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Suburban Poverty Has Arrived In Toronto, Food Bank Data Shows

Food bank use down 16% downtown, but up 45% in suburbs.

The U.S. has seen a growing trend of suburban poverty in the years since the Great Recession, and now evidence is mounting that something similar is happening in Toronto.

Food bank use in Toronto’s suburban boroughs (Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough) has soared 45 per cent since 2008, while food bank use in the inner city (the old city of Toronto, East York and York) has fallen by 16 per cent in that time, says a new report from the Daily Bread Food Bank.

The report identifies several reasons for this, chief among them the rising cost of living, particularly rental rates. It also sees a decline in full-time work and the rise of part-time work as contributing to the problem.

“The most common issue faced by food bank clients in Toronto, regardless of all else, is the per cent of their income they spend on their rent,” the Daily Bread report says. “For many clients coming to the food bank is the only way they are able to eat at all while maintaining their housing.”

At the same time, rising housing costs are shifting the city’s demographics. As single-family homes become unaffordable for young couples, demand is shifting to downtown condos. The downtown core has seen an influx of young professionals in recent years. But the flipside of that, Daily Bread says, is that poor people are being pushed out.

“We see that as we attract people to live and invest in Toronto, we are also pushing people out. A hot real estate market has driven people to find more affordable housing in the inner and outer suburbs.”

Even food banks themselves are struggling with the problem. “Higher rents are causing available spaces to run food programs to slowly disappear,” the Daily Bread report says, linking this trend to the decline in food bank use in the inner city.

Overall, food bank use in Toronto climbed 1.2 per cent this year from a year earlier, and the total number is still 12 per cent higher than it was before the global economic crisis of 2008.

“Since the recession, people are having a harder time climbing out of poverty,” the report says. “The average length of time coming to a food bank has doubled from one year to two years since 2008.”

The number of recent immigrants using Toronto food banks has fallen. Where they used to account for 40 per cent of all food bank use in 2008, they now account for 25 per cent.

“The increased cost of housing in Toronto may mean it is no longer an ‘arrival city’ for newcomers,” the Daily Bread report says.

Growing part-time payrolls mean “employer-triggered programs such as private disability insurance and EI become more difficult to access,” the report says. "Long-term disability coverage has become less common, and more rely on social assistance for support when a disability arises.”

The report says its findings square up with earlier research showing that poverty has been shifting into Canada’s suburbs for several decades. University of Toronto Professor David Hulchanski’s “three cities” report, released in 2010, shows poverty in Toronto shifting further away from the city centre and from transit corridors.

A similar suburan-poverty problem is evolving in the U.S., and researchers there suggest similar reasons for the trend. They note that suburbia is becoming more demographically diverse, and many lower-income households are being pushed out of inner cities by gentrification. The rise of low-wage jobs is also linked to the trend in the U.S.

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