Zara is four years old and a face of child poverty in Canada. Her parents are immigrants from Pakistan whose financial struggles continue even after toiling for 12 years in their adopted country.
Zara’s story became front-page news that named Toronto — where 27% of the children live in poverty — as the child poverty capital of Canada.
Zara and thousands of other children like her are stuck in ethnic enclaves like Thorncliffe Park that are known for poverty and some even for violent crimes.
Four years ago, a piece I wrote for Dawn.com highlighted the plight of Pakistani Canadians, whom I described as the new face of poverty in urban Canada.
Hundreds wrote in anger to the publication, some erroneously suggesting that the census figures I had cited were wrong. Others asked my employer to either dismiss or discipline me for offending their sensibilities.
Most who were angered by the numbers were in denial. Today, Zara’s piercing dark eyes on the front-page of Canada’s largest newspaper leave no room for that denial.
One in four residents of the 20,000-strong Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood in Toronto speaks Urdu. Men, women, and children dressed in traditional South Asian garbs are a common sight.
Halal food and grocery stores, mosques, and storefronts with Urdu lettering are indicative of the multicultural milieu of Toronto, Canada’s largest city.
But hiding behind the celebration of diversity is the sad truth of poverty-stricken lives of immigrants who continue to face the same struggles in their adopted homelands as the one they had escaped from.
Income inequalities have been rising sharply over the years in North America. The top 1% and the super-rich have been able to amass unprecedented riches over the past few decades.
At the same time, the bottom 20% saw their purchasing powers deplete. Joseph Stiglitz, a Noble Laureate in Economics, explained that even when the lowest income workers toiled for longer hours, their earnings grew only marginally.
Professor David Hulchanski at the University of Toronto documented the growing divides in Toronto in a landmark study in which he identified three distinct types of neighbourhoods.
The first category comprised those areas where relative incomes grew significantly between 1970 and 2005.
The second group included those where incomes either grew or shrank by less than 20% during the same time period.
The third group contained neighbourhoods where relative earnings had declined considerably since 1975.
Thorncliffe Park is one such neighbourhood where residents have not experienced a meaningful improvement in their welfare.
Like other struggling areas, Thorncliffe Park houses a higher than usual share of recent immigrants who have become the unintended, yet the first casualty of income inequality.
Three out of four residents in Thorncliffe Park is a visible minority. Canadian Census reported in 2011 that more than one in five immigrants living in Thorncliffe Park arrived in Canada after 2006.
Among the recent immigrants, Pakistanis constituted the single largest group followed by Indians, Filipinos, and Afghans.
Thorncliffe Park bears the typical telltale signs of a struggling neighbourhood.
Over 90% of the housing in the area comprises high-rise buildings. Overcrowding is rampant where large families are crammed into tiny apartments.
The neighbourhood’s income profile reveals that 38% of the housing units do not meet Canada’s national occupancy standards.
The rate of poor quality housing is two times worse than that of Toronto. Every other household in the area spends more than 30% of the family income on shelter costs.
The unemployment rate in Thorncliffe Park stood at 16% in 2011, which was more than two-times that of Toronto. Even the employed were not earning enough to support a middle-class lifestyle.
The average after-tax household income in Thorncliffe Park stood at $46,275 compared to $70,945 in the City of Toronto.
Why do some Pakistani immigrants continue to struggle?
For starters, demographics of Pakistani immigrants pose additional challenges. Their families are larger in size, which imposes higher housing and other living expenses. The already lower household income becomes even more inadequate when compared on the per capita basis.
In a typical Canadian family, both husband and wife work, which is not the case in a typical immigrant family of Pakistani origin.
Canadian government statistics reveal that immigrants from Pakistan report a female labour force participation rate of less than 50%.
With more than half of the women of Pakistani origin not working, their families’ struggle for economic parity remains an elusive goal.
Another reason for poor economic outcomes for Pakistani immigrants is the relatively inferior quality of education in Pakistan.
As they land in Canada, most immigrants try to obtain employment based on their credentials earned in their home countries.
While the human capital (education and work experience) earned elsewhere by immigrants is often discounted by the labour markets in Canada, some immigrants’ human capital is discounted more than others.
Pakistani immigrants fare really badly in Canada for their human capital. From an employment perspective in Canada, "Pakistan is the most penalised location of study.”
Thorncliffe Park and other similar neighbourhoods in Toronto are natural traps for new immigrants.
These areas offer cheaper rents to cash-strapped immigrants who are also enticed by the nearby makeshift mosques and grocery stores selling Halal products.
The downside of these locations is the lack of opportunity and ghettoisation, where the newly arrived immigrants don't enjoy better social networks to break out and find gainful employment.
What should immigrant communities do?
Whereas Toronto’s community-based organisations have been working on improving the welfare of recent immigrant families, some immigrant communities have not yet taken up the cause themselves.
The Muslim community living in Thorncliffe Park has shown a willingness to struggle for traditional causes, such as the right to build a mosque or to have the School Board permit students to say Friday prayers in local school’s cafeteria.
They should also consider initiatives to improve their human capital. The struggling immigrants will benefit from community-based initiatives to re-train and re-purpose workers looking for work and to motivate others who have given up searching for jobs.
Their foreign-earned credentials lack market acceptability in Canada. They must consider improving human capital through education and apprenticeship programs.
Consider, for instance, that several billion dollars in infrastructure spending are being planned for Toronto and the neighbouring cities.
Toronto Region Board of Trade estimates 147,000 construction-related jobs will be available over the next 15 years.
The smart thing to do for Pakistani expatriates is to launch initiatives to help train and certify un- or underemployed community members in construction-related trades, which pay much more in hourly wages than a recent university graduate earns in Canada.
Whereas the struggle against income inequality will continue in Canada, Pakistani immigrants need not be the face of urban poverty.
The community collectively has sufficient human capital and gumption to turn things around.
The community must, however, identify its priorities.
It can spend resources on building mosques and asking for religious accommodations at work and school.
Or the community may choose to strive for developing skills in pursuit of shared prosperity instead.