Social isolation on the rise while civic engagement has dropped in Toronto, study finds

CBC News

CBC News · Posted: Nov 22, 2022

Civic engagement among Torontonians has fallen markedly in recent years while the proportion of city residents who feel socially isolated has risen.

That's according to the Toronto Social Capital Study 2022, a sweeping report released Tuesday that explores how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the wellbeing of people who live in the city through a wide range of perspectives.

"The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic put communities around the world under tremendous stress. In the City of Toronto, the pandemic created widespread economic hardship, while limiting opportunities for residents to connect with family, friends, neighbours and organizations," the study says.

You can read the full report at the bottom of this story.

The report is based on results from a survey of 4,163 people aged 18 and older in Toronto, conducted both online and by telephone, during the summer this year. The data was weighted by age, gender, educational attainment, immigration background, racial identity and neighbourhood within the city. 

The survey was modelled on a previous 2018 version, so the results from both years could be directly compared. It was lead by the non-profit Toronto Foundation and the Environics Institute, along with a host of other partners. 

While "social capital" is an esoteric concept, says Sharon Avery, president and CEO of the Toronto Foundation, it is fundamental to the wellbeing of people and communities. It includes things like our relationships with each other, our sense of belonging and our sense of trust in the people in our lives, Avery told CBC Radio's Metro Morning in an interview.

Sharon Avery is the president and CEO of the Toronto Foundation.

Volunteering, interest in local politics both down

A key takeaway from the survey is that civic engagement in the city has dropped markedly since 2018.

"People have stopped volunteering. They've stopped joining groups and clubs. They've stopped going to their local community centre," Avery said.

Participation declined most significantly in sports and recreation organizations, cultural organizations, and union and professional associations, the study found — and that effect was most pronounced in those aged 55 and older.

"These declines in group participation are concerning, because group participation is associated with many other positive outcomes," the report reads. "People who participate in groups have higher life satisfaction, more trust in society and others, have more people they can rely on and have broader social networks."

The results also suggest that about 25 per cent of adult Torontonians are currently volunteering, down from nearly 40 per cent four years ago. The percentage of adults in the city who donate to charity also fell, to 63 per cent down from 75 per cent in 2018, "translating to a potential loss of more than 300,000 donors in Toronto," according to the study.

Similarly, nearly every demographic group surveyed said they were less interested in local politics than in 2018. The effect was strongly tied to income, the study says, with the lowest earners least politically engaged.

Toronto's municipal election in October saw record-low turnout, when roughly 29 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot. That was down from about 41 per cent in 2018 and more than 60 per cent in 2014.

Residents less trustful of others than previously: survey

Meanwhile, the report found that the pandemic and governments' responses to it seem to have had profound impacts on peoples' social support systems.

"Torontonians are less connected to family and friends coming out of the pandemic, and almost 40 per cent report they usually do not have anyone they can depend on to help them when they really need it," the study says. That figure is up from 27 per cent in the previous survey.

Based on the results, the report calculates that roughly 200,000 people in the city have no close friends to turn to for support.

There has also been a recent decline in the general trust people have in others, the report found.

In 2018, 55 per cent of respondents agreed that "most people can be trusted." This time around, that figure fell to 42 per cent. 

"The proportion saying that most people can be trusted increases with both age and socio-economic status: it is higher than average for seniors, for those who own their homes, for those with higher incomes and for those with a university education," the report reads.

Similar declines were seen when it came to the mental wellbeing of residents. Only about a quarter of respondents said they always have something to look forward to, down from 40 per cent in 2018. And city residents were almost twice as likely this time to say there mental health was fair or poor, particularly among younger and lower-income Torontonians. 

'Encouraging signs' about the future

While the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the overall wellbeing of many in the city, there are "many encouraging signs" about the future social fabric of Toronto, the study says.

"The vast majority of Torontonians have people in their lives with whom they feel at ease, can talk to or call on for help. The majority of Toronto residents also find their city to be safe and their neighbours to be helpful. Most Torontonians are members of at least one organization in their community and continue to make donations to charity," it concludes.

"And more than two years into the pandemic, levels of confidence in most local institutions remain unchanged."

The report makes a number of recommendations, including:

    • For donors and funders to focus support on hyper-local organizations attuned to community needs, particularly those facing heightened need with fewer resources.
    • For organizations and businesses to provide opportunities for members and employees to expand their social networks and access supports, particularly for the most isolated.
    • For governments and policymakers to invest in community infrastructure, like accessibly outdoor spaces and youth centres.
  • For Torontonians who want to be civically engaged to join a group outside their typical social circle; support local arts and sporting events; and donate to charities and community groups whenever possible.
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