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Why Toronto Is the Inequality Capital of Canada

02/27/2015 12:00 EST | Updated 05/03/2015 05:59 EDT

We all know how it's supposed to go: hard work should lead to success. Most of us grew up believing that if you put in the right effort, good things would come. Finish high school. Get some training or go on to post-secondary. Buy a home, build a career, and put away some money to take care of yourself when you retire. These things are supposed to make a middle-class lifestyle possible for anyone who's prepared to work at it.

But the way things are supposed to be is very different from the way things are today. For too many people, stability and security is out of reach. And it doesn't matter how hard they work. When people are doing everything "right" and still can't get ahead -- we have a problem.

There is a growing gap in access to opportunities that's connected to a growing income gap in our society. These themes run throughout new research released today by United Way Toronto. We looked at income inequality in Canada's largest city, and what we found was alarming. Since 2000, Toronto has been the inequality capital of Canada -- and the trends suggest we're at risk of getting stuck in this dubious position. The gap is growing faster here than in any other major Canadian city. Neighbourhoods are increasingly divided by income. Inequality among Toronto's neighbourhoods basically doubled from 1980-2010.

But in many ways, the story beneath these statistics and trends is even more worrisome. For the first time ever, United Way surveyed almost 3,000 people in our city to ask how they feel about their current situation and prospects for the future. We found that 86 per cent of people say the gap between rich and poor is too big -- a consistent sentiment regardless of income, age, education, or background.

We also found people are worried for the future. When 73 per cent of Torontonians say hard work is not a guarantee of success -- and 78 per cent believe some people have to work harder to get ahead than others of the same basic talent -- it points to a level of pessimism that threatens to unravel the social fabric that ties us together. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised then that just over half of us worry the next generation will be worse off.

And no wonder. Young people today are graduating at higher rates than ever before, but too often they're saddled with crippling debt by the time they get out of college or university. Soaring housing prices have put home ownership out of reach for many people. At 22 per cent, Toronto's youth unemployment rate leads the country. And when people -- of all ages -- finally do find work, contract, temporary, and part-time jobs are the new normal.

Most Canadians expect the simple equation should be [effort] + [opportunity] = [success]. But when the majority of those surveyed say people are disadvantaged by their background and circumstances, this equation is broken.

So what can we do to fix it? First off, we can build on the good news contained in our research. Our survey found high levels of trust among people in Toronto -- and a widespread belief that people can make a positive impact in their communities. We need to capitalize on this goodwill, and leverage good ideas, to restore the opportunity equation.

That means working to ensure that everyone has the same access to things they need to build a good life -- like a good job, affordable housing, and meaningful social networks. It means ensuring that a job is a pathway to real stability and security. It means giving young people the right opportunities and supports to build a good future. And it means working to remove the barriers that create obstacles for some people simply because of their background or circumstance.

At United Way, we're committed to doing our part. And we're calling on partners from across all sectors to work with us. Our worries today won't become the reality of tomorrow if we take action now.

Full report is available at: www.unitedwaytoronto.com/research

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