Big cities attract poverty; small centres gain ground

Canada’s biggest urban areas are stuck in a rut of persistent poverty, while mid-sized cities are gaining ground despite the recent recession, new data from Statistics Canada show.

OTTAWA — Canada’s biggest urban areas are stuck in a rut of persistent poverty, while mid-sized cities are gaining ground despite the recent recession, new data from Statistics Canada show.

The metropolitan areas of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have poverty rates far above the national average, details of a report on income in Canada in 2009 show.

But Quebec City and Victoria, on the other hand, have seen steady and significant declines in the number of people living with low incomes over the last decade, despite the recent recession.

The trends are no surprise to Mike Creek, who works with homeless and impoverished people in Toronto, after spending years in poverty himself.

“If you stick around in a smaller community and you have that shame (of living in poverty), you become stigmatized. So I think it’s easier for someone to pack up their bags and try some place else,” Creek says.

Urban centres, he says, “provide more opportunities around housing, and job opportunities and services that they may not find in smaller communities.”

Released last week, the Statistics Canada report is the first detailed, national look at what happened to income during the recession.

Overall, the recession halted progress on fighting poverty. After more than a decade of slow, steady decline in the proportion of people living below StatsCan’s low-income cutoff, poverty has started to edge up again.

It now stands at 9.6 per cent of the population, up from 9.2 per cent in 2007 and 9.4 per cent in 2008 — but far below the 15 per cent seen at the peak of poverty in 1996.

A somewhat different story emerges at the local level, however.

A Canadian Press analysis shows that almost every city in Canada has seen a decline in poverty since the mid 1990s. Windsor, Ont., with its deep auto-manufacturing problems, is a notable exception.

But poverty in the big cities is still far above the national average, while mid-sized Quebec City and Victoria is far below.

“If our big cities are unhealthy, assuming that cities drive the economy in Canada, then we have a problem,” said urban planner Michel Frojmovic, director of data-mining group Acacia Consulting.

In Vancouver, the incidence of low-income was 17.8 per cent in 2000. By 2009, it had declined just slightly to 16.9 per cent — the highest for urban areas across the country.

Toronto takes second place. The 2009 poverty rate of 13.2 per cent is slightly higher than the 12.4 per cent at the turn of the millennium.

Montreal is in third, with 13.1 per cent — although that’s much lower than 19.7 per cent in 2000.

The percentages are not an exact measure of poverty. Statistics Canada uses several different methods to get a handle on poverty in Canada, none of them perfect.

The agency does not use the word “poverty,” however, and warns that municipal data has a large margin of error around it.

The most recent agency report refers to the percentage of people below the low-income cutoff rate — the most well-known of StatsCan’s measures. And while the individual numbers for each metropolitan area on their own may be unreliable, the trends are clear: over the last 10 years, smaller cities have made progress on poverty, while big urban areas are poverty magnets.

In contrast to the big cities, Quebec City has seen its rate plummet, from 15.7 per cent in 2000 to just 4.9 per cent in 2009.

And Victoria has seen its incidence of low income fall from 16.2 per cent in 2000 to 6.3 per cent in 2009 — although progress has come in fits and starts.

Each city has its story to tell, but analysts agree that there’s a push factor and a pull factor.

Mid-sized cities are contained enough to be able to confront poverty in a concrete and co-operative way. They drive poverty down, but they also drive it away, says Alan Broadbent, chairman of the Maytree Foundation in Toronto.

Big urban centres, on the other hand, offer low-income people a range of social services that they can’t get as easily in smaller centres.

“Low-income people tend to go there because that’s where the programs are — the food banks, the services for single parents are there,” Broadbent said. “Large cities are magnets for it.”

Why would a homeless person stay in Barrie, Ont., for example, when services there are exhausted and strained, and Toronto is just down the highway, says Creek. Single people, in particular, are more likely to be poor, and also attracted to opportunities they believe may be available in bigger centres.

Immigrants tend to concentrate in large cities, where they can find other people from their home countries and forge a quick network. And immigrants also tend to be low income, especially when they first arrive in Canada, says Andrew Sharpe, executive director of the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards.

It used to be true that immigrants arrived in Canada poor, then worked hard and quickly moved up the income ladder.

But more recent studies have shown they’re stuck at the bottom of the ladder for longer periods of time.

“There’s a deterioration there,” Sharpe says.

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