Presentation by Terry Cooke to the Conference Board of Canada.
By Terry Cooke
Published May 18, 2010
Editor's Note: Hamilton Community Foundation president Terry Cooke made this presentation to the Conference Board of Canada on May 17, 2010. It is published here with permission.
Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today to talk about the important work on the social-economic determinants of health that you are addressing here at the Conference Board of Canada.
Canada is increasingly a separate and unequal society. Over the past 40 years, my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario has become an economically segregated community, divided by income and geography.
Concentrated poverty is the moral challenge of our generation.
Hamilton Spectator reporter Steve Buist and researcher Neil Johnston's groundbreaking work "Code Red", clearly demonstrates that our city is losing ground economically and compounding its problems by limiting where our poorest citizens can live, go to school and work.
But beyond a sense of human compassion and concern about the health costs of inner city poverty, why should you even care? If your family is fortunate enough to live in a better neighbourhood and you generally avoid spending time in the inner city, does this trend towards concentrated urban poverty even affect you?
North American urban experience and years of research confirms that poverty anywhere is bad, but concentrated poverty inevitably spreads, undermining economic growth, property values, health and educational outcomes across entire regions.
How did we get here? The rusting of Hamilton industry started the downward economic spiral for much of our north and east ends. Our uncompetitive tax rates discouraged new private sector job creation. Working families who glued together older neighbourhoods left to escape pollution and find careers elsewhere.
One way streets created virtual highways in older areas, moving large volumes of traffic quickly from downtown to the suburbs, with little appreciation for their negative impact on local neighbourhoods and businesses.
Regional government in the 1970s further fuelled middle class flight, providing the financing and infrastructure for low density suburban housing. Developers targeted "exclusive" middle and upper class buyers, and local planning policies largely prevented smaller, affordable units or residential care facilities for people with lower incomes or disabilities.
But instead of trying to stabilize home ownership and focus on brownfield remediation to create new jobs in older neighbourhoods, we mostly abandoned the north end to illegal apartments, absentee landlords and public housing. We used tax dollars to subsidize residential sprawl and build suburban business parks unreachable by public transit.
This restricted housing options for people with low incomes and high needs in neighbourhoods that were already struggling. Suburban growth pressure was not unique to Hamilton, but it had more devastating results here than in more progressive cities that avoided segregating the poor.
Syracuse University Professor Gerald Grant recently published an important book called Hope and Despair in the American City. It contrasts the abysmal performance of neighbourhoods and schools in Grant's native Syracuse, New York with the more positive experience in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Why? Because Raleigh integrated every school by family income levels and gave their teachers the tools to innovate; Syracuse continued to concentrate poor kids together in the inner city.
In 1998, Raleigh set a goal to have 95 percent of grade 3-8 students proficient in math at a time when a majority of inner city kids were failing. Today, a mere 12 years later, they are at 91 percent.
Meanwhile, Portland, Oregon, with a rusting manufacturing base like Hamilton's, dramatically restricted sprawl and focused its redevelopment around Light Rail Transit, renewing mixed income older neighbourhoods and creating new jobs in small knowledge based businesses. Today, Portland is a stunning example of economic rebirth and diversification.
There are lessons for Hamilton in the very different experiences of Portland, Raleigh and Syracuse. Syracuse was unwilling to talk about the uncomfortable facts of neighbourhood and school segregation. Portland and Raleigh relished the clash of ideas and civic engagement and accepted the need to make fundamental changes to achieve income diversity in schools and neighbourhoods.
The evidence is clear: diversity is critical to our economic success. The diversity I am talking about includes not only diversity by race, gender, religion and sexual orientation, but also - and perhaps most critically - income.
Neighbourhoods and schools that are made up of mixed income children tend to do well and those that are segregated by income tend to do poorly. They are healthier, they are literate, and they are graduates. They have a better chance of getting and keeping a job and, as a result, the city has a better chance of attracting and keeping investment.
To end the cycle of poverty in Hamilton, we must be willing to have a blunt conversation about our neighbourhoods and our neighbours; about our schools and their performance; about the health of our citizens and the magnets we need to glue modern-day investment into place.
NY Times columnist Tom Friedman recently wrote:
"Between 1980 and 2005, virtually all net new jobs in the US were created by firms that were 5 years old or less. That is about 40 million new jobs. That means that established firms created no net new jobs during that period."
"Good paying jobs don't come from bailouts. They come from start-ups. And where do start-ups come from? They come from smart, creative, inspired risk takers. How do we get more of those? There are only two ways: grow more by improving our schools or import more by recruiting talented immigrants."
Looking at the sobering evidence presented in the past few days, you may ask if I am filled with hope or despair. The answer is hope, tempered by the hard reality of the work ahead. And here, the Hamilton Community Foundation and citizens of Hamilton have some stories to tell.
Six years ago, the Foundation had the foresight to make poverty its priority, working with partners to establish the Poverty Roundtable and Jobs Prosperity Collaborative to attack poverty at its roots. HCF also directly funded many initiatives that give us cause for optimism ... let me tell you about just one.
Planning teams that include service providers and many local residents are working to improve the quality of life in eight challenged Hamilton neighbourhoods. These "hubs" are becoming "one-stop" service centres to address poverty effectively by offering critical supports while building neighbourhood capacity.
Perhaps most importantly, civic engagement in the neighbourhoods is expanding. Local citizens are taking ownership of where they live and making positive changes. Measureable results confirm that working together, we can start to change and lift up these areas.
But to change the overall trajectory of our city, we must do more that just support and build capacity in neighbourhoods and schools that remain economically segregated "poverty traps".
We need to find the courage to confront our past planning mistakes and take a different path, committing to a future where all of our schools, neighborhoods and workplaces integrate people of all income levels to begin reversing the devastating consequences of concentrated poverty.
Hamilton needs to become more competitively attractive to private sector jobs that pay living wages. Plus, we must continue pressuring senior levels of government to provide a guaranteed annual income for those who require social assistance.
A west harbour Pan Am Stadium, Light Rail Transit and full-day GO service create a remarkable opportunity to leverage massive capital investments to begin transforming Hamilton's inner city neighborhoods into healthy, sustainable and more economically integrated places.
Working together and facing up to some hard truths, I believe that we can overcome the challenge of concentrated poverty and make Hamilton the best place in Canada to raise a child. And we hope the lessons from our experiences in Hamilton can help to add urgency and context to the debate about poverty across the country.