2012: All together now

Poverty or income inequality – whatever you call it, coming up with solutions is a shared responsibility

 

By STEVE BUIST

That sums up the challenge when it comes to the poverty message.

Senator Art Eggleton, the former Toronto mayor, found that out the hard way.

Eggleton was the chair of a Senate subcommittee that produced a 362-page document titled A Call to Action on Poverty.

For two years, Eggleton toured the country, trying his best to get people passionate about tackling the poverty problem.

But the report, and Eggleton’s best efforts to spread the message, went over like a lead balloon, as Toronto Star columnist Carol Goar recently described.

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So Eggleton switched tactics.

Instead of hitting people over the head with the “poverty” word, he began talking instead about income inequality and the problems that society encounters when the gap grows between the rich and the poor. Lo and behold, he suddenly found that audiences were now far more receptive to his message.

We risk running into the same dilemma here in Hamilton.

Look, most of us are aware that poverty remains a huge problem in Hamilton, particularly in the lower inner city.

We’d all like to see a solution. No one is pro-poverty.

But it’s a tricky subject. The discussion about poverty makes people uncomfortable – it even makes people feel guilty. It’s easy to see it as someone else’s problem, or at the very least, a problem so entrenched that a solution seems beyond reach.

The Spectator has published three landmark series since 2010 – Code Red, BORN and a report card on the performance of LHINs – that have helped shape public debate in this city by highlighting the shocking and unacceptable connections between poverty and poor health.

The series were incredibly useful in focusing attention on a persistent problem that has been plaguing Hamilton since well-paying manufacturing jobs started disappearing in the steel industry a generation ago.

But there’s a limit to the number of times the public can be educated about a problem before the message begins to fall on deaf ears.

So, the next logical step is to ask the question: What can we do about it?

We can start with ideas. Turn the page to see 50 of them.

Some of the ideas are small, practical and inexpensive. Some are grand, expensive and perhaps even pie-in-the-sky dreaming.

If nothing else, however, they can get us thinking – thinking about possible solutions, thinking about what’s important to us as a community, thinking about the kind of country we want to live in.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton framed the issue simply and sharply in his widely acclaimed speech last month at the Democratic National Convention.

“We believe that ‘We’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘You’re on your own, ‘” Clinton said.

“When you stifle human potential, when you don’t invest in new ideas,” Clinton said, “it doesn’t just cut off the people who are affected – it hurts us all.”

 

50 ideas to transform our city

By STEVE BUIST

1.  Every elementary and secondary school in Hamilton should have a breakfast program. The first and most immediate priority is to establish a breakfast program in every school in the former City of Hamilton, particularly the lower city. The province currently funds just 15 per cent of the cost of existing student nutrition programs.

2.  The best teachers should be placed in the poorest-performing schools.

3.  Before-school and after-school programs should be available at every school in the lower former City of Hamilton, heavily subsidized for the neediest parents.

4.  Integrate day-care programs for pre-schoolers with before-school and after-school programs so parents aren’t required to find more than one location for their children’s care.

5.  University and college bursaries and scholarships could be targeted specifically at inner-city high schools.

6.  Implement a mentoring program that would match inner-city high school students with successful adults in the community. Those types of relationships could help provide the students with guidance, networking or just a shoulder to lean on.

7.  Implement a twinning program that would “twin” schools in the suburbs with schools in the lower inner city. Cities twin with other cities all the time, so why couldn’t schools in affluent parts of the city twin with schools in less affluent areas?

8.  Reduce class sizes in elementary schools that have significant rates of children from low-income families.

9. The minimum wage in Ontario – in Canada, for that matter – must be a living wage. A person working 40 hours a week for 52 weeks at the current Ontario minimum wage of $10.25 per hour would earn $21,320 for the year, minus statutory deductions. In Hamilton, a living wage has been calculated to be $14.95 per hour. There are 30,000 people in Hamilton who work yet still remain in poverty.

10. The City of Hamilton could lead the way by paying a living wage to all of its municipal employees.

11.  Develop an evidence-based system for setting social assistance rates. Currently, 59,000 Hamiltonians rely on either Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program as their main source of income and “most are living in deep, deep poverty,” said Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.

