Immigration and Poverty in Canadian Cities, 1971-1991

By Ley, David; Smith, Heather | Canadian Journal of Regional Science, Spring-Summer 1997 | Go to article overview
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Immigration and Poverty in Canadian Cities, 1971-1991

Ley, David, Smith, Heather, Canadian Journal of Regional Science

David Ley and Heather Smith

Vancouver Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration

and Integration in the Metropolis (RIIM),

Department of Geography, University of British Columbia

Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z2

For decades the abiding immigrant narrative in Canada and the other major receiving nations, including the United States and Australia, has been one of upward social mobility over time. This story has been registered by a large number of studies that have chronicled immigrant earnings, or more generally income (for reviews, Sloan and Vaillancourt 1994; Li 1996). While typically immigrants face an initial penalty in personal earnings, after a decade or so earnings move close to the national norm, though with certain important variations. When other controls are in place, immigrant men are penalised more than women relative to the national average, while some visible minorities face a considerable earnings shortfall (Pendakur and Pendakur 1996). At the same time there is some evidence of worsening economic fortunes for immigrants in recent years, leading to the spectre of `diminishing returns' to the immigration programme in both Canada and the United States (DeVoretz 1995; Borjas 1995). At what point in this apparently deteriorating trajectory do immigrants then become a significant part of the growing poverty population in Canada with its accompanying burdens of deprivation, homelessness and welfare dependency? The American evidence is that immigrants are disproportionately taking up welfare payments, but that this experience has not been observed in Canada, at least not up to 1990 (Baker and Benjamin 1995). More recent and as yet unpublished analysis of taxpayer files linked to immigrant landing records, however, is once again suggesting a deterioration in the economic circumstances of immigrants who landed in the 1990-1994 period (Benson 1998). A first objective of this paper is to consider to what extent immigrants are associated with the distribution of poverty in urban Canada.

There is a second relevant consideration to add. Recent work on urban poverty, particularly in the United States, has heavily emphasised its spatiality, and the potential role that geographical concentration plays in the perpetuation of poverty conditions and, arguably, the development of a poverty sub-culture (Wilson 1987; Massey and Denton 1993; Jargowski 1996). While it has taken some time for this spatial emphasis to be taken up by Canadian research, the spatiality of Canadian poverty is a growing theme. Davis and Murdie (1993) pointed to the variable incidence of poverty across the Canadian urban system, while Hajnal (1995) in a preliminary comparative study argues that there are relatively more persons living in spatially concentrated urban poverty in Canada than in the United States, and that further there is a distinctive inter-metropolitan geography to deep poverty in Canada, with Montreal showing particularly alarming levels. This spatial initiative is spreading to an examination of intra-urban patterns of poverty, particularly in Toronto (Bourne 1993, 1997) and Montreal (Seguin 1997).

But Hajda has little to say about intra-urban distributions, or indeed about poverty's relation to immigrants. So too, in its primary focus upon Afro-American poverty, the American literature emphasising spatial concentration has paid scant attention to the immigrant connection. In Chicago, for example, the site of a number of the American studies, it seems as if new immigrants have tended to by-pass former inner city reception areas in favour of inner suburban districts beyond the reach of the deepest poverty (Greene 1997). Indeed one current typology of neighbourhoods in Chicago noted that the foreign-born accounted for less than three percent of the population of putatively `underclass' districts (Morenoff and Tienda 1997).

In contrast, European discussions of spatially concentrated poverty have typically identified immigrants as a population at risk.

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