4 years into city’s poverty reduction strategy

Four years into the city’s poverty reduction strategy, Mayor John Tory aims to stay the course — but others say the 20-year plan hasn’t changed the reality for marginalized Toronto residents.

On Tuesday, Tory noted $160 million has been invested over the last four years since council approved the plan in 2015.

In that time, according to the city, more than 2,000 fee subsidies were added to the child care system, investments were made in student nutrition and employment programs, and the TTC launched a transit pass for low-income riders and free rides for children.

With the city’s new budget coming next week, Tory stressed the need for new and continued funding “to keep these things going.”

But some community advocates question the city’s strategy.

“Even though it might sound very bold and ambitious, it’s definitely not working,” said Louis March, founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement.

He pointed to the city’s high rates of food bank usage — one 2018 report from several food banks found visits were up 14 per cent since a decade prior — and the high rates of homelessness and shelter use as proof the plan isn’t yet leading to concrete results.

“When we look at gun violence as a growing epidemic in this city,” March added, “we see that link directly to those areas where poverty exists.”

Some initiatives are helping certain people, said Rev. Andrea Budgey, chair of the poverty reduction subcommittee of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, “but it’s such a patchwork kind of approach.”

She also said the funding pool as it exists creates a “Hunter Games” style scenario where social agencies are forced to compete for scarce city resources.

New approaches needed, advocates say

While Tory promised during his re-election campaign to hold property taxes at or below the rate of inflation, Budgey said doing the opposite is needed to create an integrated strategy.

“It’s actually a matter of a complete philosophical change,” she said. “Right now, the idea that we can’t possibly increase property taxes in order to fund any of this seems to be an unchallenged narrative in council.”

Others say it’s not just the financial piece, but the individual initiatives that require a rethink.

Sunder Singh, executive director of the Elspeth Heyworth Centre for Women — an organization that works with immigrant and newcomer women and families — said the city needs to shift its approach on child care in particular.

Currently, Toronto parents pay more than anyone else in the country for infant care with a median fee of $1,758 a month, totaling more than $20,000 in a year, according to numbers from the think tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Singh said innovation, not just subsidies, is needed to make the system as a whole more affordable. One outside-the-box approach? Taking cues from other global cities and developing new strategies like the integration of child and elder care under one roof, Singh said.

According to March, other elements of the plan are simply not hitting the mark. Offering free TTC rides to children under 12 doesn’t benefit the slightly-older youth who are more likely to become involved in gangs and violence without stronger financial supports, he noted.

Youth programs throughout the city, including after-school hubs at various Toronto Public Library branches — which could one day include new locations, after Tory said funding for two new hubs will be proposed in the city’s new budget — also skim the surface of what communities can access, March said.

He stressed the need for supports and programs directly within neighbourhoods, at hours when marginalized people can get access to them.

Otherwise, he questioned, who can attend?

“Is it going to be the single parent working three part-time jobs? Definitely not. Is it going to be vulnerable youth, who might not even have access to the libraries because they don’t have the means to get there or they fear coming out of their neighbourhood? Definitely not,” he said.

“This is where we need to be better. Are we delivering the right services, the right resources, to the right people at the right time?”

‘It’s not going to happen overnight’

Still, Ann-Marie Moulton believes the city is “making strides.”

A member of the Lived Experience Advisory Group for the strategy, Moulton sees poverty in Toronto from two sides — as someone who has worked with disadvantaged and homeless youth, and as an immigrant and single mother herself who has used city services and supports.

The city’s strategy needs to keep looking at the “isolation” that exists within neighbourhoods, she said, along with monitoring and evaluating the plans in place to ensure they’re actually working.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but I believe that we’re moving the needle,” she said.

On Tuesday, Tory promised new funding for the next phase of the low-income TTC fare relief program launched last year and for more child care spaces, along with closing the gaps in funding for the $15 million Youth Equity Strategy, of which the city has funded $13.5 million to date.

Tory said this will be a “tough budget year,” but stressed the need to continue investing in communities.

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