12.  Make healthy choices the easy choices. To quote a popular dictum in public health: “The choices we make are shaped by the choices we have.”

13.  Make it easier for children in low-income neighbourhoods to participate in after-school programs.

14.  Make physical fitness or physical education mandatory for each year of elementary and secondary school.

15.  Implement a voucher program for low-income residents to obtain fruits and vegetables from the city’s farmers’ markets. While there is stigmatization for people who have to hand over vouchers to a merchant, it’s less stigmatizing than a visit to the food bank.

16.  Plant more trees in low-income neighbourhoods. Did you know that the City of Hamilton has a free tree request program that can be completed online? For information, send an email to treeplanting@hamilton.ca. The city could help increase awareness of the tree planting program in low-income neighbourhoods. Trees are one small way of helping increase property values and neighbourhood pride.

17.  It should be mandatory that every person in Hamilton is provided access to a family physician. When a person shows up in the emergency department and reports no family physician, set up a program that matches those people with a family doctor.

18.  Undertake a scientific study that examines the differences in health outcomes and costs between those people in the lower central city who don’t have a family physician and those who do. Identify the factors that cause people to either not have — or not visit — a family physician.

19.  For family doctors in the capitation model (where payment is on a fee-per-patient basis rather than fee-per-service), compensation should be increased for patients who are elderly, or have mental health issues, or those with complex medical conditions.

20.  Ontario’s capitation model of physician remuneration should set a required base percentage of patients on the doctor’s roster who are elderly, or have mental health issues, or have complex medical conditions. This would help eliminate the cherry-picking of healthy patients by a practice.

21.  Parking fees should be reduced at hospitals. A visit longer than two hours triggers the $15 maximum at Hamilton Health Sciences’ McMaster site and a visit longer than 2 1/2 hours means a $20 fee at St. Joseph’s Healthcare on Charlton Avenue. At Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, a visit longer than 2 1/2 hours costs an outrageous $30.

22.  Provide incentives to young, pregnant at-risk mothers to encourage them to show up for regular prenatal care visits to help reduce Hamilton’s rate of poor pregnancy outcomes. The incentives could be direct, in the form of financial compensation; or indirect, in the form of merchandise and food vouchers. The costs are meagre compared to the lifetime cost of poor pregnancy outcomes to the health care and education systems.

23.  Move aggressively to cut the rate of births to teen mothers through a targeted, co-ordinated approach that combines the efforts of public health, school boards and social agencies. Last year’s Spectator BORN series showed the rate of babies born to teen mothers in the lower central part of Hamilton was about 15 per cent, which is about four times the provincial average.

24.  Hamilton’s landmark Nurse-Family Partnership could be extended to all low-income first-time mothers, regardless of age.

25.  For high-risk cases, the Nurse-Family Partnership could be extended to take in not just first-time mothers.

26.  For high-risk cases, the Nurse-Family Partnership could also be extended beyond the child’s second birthday and run instead to the start of kindergarten.

27.  Improve access to early prenatal care, particularly in at-risk neighbourhoods, through the use of incentives. Early access to prenatal care is an important factor in healthy birth outcomes.

28.  Aggressively strive to cut the smoking rate among pregnant women. Smoking is a known risk factor for low-birth-weight babiesand it’s well known that smoking rates increase as incomes decrease. At Hamilton’s Maternity Centre, which helps hundreds of at-risk and low-income pregnant women each year, about one in four expectant mothers smoke.

29.  The province must get serious about choking off the supply of cheap cigarettes that flow from native reserves. Study after study in country after country shows the same thing: smoking rates are inversely proportional to income. The higher the income, the lower the smoking rate.

30.  Increase funding for the child-care subsidy program. The city’s waiting list has skyrocketed from around 1,000 in March to more than 1,500 by September.

31.  Canada’s government-funded health care system should be expanded to include a national “pharmacare” program to cover prescription medications.

32.  Create a one-stop access program for comprehensive health and social care for the elderly that mimics the CHOICE (Comprehensive Home Option of Integrated Care for the Elderly) model in Edmonton.

