Daniele Zanotti, President and CEO of United Way Greater Toronto
Daniele Zanotti
President & CEO - United Way Greater Toronto

Protecting Our Most Vulnerable During and After COVID-19

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Since March, the world, our country and our province have changed drastically. What has not changed is United Way’s collective commitment to community. Donors, volunteers, employers, workers, policymakers, labour partners and officials at every level of government are stepping up to act, listen, understand and invest their time, talent and resources to ensure our communities remain strong and supportive of those most vulnerable.

“Coping with and recovering from this pandemic will be tough, but for low-income individuals and families who depend on accessible community services, it is especially challenging.”

Coping with and recovering from this pandemic will be tough, but for low-income individuals and families who depend on accessible community services, it is especially challenging. People who live in low-income are bearing the brunt of the social, economic, and health outcomes of this pandemic: they are more likely to get sick, lose their job, and are often part of the essential worker workforce helping our country function to the detriment of their own well-being.

As we move forward, individuals who face barriers—including poverty, mental illness, homelessness and unemployment—will continue to grow. In fact, demand for the social services sector has jumped by 42% since COVID-19 began. And while investing in a strong network of community agencies across Canada plays an essential role in recovery, we also need to turn our attention to the systemic change that will enable all of us, but especially the most vulnerable, to bounce back.

“Demand for the social services sector has jumped by 42% since COVID-19 began.”

Three changes are key to ensure Canadians emerge from this crisis able to equitably participate in society and the economy:

1. Encourage job creation and connect people to stable, in-demand jobs

The nature of the labour market has been changing for over two decades, and the pandemic will change it even further. It is becoming harder for both workers and employees to attain and keep stable, full-time positions with benefits. Before COVID-19, United Way research shows that almost 40% of workers between 25 to 65 years of age in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area are in some degree of precarious employment, which is negatively impacting their health and well­-being.

By embedding targeted jobs training and community hiring in sectors projecting growth, such as construction, we can connect people to in-demand work. By aligning the government’s multi-billion-dollar infrastructure investments to workforce development pathways designed to meet the needs of those facing barriers in the labour market, you create a win-win-win situation. Employers find local, skilled talent to meet demand and get projects done on time and on budget. Residents who are ready to work are connected to jobs through targeted community and labour supports. And the government meets multiple mandates simultaneously: builds transit, creates jobs and reduces poverty.

“By aligning the government’s multi-billion-dollar infrastructure investments to workforce development pathways designed to meet the needs of those facing barriers in the labour market, you create a win-win-win situation.”

United Way is already working on such local economic partnerships, called Community Benefits Frameworks. Community Benefits Frameworks play a role in the development of a 21st century workforce development system. They align skills training, including technical, essential and soft skills, relocation opportunities and employment programs for workers with industry demand for talent.

2. Give people the wraparound supports they need to be successful in their jobs

For people to successfully connect to employment, there must also be a suite of wraparound supports that helps individuals stay focused on their jobs and succeed:  access to childcare, counselling, job training, affordable housing and more. One-size-fits-all approaches cannot adequately serve the spectrum of people looking for work, especially those facing barriers. Any job seeker or employee facing mental health issues, family breakdown, homelessness, or hunger for instance, is more likely to underperform, quit or be let go. We need to tailor flexible services to the needs of job seekers, workers and businesses to achieve quality, sustainable employment.Program and system investments should be designed based on the level of need and challenges including tailored, flexible, and ongoing support, and be integrated with business needs.

“We need to tailor flexible services to the needs of job seekers, workers and businesses to achieve quality, sustainable employment.

3. Develop a poverty reduction strategy built on data-collection best practices.

The need for a robust Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) has never been greater—it will be an essential part of our work ahead to reignite our economy, restore people’s livelihoods and apply the learnings of this crisis to strengthen our social safety net.

In Toronto, the income inequality capital of Canada, COVID-19 is already disproportionately impacting GTA residents across geographic, gender, cultural and racial lines, and will continue to do so. Targeted investments and outcomes will be essential to help ensure that COVID-19 does not become a poverty pandemic. The next PRS, therefore, should build on best practices for data collection, evaluation and reporting that helps to ensure we are rebalancing the opportunity equation for those most impacted by poverty. One major challenge to having a larger discussion about discrimination and exclusion is the lack of available, high-quality, disaggregated, gender-based and race-based data that allows for intersectional analysis. We need data to unpack and understand what is truly happening within different kinds of institutions and sectors. However, research is only one part of a broader strategy needed to create more equity and inclusion. Measuring and recognizing gaps are part of the solution, but building people’s capacity to understand the challenges, convening constructive conversations, and connecting with those who have lived experience are all part of the solution too. To be effective, disaggregated data collection must be accompanied by strategies, programs, and actions to dismantle discrimination and increase inclusion.

“One major challenge to having a larger discussion about discrimination and exclusion is the lack of available, high-quality, disaggregated, gender-based and race-based data that allows for intersectional analysis.”

There is so much uncertainty about what this pandemic will leave in its wake.  The one constant is the community—how we live together, look after each other and support our neighbours and our most vulnerable citizens to live with dignity, in good health and with a strong sense of social connection. We have always known that the connectedness within our network of agencies and our ability to work in a coordinated way with partners across all sectors is a powerful force. In fact, research and real-world examples show that the most effective way to fight local poverty, which keeps our economy from thriving, is a strong, coordinated network of community agencies and partners working together. This is true now more than ever.