Globe and Mail

Child poverty all too real on dingy strip A stretch of Kingston Road puts faces to grim statistics in a new Toronto study

JAMES RUSK and PETER CHENEY
The Globe and Mail
Friday, October 15, 1999

Toronto -- Out on the Kingston Road motel strip, in a dingy room with a naked 60-watt bulb and a stained hot plate, the Young family is living out Toronto's new low-end social reality.

For more than six months, the three of them have existed in this tiny, dim space. Mike, 24, and Corey, 22, sleep on a double bed that takes up most of the room. Next to them is a fold-out cot for their daughter Brooke, age 3.

The edges of the room are stacked with their possessions: a cheap television, a pile of videos, a fish tank and Brooke's toys. Their clothes are stuffed in green plastic garbage bags.

At night, cockroaches sometimes creep across Brooke's bed. The sound of crying carries down the hallway."

"I hate it here," Corey said. "But we don't have anywhere else to go."

The Youngs' bleak existence is part of a disturbing trend revealed in a sweeping new study produced by the government of Canada's biggest city.

The Toronto Report Card on Children 1999 reveals a sharp rise in child poverty and an overloaded social infrastructure that has plunged families like the Youngs into a deepening abyss.

The Youngs live on the motel strip because there's no place for them in the city's overburdened shelters. The waiting list for subsidized housing is years long.

The Youngs' motel bill ($700 a month) is paid by the city. Their only income is $1,030 a month in welfare, which has to cover everything from food to bus fare.

With an annual income of $12,360, the Youngs are among the poorest of the poor. Both are low-skilled workers who have faced a series of layoffs. Caring for their young daughter and coping with the pressures of living in the dismal motel room have made their lives more difficult than ever.

"It's tough," Corey said. "There's nowhere to escape to. You're at each other's throats all the time. . . . What's going to happen to us, I don't know."

The new report, which was officially released yesterday, is expected to play a key role in the city's continuing battle with the province for more money to fight child poverty.

The 80-page report features a photograph of a big-eyed child on the cover.

"I hope that Mike Harris can look into the eyes of this child, and find that he has the future of this child in his hands," Councillor Pam McConnell said as she unveiled the report. "He can either act or he can renege on his commitment to ensure healthy children in this city."

Ms. McConnell, who spearheaded production of the study, told a City Hall press conference it took 18 months to put together "this wonderful report card on children."

"It's wonderful because it's here," she said. "It's terrible because of what it said to us."

The report, which was based on 1996 census information, found that nearly 136,000 of Toronto's children of age 12 or younger live in poverty -- a figure that represents more than 37 per cent of the 12-and-under population.

That number is almost twice the national average.

The study defined poverty according to the most commonly used method -- Statistics Canada's low-income cutoff. To be considered poor, a family must spend more than 54.7 per cent of its income on food, clothing and shelter. For a family of four in Toronto, the low-income cutoff is $32,759 a year.

Not only is the rate of child poverty much higher in Toronto than in the rest of the country, but it is also higher than in the region around the city, the report says. Toronto has 45 per cent of the children in the Greater Toronto Area but 66 per cent of the region's poor children, it says.

The report also maps out the incidence of a number of indicators of child poverty -- including single-parent families, families on welfare, families spending more than half their income on shelter, low birth weights, infant mortality and school absenteeism.

The maps show that the majority of the poor children in Toronto are concentrated in a broad U-shaped band from northwestern Etobicoke and North York, down across the city, running through downtown south of Bloor Street and swinging back across Scarborough and North York. The areas of southwestern Etobicoke, northeastern Scarborough and the centre core of the city running north from Bloor Street have fewer poor children.

The report also found a drop in family incomes in Toronto during the 1990s and a 66-per-cent increase in the number of children living in poverty from 1991 to 1996.

Ms. McConnell said the high poverty rate in Toronto is the product of cuts in provincial welfare and of high rents that have forced many families to spend more than 50 per cent of their income on shelter, leaving them unable to properly feed, clothe and care for their children.

The data also show disturbing trends for individual communities, such as a high concentration of respiratory disease in Scarborough and waiting lists for subsidized daycare in North York and Scarborough that are longer than anywhere else in the city.

The report also maps out the availability of social services for the poor. "Where the risk factors are exceedingly high, there seems to be a lack of services and facilities that will offset some of these risks," Ms. McConnell said.

She said that, based on the report, the council's children and youth action committee will propose steps that should be funded in next year's city budget.

These include expanding preschool recreation programs to serve 14,000 more children, creating social housing to take 200 children and their families out of the hostel and shelter system, and adding 2,000 more child-care spaces.

The city has set aside $3-million for its share of the cost of the child-care spaces, which are available but not funded. Under the current cost-sharing formula, the province would have to come up with $12-million if they all are to open, she said.

Councillor Olivia Chow, the child-advocate on city council, said the child-care spaces should be opened because it is cheaper to pay those costs so that people can work than to leave people on welfare.

"We [the council] have done what we need to do. We just need to be joined by other levels of government," she said. "I don't know how the Premier is going to wiggle out of this one."

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