York University study reveals the true face of poverty

Poverty in Toronto is highly racialized, and the economic gap between members of European and non-European ethno-racial groups has been increasing over the last 30 years, a new study reveals.

All 20 of the poorest ethno-racial groups in the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) are non-European, according to the study, Ethno-Racial Groups in Toronto, 1971-2001: A Demographic and Social Profile, released by York’s Institute for Social Research (ISR). The 182-page report is based primarily on Statistics Canada’s 2001 census, and compares those results with censuses of 1996, 1991, 1986, 1981, and 1971.

Extreme poverty is a daily reality for more than half of the members of the Bangladeshi, Somali, Afghan, and Ethiopian ethno-racial groups, the 2001 census reveals. Their family incomes fell below Statistic’s Canada’s “low income cut-off” – the most commonly used standard for measuring poverty in Canada. Three groups faced poverty rates of between 40 and 50 per cent, and 14 other groups, five of them African and including Aboriginals, had poverty rates of between 30 and 40 per cent.

“Although every ethno-racial group experiences some poverty, many groups are facing extraordinary economic difficulty,” says ISR Director Michael Ornstein (left), author of the report. “The magnitude of global differences in family income is not decreasing – quite the opposite.”

Some groups face poverty levels that have remained about the same for 30 years. In 1971, Caribbean ethno-racial groups had 21.7 per cent of their members below the poverty line, compared to 25.2 per cent in 1981, 21 per cent in 1991, and 22.2 percent in 2001. These statistics alone only begin to describe the story. Ornstein notes that “because the low income cut-off figure does not account for Toronto’s very high housing costs, these numbers, if anything, underestimate the extent of poverty.”

“As the population from non-European groups in Canada has increased from about four per cent in 1971 to about 40 per cent in 2001, the racialization of poverty has increased,” says Ornstein.

“In our highly individualistic society, we tend to think of poverty as the result of bad luck, such as someone losing a job, coping with a family breakup, or facing the challenges of immigrating or coming to Toronto from a small town. But this research reveals entire communities where the average income is very low and many, many people live in poverty,” says Ornstein. “For groups with 20 or 25 per cent of people below the poverty line, we have to think in structural terms: about kids not completing high school, the low level of the minimum wage, the expense of good daycare, the problems of finding a job that uses their skills and credentials, the very high cost of housing and our governments’ retreat from social housing over the last 20 years, and the effects of discrimination.”

The census reveals that 40 per cent of African ethno-racial group members lived below the poverty line in 2001, compared to about 30 per cent of the members of the Arab and East Asian groups, and 20 per cent of the Aboriginal, South Asian, East Asian, Caribbean, and South and Central American groups. By comparison, only 10 per cent of European group members were below the poverty line, and for some European groups the figure was only about five per cent.

Substantial differences also exist in the economic situations of ethno-racial groups within larger global categories. For example, 53.1 per cent of Bangladeshis had incomes below the poverty line in 2001, compared to 36 per cent for the Pakistani group, about 33 per cent for Tamil and Sri Lankan groups, and 15 per cent for the Indian group. Among Torontonians who described themselves as having both South Asian and East Asian or South Asian and European ancestry, the poverty rate was about 12 per cent. (The average for the entire CMA population is 15 per cent below the poverty line.)

The research is based on the detailed information collected every five years from the randomly selected one-fifth of all Canadian households who receive the “long form” census questionnaire. In 2001, the CMA population of about 4.6 million was represented in a sample of approximately 800,000 census returns. The CMA is defined by Statistics Canada as the area in which patterns of commuting to work are centered on Toronto. The City of Toronto accounts for just over half of the CMA population, which also includes 23 surrounding municipalities, the largest of which are Brampton, Markham, Mississauga, Oakville and Vaughan.

For this research, the CMA population was divided into ethno-racial groups on the basis of the census question: “To which ethnic or cultural group(s) did your ancestors belong?” (emphasis original.) Most are individual nationalities, such as the British, Argentinian and Nigerian groups. Smaller groups were consolidated into residual categories, such as “other African,” and there are also categories for persons with joint ancestry such as “South Asian and European.” In total, the study covers 113 ethno-racial groups, subdivided into eight global regions, of which 78 are single nationalities. The report also provides detailed information on the demographic characteristics of ethno-racial groups, including their population growth since 1971, and their age composition, immigration language use, education, and employment.

The entire study is available in PDF format at www.isr.yorku.ca; click on “Ethno-racial Report: Ethno-Racial Groups in Toronto”. The Institute for Social Research was established by York University in1965. It houses the largest university-based survey research organization in Canada, provides statistical consulting, to members of the York community and externally, and regular courses in data analysis and survey research, including the Summer Program in Data Analysis, sponsored by Statistics Canada and the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council.