The USA stands on its own among industrialized countries in sheer inequality. Canada as a whole is somewhere between the USA and Europe, but Hamilton is closer to the American model.
By David Cohen
Published October 21, 2010
Of course, our downtown looks American: acres of surface parking lots where buildings and shops and apartments used to be; one-way "streets" (highways) helping to speed the traffic; peopleless streets after 6 PM; and the members of the underclass under constant electronic monitoring.
But our Americanness is something more profound. I thought about it the other day after reading the Spectator's banner headline: "Fighting poverty No.1 for voters".
The Spec and its pollster expressed surprise. The latter, Nik Nanos, opined that it was "very unusual" to have 80 percent of the voters (or, at least those polled) say, 'We'd like to see new tax dollars go toward reducing poverty.'
This result did not come out of the blue.
Recently, the Hamilton Community Foundation reported that Hamilton's poverty rate of 18.1 percent is well above the provincial and national averages (14.5 percent and 15.3 percent, respectively). One in four Hamilton children under 18 lived below the poverty line (nearly 24 percent) compared to the national average of 18 percent.
On the other hand, it was revealed that Hamilton's five highest-income neighbourhoods had median incomes 3.3 times higher than those in the five lowest neighbourhoods in 2006.
Quite Third World, you will say. Yes, and I'll add: very American, too!
And quite un-Canadian!
In 2009, two British researchers, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published a splendid book titled The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.
The Spirit Level measures countries according to their degrees of equality. Take ill-health as an example.
Twenty-one countries (including Canada) were measured. One axis of an accompanying graph indicates countries with the highest national income; the other axis indicates the degree of health and social problems.
The U.S., of course, had the highest national income. It also had the worst health and social problems (infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, the prison population, etc.).
Thus, Americans live in the most unequal country in nearly all measurements. (There are, of course, differences according to where one lives in the U.S. Vermont, for example, is far more equal than Texas.)
European countries - Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and notably Japan - tended to be among the most equal.
Where did Canada fall? Almost exactly in the middle.
And this, more or less, is the story told in the myriad other measurements the book reports. The U.S., the richest country, is the most unequal. Canada ... well, we're middling.
The Hammer? Well, all indications are that we are a city of startling inequality. Of course, we are not Canada's richest city - except perhaps for certain of our suburbs, which vie for highest average income and so on.
What is to be done?
The Spec headline was a grabber, but after a moment or two, reality sets in. Our citizenry want something done about poverty. Most likely, they are ashamed of it. The more thoughtful among us might be alarmed.
But does political Hamilton get it? If this election campaign is any indication, the answer is No.
Take, for example, the endless wrangling about what should be a no-brainer - Light Rapid Transit service linking the east-west and north-south areas of the city.
Public transportation is one of the main facilitators of equality in urban societies. It is no coincidence that bus usage rates in Hamilton are abysmal, in no small part due to constant jacking up of fares that negate recent increases in the price of gas.
The putative front-runner for mayor, Bob Bratina, wants to construct the north-south LRT line first. Is that because he dare not push for the re-conversion of King (as the LRT route) and Main to two-way traffic - a proposal backed by countless experts down through the years?
Hamiltonians love their cars and the one-ways that facilitate them. At least this is true of Hamiltonians who can afford cars. Members of the underclass mostly can't afford them.
But, like their American cousins, they don't count.
In the final year or so of his life, Tony Judt, the great historian, produced a book about inequality titled Ill Fares the Land in which wrote:
Inequality...is not just unattractive in itself; it clearly corresponds to pathological social problems that we cannot hope to address unless we attend to their underlying cause. There is a reason why infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, the prison population, mental illness, unemployment, obesity, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, illegal drug use, economic insecurity, personal indebtedness and anxiety are so much more marked in the US and the UK than they are in continental Europe.
And there is, too, a reason why the pathologies Judt lists are so much part of the Hammer, too.
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