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Tackling poverty a 'litmus test' for city’s greatness, Tory says

Mayor agrees the city must strive to improve the quality of life for all, but stops short of endorsing a “living wage” rule, saying senior governments must help.
June 23, 2015
By Laurie Monsebraaten

Toronto Mayor John Tory has welcomed the city’s interim poverty reduction strategy, released Tuesday, calling efforts to tackle the problem “one of the fundamental litmus tests of whether this city wants to be great.”

“It will be, I think, quite determinative in deciding whether we can stay on the top ... and say we’re the best place in the world in which to live,” he told reporters after a lunchtime speech to business leaders at the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

As the sweeping 48-page report notes, Toronto has become the child poverty capital of Canada, with more working poor as well as the fastest growing inequality gap. Youth unemployment tops 20 per cent and newcomers face poverty rates as high as 46 per cent.

The plan includes 24 recommendations and 74 actions to make Toronto a prosperous city for all residents by 2035. It calls on the city to help ensure “access to good jobs, adequate income, stable housing, affordable transportation, nutritious food and supportive services.”

Tory said good jobs and wages are key to improving the quality of life for people in an expensive city like Toronto.

But he hesitated to embrace the report’s recommendation to declare the city a “living wage” employer - meaning all city workers would be paid wages ensuring a modest standard of life - and require city subcontractors to follow suit.

“The city operates within a marketplace,” Tory told reporters. “You have to do whatever you do with great care because you can end up having a negative effect on the very people you are trying to help.”

Tory also cautioned that many of the report’s recommendations couldn’t be fulfilled without help from Ottawa and Queen’s Park.

“We are only going to succeed at this if the governments and non-profits and businesses and labour unions all combine their efforts together,” he said.

In an open letter to the mayor and city council, an advisory committee of more than two dozen community leaders and activists applauded the interim strategy as an “important step forward.”

Cities can play a leadership role in poverty reduction through their employment practices, public investments, public services and tax policies. They can also rally public support, lead public opinion and advocate for provincial and federal action, said the letter, released Tuesday.

More than 40 cities across Canada are developing or implementing poverty reduction strategies, it noted.

“Building prosperity for all must become a political and community priority,” said the letter. “Leaders of all levels of government and all sectors of society need to join with residents of all backgrounds to reduce and eliminate the growing divide in our city.”

If the strategy is approved by the city’s executive committee next week and by council in July, city staff will consult with the community to develop clear timelines, measurement tools, and a multi-year funding plan. A final plan is expected to go to council in October or November, in time for the 2016 budget.


Many public efforts to fight poverty and its negative social and economic effects on individuals and communities have been tried in Canada and the U. S. over the past 40 years, including:

Manitoba 1974

A federally funded pilot project in the town of Dauphin, northwest of Winnipeg, studied the impact of giving low-income residents a guaranteed annual income to lift them above poverty. Researchers found that doctor and hospital visits decreased, fewer people reported mental health problems, students’ grades improved and teens stayed in school longer. The project was disbanded in 1979 when the economy slumped and government priorities shifted.

Ontario 2009

Ontario became the second province after Quebec (in 2000) to pass a poverty reduction act that compels the government to draft a five-year plan with goals and timelines and to report on progress. It passed unanimously despite the 2008 global recession. Annual increases to the Ontario Child Benefit, included in the plan, are credited with pulling some 47,000 children out of poverty. Ontario’s latest anti-poverty plan, introduced last fall, aims to end homelessness.

New York City 2015

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC long-term planning document, released in April this year, focuses for the first time on equity, well-paying jobs and opportunity for all residents to live in dignity. It sets a goal of lifting some 800,000 city residents out of poverty over the next 10 years by raising the city’s hourly minimum wage to $15 by 2019. The plan also includes workforce development initiatives, universal pre-kindergarten, improved transportation and more affordable housing.

Seattle, Washington 2015

Under Mayor Ed Murray, the minimum wage for all workers in the city was set at $11 in April. It will rise gradually to $15 an hour for large employers by 2017 and for small employers by 2022. Once the minimum wage reaches $15 an hour, it will increase yearly by the rate of inflation.