Sunday, June 13, 2010

Toronto: diversity in our poverty

This Globe and Mail highlights the fact that immigrants to Toronto today are less and less likely to catch up to their Canadian-born counterparts. They are destined for careers at packing plants, as taxi drivers, retail workers and the perpetually idle. This is a trend that doesn't get much play outside of the Toronto Star, where the Dickensian sensationalism keeps you from taking it seriously.

Ironically, immigrants have never been better-educated or skilled. This is not a problem of uneducated immigrants coming to take away jobs, but of jobs being taken away from educated immigrants. The next time you order a pizza or take a taxi in Toronto, ask the driver for his credentials. There's a very good chance that they might be better than yours. The wasted potential of adult immigrants in Toronto is a long-standing phenomenon, one we don't need to dwell on here as frustrating and tragic as it is.

The bigger problem is that of neighbourhoods like Flemington Park and elsewhere immigrants get packed into second and third-rate housing. This in itself is not cause for concern, because it's something of a truism that the second generation of immigrants will be better off than the first generation. What's becoming increasingly prevalent is that the second generation is less likely to do so.

The causes for this are vast and complex. Becoming rich in Toronto is largely a matter of going to university and getting the right kind of degree, usually something having to do with computers or money in some way. While large numbers of immigrants, largely East and South Asian, make up the downtown offices and the GO trains that carry them to dull suburban houses, clearly not all immigrants are doing very well.

This would be the part of a Toronto Star article where some well-meaning person identified a myriad ways in which governments at various levels can throw money at this problem, largely in dull, impractical programs that target dark-skinned kids via dull, impractical posters on public transit and in the offices of high school guidance counselors.

The reality is different, however. Yes, it's true that governments of all sorts could do more for immigrant communities, who suffer from the worst of everything. Canada's most diverse neighbourhood is St. Jamestown, a self-enclosed American style housing project so scary that the rumour is that they have their own Pizza Pizza to separate them from the rest of the city. They, too, are on the wrong side of Bloor street from Rosedale. They live in sub-par housing, eat sub-par food, attend third-rate schools and though they live in the midst of the wealth of downtown Toronto, they might as well be in a different country.

The solution, on the other hand, isn't simply to build a new school and make Pizza Pizza deliver to Wellesley and Sherbourne. It's not as though the problem would magically be reversed if a new school were to be built. A large part of the problem is that success today, at least defined in economic terms, is more complicated than it was a generation ago. Success today is far more dependent on having attended university, but educational success requires some form of parental guidance, which immigrant parents are less equipped to provide (note: my immigrant parents were and remain in no way short on guidance, they did their best to prevent my BA in philosophy).

In short, success today is far more complicated and requires more knowledge than it did a generation ago. A generation ago, you could only graduate from high school and end up working for decent wages at a factory. Today, those factories no longer exist and you need a post-graduate diploma in something hyper-specific and increasingly asinine to enter the middle class. The disappearance of jobs of that sort have made success an all-or-nothing proposition, of being a lawyer or something markedly less profitable. In an all-or-nothing proposition, the middle-class kids who have been well-coached for years are likely to win.

The solution, I believe, is in getting away from the ghettos that we've built.


Chris said...

this effect is seen in cities all over North America

Adeel said...

True, but I think Toronto more than perhaps any other city in North America loves diversity. Half of Toronto's population is foreign-born, compared with about 35 percent for New York, 40 percent for Los Angeles and 60% for Miami. Miami, however, attracts largely Hispanic immigrants.

More to the point, no other city is as obsessed with diversity. It's even our motto: Diversity Our Strength.