Rural-Urban Divide Part 2: Embracing the division

Rural-Urban Divide Part 2: Embracing the division

This blog is the second and final installment of a two-part series that explores the rural-urban divide in Ontario. It builds off of the first part by covering the consequences of the division and its impacts due to a lack of opportunity.

Rural-Urban Divide Part 1: Exploring the division defines the rural-urban divide, what it means to be rural, and some of the socioeconomic consequences. The poorer outcomes faced by many ruralites are a direct result of the individual choices made in response to their social, economic, and geographic situation.

The flows of labour and the lack thereof

Labour flows are indicative of where opportunity is distributed across Ontario and of the willingness of Ontarians to pursue those opportunities. The largest flows of commuters crossing census subdivision (CSD) boundaries for work are:

  1. Mississauga to Toronto (77,000)
  2. Brampton to Mississauga (69,000)
  3. Toronto to Mississauga (63,000)
  4. Markham to Toronto (59,000)
  5. Vaughan to Toronto (51,000)

Naturally, there are workers travelling between nearly every census subdivision in Ontario that is both close to home and in other jurisdictions, resulting in over 5,000 unique paths across the province. By drawing a line between subdivisions where there are commutes, an interesting pattern emerges (Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1 Commuter workflows by census subdivision, Ontario, 2016

Note: Each line represents a commute from one census subdivision to another. Darker lines indicate more commuters.
Source: Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity analysis based on data from Statistics Canada 2016 Census Table 98-400-X2016325.

The majority of commuters are either within or around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), extending west from London, north to Barrie, and east to Ottawa along the 400-series highways. Many of these commutes are a result of urban sprawl where commuters in census subdivisions work in larger cities where there is more opportunity. There is also pronounced, albeit less significant, commuting in the more rural areas of southwestern and eastern Ontario. Beyond southern Ontario, commuting becomes exceedingly rare and a greater proportion of residents work in their local jurisdiction rather than travel to work due to fewer opportunities and increased distance. In general, urban areas see a greater proportion of their workforce commuting from outside their local CSD whereas rural communities are more likely to draw upon their local population’s limited labour pool for employment (Exhibit 2).

Exhibit 2 Percentage of commuters working in their CSD of residence, by rurality, Ontario, 2016

A lack of opportunity disincentivizes educational attainment

Proportionally fewer employees commuting to rural areas for work places them at a disadvantage compared to their urban counterparts. A smaller population already stunts economic growth and without outside talent, innovation will stagnate as a consequence. Likewise, rural communities will be unable to improve their domestic talent stock through education as barriers to entry such as a lack of higher academic institutions, distance, and cost make it prohibitively expensive. A lack of opportunity in rural areas also lowers the value of higher education, and in many cases of even finishing high school, as there is little demand for advanced skills in local economies. The number of residents without a high school diploma steadily increases with rurality as education becomes irrelevant to earn a basic income. Among those between 25 and 64 years old in Ontario, 55 CSDs – all of which but one are considered rural – have just as many or more people without a high school diploma as secondary school graduates (Exhibit 3).

Exhibit 3 Share of population by highest educational level achieved by rurality, 25-64 years old, Ontario, 2016

Understanding Ontarians’ situation is necessary to improve outcomes

A pattern begins to emerge when we understand that ruralites do not commute for either work or education despite the negative consequences this can have on their long-term well-being. Commuting for work is not non-existent in rural Ontario; there are plenty of inter-subdivision commuters across the rural areas of southwestern Ontario. Even in northern Ontario where commuting becomes exceedingly sparse, there are hives of activity in and between urban centres including Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and Kenora. This demonstrates that willingness to commute and pursue education more closely follows opportunity rather than geographic location.

To increase household incomes through educational and labour market fluidity, policies must be focused on increasing the returns on investments ruralites make in their personal lives by making communities more attractive to business and families. Improving access to education through scholarships, for example, will increase education levels but will not benefit rural communities if the educated leave for more urban areas. On the other hand, increasing the number of high school graduates will do much to benefit the societies of Ontario’s most isolated communities. Developing clusters is an excellent way to capitalize on rural communities’ specialities while improving skills and creating industries to support local and regional economic development. Going forward, policy makers must be cognizant that rural areas will not be as productive or innovative as urban centres. Nevertheless, by enacting the right policies, rural Ontarians can be happier and more prosperous.

Written by: Weseem Ahmed

Photo credit: erhui1979, iStockphoto

Category: Education, Social Policy, Labour