33.  Make neighbourhood equity a part of city council policy decisions, in the same way that economic and environmental considerations are now.

34.  Introduce participatory budgeting at the neighbourhood level. The concept of participatory budgeting gives committees of residents the power to recommend spending initiatives and make binding votes based on the idea that groups of engaged citizens can make better decisions than a single politician.

35.  The City of Hamilton could consider implementing a requirement that every new single-family house built in the five former suburbs must include a secondary suite that could be used as a rental unit or an in-law suite, if desired. This could increase the stock of rental units in parts of the city that don’t traditionally have high numbers of rental units without forcing builders to develop mixed-income subdivisions.

36.  Increase the budget to reduce the backlog of social housing units in need of repair. If nothing else, it would help give low-income people some pride in their homes.

37.  Make bicycles an easier way to get around the city by providing more bike lanes in lower-income neighbourhoods. Bike lanes help give people the sense that the city cares about their safety.

38.  Ensure the federal government commits to a poverty reduction plan, with targets. “While many provinces have implemented strategies – even Nunavut – the federal government is absent,” said Cooper. “We need national action on housing and homelessness, child care and a re-think of Employment Insurance.”

39.  Introduce a low-cost or no-cost transit pass for students in low-income households. The city has implemented a half-price tranist pass program for low-income adults but no comparable program for students.

40.  Make it easier for foreign-trained immigrant professionals to have their credentials recognized in Canada. “My cousin was my family doctor. He was a heart surgeon,” said Shamso, an immigrant to Hamilton now living in poverty. “When he came to Canada, he became a taxi driver. Nobody was accepting him. Instead of pulling people up, it’s kind of like pushing them down.”

41.  The City of Hamilton should implement planning policies that ensure the building of mixed income neighborhoods with a substantial supply of low- and moderate-income housing in every part of the city. This could help avoid the increasing concentration of housing and residential care facilities for people with low incomes and high needs.

42.  If you’re going to offer people on assistance a program that provides food boxes, allow those receiving the food to have some choice in the type of food they receive. A one-type-fits-all program may not be practical for people with food allergies or those from different ethnic backgrounds.

43.  Fully implement the ideas that have been developed in the Neighbourhood Action Plans that have been put forward by residents in Hamilton’s priority neighbourhoods. The ideas have been generated by those who best know their neighbourhoods and how they could be made healthier.

44.  Education boards should seriously consider developing approaches and policies that would help create mixed-income schools across the city, instead of schools populated primarily with high-income or low-income students. The placement of specialty programs, boundary adjustments and transportation policies could help achieve greater income equality across schools.

45.  The city and its partners, such as the Hamilton Community Foundation, need to make long-term commitments to provide community development support and grants to organizations and individuals that are helping improve Hamilton’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

46.  Create a high-profile, made-in-Hamilton model that mimics Calgary’s 10-year plan to eradicate homelessness, and create public awareness about the need for such a program.

47.  Decision-making policy must include and be drawn up in consultation with those who are affected. “This comes from a speaker I heard last year: If I don’t have the power to say ‘No,’ then my ‘Yes’ means nothing,” said Laura, a Hamilton woman living in poverty. “If you want me to participate in society, it has to start with the rules that you’re making about me and my life.”

48.  Provide free family recreation passes for all families with incomes below the poverty line.

49.  Stop the cycle of stigmatization that affects individuals and neighbourhoods. As successful as the Spectator’s Code Red series has been in creating awareness, it’s time to move beyond labeling parts of the lower city simply as “Code Red neighbourhoods.”

50.  And finally, there’s one thing you can do: Ask yourself one simple question.

If “Making Hamilton the best place to raise a child” is the city’s motto, how can that possibly happen when, according to the last census, nearly one in four children under the age of 18 lives in poverty?

(With input from:  Tom Cooper, director of Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction; Paul Johnson, Hamilton’s director of neighbourhood development strategies; Sara Mayo, planner, Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton; Terry Cooke, president / CEO, Hamilton Community Foundation.)

Advice from those who know:

Recently, 11 people currently living in poverty agreed to sit around a table and provide their own ideas about tackling poverty.

It’s a perspective often overlooked in this discussion.

The makeup of the group might surprise you.

