Recently, reports of a surge in food bank use has renewed concerns about poverty and affordability in the city. The report has prompted calls for greater investment in affordable housing and increasing the adequacy and accessibility of existing income programs for seniors and those with disabilities. Understandably, advocates and policy-makers have reacted with alarm and a reinforced commitment to making sure people in the GTA can meet their most basic needs.
There’s no question that reducing poverty and addressing material deprivation are important and necessary policy goals. Increasing wages, ensuring affordability, and investing in programs that help people access the essentials like food and shelter are critical steps towards creating a healthier city. Yet as we grapple with how to address this type of severe poverty, let’s not lose sight of the bigger and more ambitious goal. In a city as wealthy as ours, we can and should strive for a higher standard than survival. As illustrated in Wellesley Institute’s new Thriving in the City work, there is a big difference between being meeting ones’ basic needs and being able to truly participate in community and society.
For example, until this decade having the internet at home would have been deemed a luxury. However, last year the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced that broadband internet would be considered basic service which should be accessible across the country, like phone service. In its ruling, CRTC emphasized that all Canadians should be able to “participate in the digital economy.” Without reliable internet, people are less able to complete their education, fulfill their day-to-day tasks at work, or start their own businesses. As workplaces and classrooms have changed, our conceptualization of “basic” services have changed too.
In the past, a person could make do without taking courses and workshops to expand their professional skills. However, a shift towards precarious work and “job churn” throughout Ontario means that employees have less access to on-the-job training. In order to adapt to these new employment demands, employees need to invest in their own professional development. Learning new skills through post-secondary institutions, libraries, community centres, and online services is no longer a luxury or a hobby – it’s increasingly necessary for getting and keeping a good job.
We can certainly live without meeting a friend for coffee, or giving a birthday gift to a family member, or making an annual contribution to our place of worship. These are cultural norms, not physiological needs. Yet participating in these norms is important for maintaining relationships with our families, friends, and neighbours. These relationships bring us happiness and satisfaction and raise our capacity to contribute to our communities. They make us feel included and connected, rather than ignored and isolated. Importantly, those feelings also give us a tangible health advantage throughout the life course.
Helping people get access to essentials like food and shelter is no small feat, and there’s no doubt that we need to meet peoples’ basic needs. But if we want to realize our vision of a healthy and equitable GTA, we need to set the bar higher. We need to make good on our promise to create a province and a city where people can truly thrive, with good mental, physical, and social well-being. We need to adapt to a changing context of education, employment, and households. We need to create a policy environment that gives people what they need to meaningfully participate in the cultural, economic, and social life of the GTA.
The Thriving in the City report is a step towards understanding what this goal means in practice. The project measures what it would cost for a person to have good mental, physical, and social well-being. The framework gives a comprehensive and realistic picture of what people need to be included in the social, economic, and cultural life of the GTA. It illustrates the gap between what people have now, and what they would need to be able to meaningfully participate in society. It also highlights the responsibilities of individuals, communities, employers, and public services to address these needs. But it’s only a starting point for a broader conversation about healthy public policy. As we continue to tackle poverty throughout the province, let’s also work towards a GTA where everyone can do more than just scraping by. Instead, let’s strive to create a GTA where everyone can participate, feel included, and thrive.