Two recent events were significant in shining a spotlight on poverty in Toronto: the release of the Vital Signs report, which demonstrated the growing inequities in our city, and the release of the federal budget, which showed the important role the federal government has in improving the health of our cities.
The Vital Signs report, the Toronto Foundation’s annual snapshot of urban life, showed that Toronto is increasingly becoming two cities – one underserved, one not – with quality of life greatly impacted by income, race, immigration status, gender, sexual identity, and age.
Vital Signs referenced Daily Bread’s 2017 Who’s Hungry report to help illustrate this increasing inequity, highlighting how Toronto food banks saw almost 1 million visits last year, with the most sustained increase among those aged 45 and up1. This increase happened despite on-paper prosperity and low unemployment rates.
How can a robust economy and recession-era food bank demand co-exist? The answer relates to the labour market.
People who have fallen out of the labour market, such as seniors or those with a disability who cannot work, are having an increasingly difficult time keeping up with rapidly rising costs of living. The labour market itself is also becoming more fragmented and less likely to provide steady income.
And while there has been a pervasive shift in the labour market from full-time employment to more part-time and casual work, there is evidence this shift may not be impacting everyone equally. The Vital Signs report highlighted that racialized groups are more likely than non-racialized groups to be working in precarious or part-time work without benefits2.
Similarly, the Who’s Hungry survey found that recent newcomers, including many from Afghanistan, Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria, are almost twice as likely than non-recent newcomers to be receiving their main source of income from employment.
Despite earning more than the minimum wage, respondents reported only being able to get jobs with part-time hours, and having to skip meals because they are paying upwards of 74 per cent of their income on rent3. With this kind of financial pressure, skipping meals and/or accessing food banks becomes a necessity, despite living in the wealthiest city in the country.
The 2018 Federal Budget and the Canada Workers Benefit
The 2018 Federal Budget took an important step in acknowledging the increasing precariousness of the labour market by creating what the budget referred to as a more “generous” and “accessible” Working Income Tax Benefit, now rebranded as the Canada Workers Benefit.
The 2018 federal budget commits to increasing the amounts given to those who are eligible, as well as increasing eligibility by expanding the income range so more low income workers can access it.
For instance, a single parent or couple earning $25,000 a year could receive as much as $717 more from the program in 2019 than in 2018. And those earning $30,000 per year are now eligible to receive the benefit, whereas in 2018 they would have not been eligible. A single, unattached person could receive up to $500 more from the program, and singles earning $20,000 a year are now eligible. This is an important step towards greater income security and we are pleased to see it come to fruition.
In 2007 Daily Bread had praised the introduction of the Working Income Tax Benefit, but we also pushed for a more generous benefit that would provide more money and raising the “phase-out” points so more working poor could access it. This is particularly important for income security for many working poor, including food bank clients, who receive more than the minimum wage but are restricted in the number of hours they get at work.
Automatic enrolment in the Canada Workers Benefit – just as important in the increase in benefits itself
The federal budget also commits to increasing access to the benefit by enabling the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to automatically determine eligibility, instead of a potential recipient having to apply separately and potentially miss out on receiving the benefit. All too often we see food bank clients, seniors in particular, who are not accessing their benefits because of a lack of awareness, no access to internet, or not being able to read the forms due to language barriers. Moving to automatic enrolment is just as important a step as the increase in benefits itself, which the government estimates will enable 300,000 additional low-income workers to access it.
But it is worth highlighting again that what appears to be simply an administrative change (automatic enrolment in the CWB) can have a potentially large impact on improving the lives of people living on low income, particularly groups such as recent newcomers, those who don’t speak English as a first language, and other vulnerable populations who are more likely to encounter administrative barriers when trying to access government services. This is what we are calling the pragmatic face of equity.
Other measures in the federal budget, such as investments in affordable housing, and indexing child and seniors benefits to inflation underscore the federal government’s crucial role in income support – indeed, what is becoming more evident is that all three levels of government have a role to play in helping to create more equitable and just cities.
1 Toronto Vital Signs 2017-2018, pg. 35.
2 Vital Signs Report 2017-2018, pg.71.
3 2017 Who’s Hungry, pg.29.