Way’s 2017 report on the growing polarization of the region’s high- and low-income neighbourhoods, the latest report paints a troubling picture, Laflèche said.
“We end up with a segregated society at many levels all coming together in this compounding effect of income, race and immigration status and creating what we called last year ‘segregated islands of wealth and poverty,’” she said.
“What does that mean for us as a society?” she asks. “It’s bad news. It means people no longer have a sense of collective identity. They lose this kind of trust and reciprocity that was so much more common in the past and which are the foundations for a strong, cohesive society.”
While average incomes of immigrants across the country, regardless of their residency in Canada, haven’t improved since 1980, the report shows the divide is worse in the Toronto region, where incomes have dropped in some areas.
“Age, immigration status, gender, racial identity and even postal code increasingly have become barriers to success in Greater Toronto,” Zanotti said.
In Peel Region, for example, average incomes of longtime immigrants dropped to $46,600 in 2015 from the equivalent of $50,100 in 1980, according to the report. Meanwhile, average incomes for Canadian-born residents in that region rose from $52,800 to $61,100 in constant dollars during that time.
The report shows similar income drops among immigrants in York Region and Toronto.
In all three regions, the average income gap between immigrants and Canadian-born residents was most pronounced for people in permanent, full-time jobs. And for racialized and immigrant women, the disparity was even greater, the report found.
“The gap demonstrated here is so extreme and significant, that it demands action and it demands a collective discussion, both across the country and the GTA on multiple strategies to address it,” Zanotti said.
Shaunette Tomlinson, a 34-year-old Etobicoke mother of two who immigrated to Canada from Jamaica at age 16, has struggled to climb out of poverty-level employment for most of her adult life. And that is despite earning two college diplomas.
She contrasts her work experience with that of her father, a truck driver in Jamaica who came to Canada in the 1980s and immediately found work in his field. Within a short time, he was able to buy a home and support a wife and six children on his earnings, Tomlinson said. He currently runs a fleet of four trucks and continues to thrive.
“I look at his life at age 34 and my own and I wonder why it is so hard today,” she said. After more than a decade of part-time and dead-end jobs, Tomlinson has finally landed a career-track position in finance and administration at the Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Centre in Scarborough.
“For the first time in my life I love to get up in the morning and go to work — even though it’s a long commute,” said Tomlinson, whose next goal is to save for a condo.
Gurpreet Malhotra, executive director for Indus Community Services, sees people like Tomlinson every day in his large multi-service agency with branches in Mississauga, Brampton and Oakville.
One of his agency’s biggest challenges is helping people move from “survival jobs” into career-focused employment.
“The large number of temp agencies operating in our area and their need to maintain a temp pool (of workers) isn’t helping people advance,” he said.
Indus is part of the Peel Community Benefits Network, a group of agencies working to ensure the Hurontario LRT transit project hires local talent.
Gurpreet Malhotra, executive director for Indus Community Services, says one of his agency’s biggest challenges is helping people move from “survival jobs” into career-focused employment. (Toronto Star)
Community benefits agreements are just one way local agencies are trying to address the challenging findings in the United Way report, he added.
“It really is harder today than it was for me in the 1980s,” said Malhotra, whose parents moved from India to England, where he was born. The family immigrated to Canada when he was 11.
After studying public policy administration at York University, Malhotra landed a job at age 24 as executive director for a small neighbourhood agency, earning almost $60,000 in today’s dollars.
“I’ve been impacted by the colour of my skin and racism … but it was much easier for me than for someone with an accent and who didn’t go to school here,” he said.
Today, many newcomers his agency serves have been in Canada for a decade or more, but still have not mastered English because their communities and workplaces are filled with immigrants like themselves. It puts these workers at a double disadvantage during layoffs, Malhotra said.
Such demographic and geographic inequities lead to an increasingly divided society where different groups of people have distinct life experiences and trajectories, and where many people have little opportunity to meaningfully interact with anyone from outside their group, the report notes.
In Toronto, more than half of people had little or no interaction with friends from a visibly different ethnic group in the last month, while 60 per cent interacted almost exclusively with people who spoke the same mother tongue, according to the report.
These divisions “wear on the foundations of our communities,” it says. “It means the most vulnerable among us are more likely to find themselves socially isolated, with few connections, networks and resources to rely on for support.”
It makes it harder to build trust between different groups and “fuels the seeds of division, driving negative attitudes and stereotypes,” the report says.
The United Way makes 12 recommendations under three broad headings: ensuring everyone can participate in society; enabling people to get ahead; and making life more affordable. And it starts with a national conversation, president Zanotti says.
“Ultimately, unless we address the discriminatory attitudes, like racism and xenophobia, that underlie the opportunity equation, income and social inequality trends … will not improve,” the report says. “Together, we can redefine what it means to be Canadian in this increasingly polarized world.”
The United Way is urging government, unions, community and private sectors to develop “data-informed” strategies to combat systemic discrimination. And it wants to strengthen the community services sector to better meet the growing demand for services that help promote inclusion and level the playing field.
The report suggests targeted investments to help young adults, immigrants, racialized people, and women overcome the multiple barriers they often face in finding secure jobs with a future.
It recommends improving job quality and security, and updating and improving employment standards legislation and employment insurance.
The report also calls on the federal government to beef up the Canada Worker Benefit and urges all levels of government to create more affordable housing, public transportation and child care to support all workers, but especially groups whose incomes have stagnated.
“We are at a critical juncture — the policies, practices, and programs that have made us a country and city-region celebrated for its prosperity and inclusion are not the same policies, practices, and programs that will get us to where we need to go now,” says the report. “The future of our city-region depends on the choices we make today.”
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb
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