The racialized working poor

A Toronto-based foundation has released a report on the status of the working poor in Canada, focusing on a couple of the major cities, especially Toronto. It should come as no surprise that they found that the working poor is concentrated heavily among racialized communities; and that  Black people are among the highest in that category.

The Working Poor in the Toronto Region was prepared for the Metcalf Foundation by John Stapleton, with contributions from Dr. Carl James and Dr. Kofi Hope. The November 2019 report is the third in the series by the Foundation looking at the growth of working poverty. The two previous publications were issued in 2012 and 2015.

The report identifies what can be referred to as the typical identifiers of the working poor: “The convergence of low pay, multiple insecure jobs, long hours, and grueling transit trips, all in the face of higher costs for necessities, push the working poor to a life on the precipice of vulnerability where few have any sort of financial cushion.”

The working poor population in the Toronto area, according to the report, grew by 42% in the first five years of the millennium, the period covered by the first report. In the second, from 2006-2016, the increase was by 27%.

In their analysis, there were two major job growth categories: “the professional/knowledge and the entry service”. The former – the well-to-do – requires an increase of low-income workers to provide the services that they require, from house cleaning to walking their dogs; from pouring their coffee to looking after their children.

One of the terms that has crept into usage is the “gig economy”. This is where permanence or job security has become a thing of the past, like musicians who would talk about a “gig”, a short stint at a club here and there.

So, who are the working poor? The report uses these guidelines: an after-tax income below the Low-Income Measure (generally known as the poverty line, about $22,000), earns about $3,000 a year, is between the ages of 18-64, and is not a full-time student.

The four largest racialized groups among the working poor in Toronto are Black, Chinese, South Asian and Filipino. They represent 46.4% of the Toronto workforce. The largest group of non-immigrant working poor is Black, representing 63.4% of the working poor population.

Over the past few months, there have been various stories about the cost of housing in Toronto. One report, in BlogTO, notes that the average rental for a one-bedroom in the city is over $2,000 a month. If one has to pay that amount plus utilities, there is not much left for the other necessities of life. Of course, if they live close to their jobs, they may just be able to manage.

The Ontario Liberals had set in motion the increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It was meant to be working towards a living wage. In comes the Doug Ford government and the move towards that minimum was capped at $14 an hour.

It should not come as a surprise that to make ends meet, you would find a Black person who is in the working poor classification working a second job; and that the majority of Uber or Lyft drivers are Black.

So, to make ends meet for a family, racialized workers would move to the outer districts where the cost of housing may be less. But, of course, there is the other matter of transportation costs.

Let us pile on some other costs over which we have little or no control. Income taxes and sales taxes rarely, if ever, go down. To be fair, the costs of health care, education, infrastructure construction and repair, public transportation – these are all costs for which our taxes make possible. It is not very often that any salary increases, especially at the lower levels of the workforce, manage to cover taxes and other expenses. In fact, increments in salary often bring higher tax percentage.

There is another cost to Black people and the working poor that cannot be measured in dollars. It is their mental health. It is the stress and strain of making ends meet not to mention the everyday emotional battle against racism – systemic or outright.

When will our policymakers wake up to these facts?