Several have university degrees. Some grew up poor as children but others grew up in comfortable surroundings.

Some discovered to their horror that one unfortunate event at the wrong time and place in their lives was enough to start a spiral of circumstances that led to life on social assistance.

As Bill said, “I came to Canada on a Sunday night and I started working on Monday. Those days are gone.”

Here are 10 of their ideas:

1.  Anybody on social assistance should be able to keep 100 per cent of any earnings until their income reaches the government’s low-income cutoff threshold. Currently, 50 per cent of any earned money is clawed back.

“This gives people a chance to keep what they earn, it gives them self-respect and dignity and self-worth that you don’t have when you’re on assistance because they make damn sure they take that away. It helps people learn how to get off the system because when you don’t have anything and you finally get some money coming in, the money goes through your fingers so fast. I know what it’s like to duct tape my kids’ shoes together because there’s no other way.”  — Sandy

2.  When people receive job re-training, make sure they’re being re-trained for a job that does exist.

“We have to accept the fact that we live in a highly-technologized culture now where there simply are not enough jobs to go around. I actually used to work in re-training for a while. This is such a farcical system. I’d go down a hallway and I’d look in the first door and there’s an unemployed welder re-training to be a pastry chef. I’d look in the next door and guess what I’d find? An unemployed pastry chef re-training to be a welder.”  — David

3.  Find a way to limit wealth as well as limit poverty.

“I’m not a Communist, by the way. We can see here the extremes between wealth and poverty. There needs to be a balance. How do you do that? At the moment, it has to be legislative, to limit the extremes of wealth and poverty and stop the people who are really wealthy from hiding their funds offshore.”  — Pat

4.  Payment rates for social assistance have to be raised immediately, and raised to a level that people aren’t living in poverty.

“If you don’t want poor people, then give them enough money that they won’t be poor. As a corollary to that, we also have to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. Otherwise, the point is often made that we can’t give the OW (Ontario Works) recipients more money because then they’ll be making as much as minimum wage.”  — David

5.  Spend 25 per cent of health-care related poverty costs on social assistance rates to reduce health-care costs overall.

“$14 billion is the most conservative number I’ve heard in poverty-related health-care costs. If they took a quarter of that, it would be an increase of over 50 per cent in the social assistance budget.”  — Laura

6.  There needs to be intensive follow-up for people on assistance who have gone through the government’s Second Career program to make sure that they succeed in getting a job that matches the training they received. Second Career is a provincial retraining program aimed primarily at laid-off workers.

“If they do succeed, chances are they’re going to get off the system because they’re making enough, which means they’re paying taxes back to the government. And if you’re one of those people who do qualify for Second Career, chances are you’ve probably fallen into the system by that point, you struggle to get to your post-secondary education with food in your belly and books and stuff, because there’s no funding for that.”  — Lauren

7.  Implement intensive case management for chronic assistance recipients and those with multiple barriers to employment.

“OW isn’t designed to have the person on it for more than a year or two. Poverty is a lack of resources. If your house is at risk, if you don’t know where you’re going to sleep and whether that will still be there tomorrow or next week or next month, then you’re in poverty. If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, then you’re in poverty.”  — Dave

8.  Conduct a study that looks at the way social engagement either advances people in poverty or constrains their ability to have a positive experience. The idea is to look at the social interactions between people in poverty and those they interact with, such as case workers or those involved with agencies such as education programs or food banks.

“There’s very little in those social engagements, I’m finding, that actually allows people to rise up. I’ve seen people who are seconds to minutes late for a program get bawled out, even told to just go home. It simply reinforces the authority over them.”  — Jane

9.  Let’s start talking about putting money into fixing the social infrastructure deficit of Hamilton instead of its physical infrastructure deficit.

“We always hear about the physical infrastructure problem in Hamilton. We should be talking about the social infrastructure problem. We have a poverty rate of 20 per cent, give or take. That’s 100,000 broken lives. What price can you put on a broken life?”  — Dave

10.  Stop being hypocrites.

“Stop going around the world talking about human rights and not adopting them here in Canada. Start looking at all of our policies through the lens of human rights.”  — Laura.

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