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Applied Research Bulletin - Volume 4, Number 1 (Winter-Spring 1998) - May 1998


More Poor Families Living in Very Poor Neighbourhoods

Most Canadians are aware that poverty in the United States is increasingly concentrated in very poor, inner-city neighbourhoods in large urban centres. But do they realize that phenomenon has crept across the border? A paper by Michael Hatfield of the Applied Research Branch suggests that, in the 1980s, Canada was not immune from this trend.

The overall Canadian family low income rate in 1990 (13.2percent) was almost the same as in 1980 (13.0 percent). However, the proportion of poor families living in Canadian urban neighbourhoods with more than double these rates ("very poor" neighbourhoods) rose from 11.8 percent to 17.3 percent over the decade. For census purposes, metropolitan areas are divided into neighbourhoods or tracts averaging 3,000 to 4,000 people. The author used data on these tracts from the 1981 and 1991 censuses. The low income rates were calculated using the 1978-base Statistics Canada Low Income Cutoffs for 1980 and the 1986-base Cutoffs for 1990.

The reason for this increasing concentration of poverty in very poor neighbourhoods, as in the U.S., was a sharp rise (from 334 to 507) in the number of these neighbourhoods. Interestingly, the 263 neighbourhoods with abnormally high rates of low income in both 1980 and 1990 actually accounted for a lower share of low income families in 1990 (9.2 percent) than they had ten years earlier (9.9 percent). Declining overall populations in these neighbourhoods explained this reduced share of low income families. However, 243 census tracts, mainly neighbourhoods adjoining those which were very poor in 1980 also became very poor between 1980 and 1990. These new very poor neighbourhoods more than made up for the 71 tracts which were very poor in 1980, but not in 1990.

The concentration of poverty in very poor neighbourhoods was pronounced in Canada's nine largest urban centres.

The increasing concentration of poverty in very poor neighbourhoods-"spatial" concentration-was particularly pronounced in Canada's nine largest urban centres (those with populations of 500,000 or more).

For example, such neighbourhoods accounted for 23.5percent of poor families in Winnipeg in 1980, but for 39 percent in 1990. Similarly, in Montreal, the share of poor families living in these neighbourhoods rose from about 30 to a little above 40 percent over the decade. The most striking increases in the spatial concentration of poor families occurred in Calgary and Edmonton. Both cities were severely affected by the collapse of the oil boom in the early and mid-1980s. In Calgary, the share of poor families living in very poor neighbourhoods increased from 6.4 percent to 20.3 percent between 1980 and 1990. In Edmonton, the share shot up from 4.1 percent to 28.3 percent.

Census Tracts in Calgary with Double the National Family Low Income Rate
Note:This map of Calgary illustrates the fact that growth in the number of very poor Canadian neighbourhoods tends to be in areas adjoining urban areas which were already very poor in 1980. Map is not drawn to scale. No text version is available for this map.

Why are these trends significant? Since the onset of the 1981-1982 recession, income poverty and symptoms of economic and social marginalization such as homelessness, panhandling, the share of children growing up in lone-parent families, and dependence on government transfer payments and food banks have tended to increase in Canada. The poorest Canadians have become more visible and concentrated in certain neighbourhoods of our largest urban centres.

In more recent years, the reduction in spending on transfers and other social programs by all levels of government may have further entrenched the spatial concentration and visibility of the very poor. In the absence of strong economic expansion, spatial concentrations of poverty are likely to increase further.

Children growing up in these very poor neighbourhoods are affected by the high levels of poverty and other indicators of social disadvantage and marginalization around them. These difficult conditions influence children to engage in conduct such as childbearing outside of wedlock and dropping out of high school prior to graduating. Their access to employment opportunities could be reduced. Growing up in such a poor environment could significantly reduce their life chances, feeding a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and distress in their own and adjoining neighbourhoods.

These poor neighbourhoods could be the incubators for a U.S.-style urban underclass with all that implies for the safety and civility of our cities. In addition, the spread of these areas could undermine a traditional role played by large urban centres-providing economic opportunities for internal and international migrants. The spread of these very poor neighbourhoods could undermine the opportunities for upward economic mobility of these migrants.