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Hamilton's Progress in Poverty Reduction

Posted on July 17, 2019
By Tom Cooper

HamiltonOnce in a while, change is transformative and bold, and happens almost overnight. Take the Ontario Basic Income Pilot project: More than 4,000 people in three Ontario communities were provided with an opportunity to test the idea of whether receiving a guaranteed income could break the cycle of poverty and improve opportunities.

For many pilot participants, a Basic Income meant an immediate improvement in quality of life, helped to stabilize housing, enabled people to eat better and feel healthier, and restored a sense of purpose and dignity for those who had been experiencing deep poverty for far too long. Of course, the pilot was cut short by a new provincial government last summer, and the full potential of the project was never fully realized. There were however, critical learnings. 

This summer, Vibrant Communities Canada will be hosting a series of Community of Practice Calls on Basic Income: We'll look at the idea, take a deep dive into the impact of the Ontario pilot and explore the future of the movement, here in Canada and around the world. Basic Income was a politically courageous enterprise. More often though, policy change is incremental - it happens gradually, over time. We might not be able to recognize forward momentum, except in hindsight.  That's been the case with poverty reduction in Hamilton, Ontario. 

A recent report, “Don’t Stop Now” from Hamilton's Social Planning & Research Council reviewed two decades of data and determined poverty rates are on the decline in Hamilton and across Ontario. In 1996, Hamilton had the second highest poverty rate in the province at 21.9%, by 2016 poverty had dropped to 16.6%: a twenty-four percent decrease.  Over the last decade, Hamilton has outpaced the Province of Ontario in reducing poverty.

The report points to "targeted interventions" at the federal, provincial and local levels to help explain the progress. Programs such as the working income tax benefit, child care investments, the Canada Child Benefit and the introduction of Ontario’s full-day learning for three and four-year-olds are helping. Added to these, recent improvements in the minimum wage and local investments in student nutrition programs and housing are moving the markers - albeit slowly - in the right direction. 

"We have made small improvements to the social safety net over the years, especially for families with children, and those public policies are having a real impact" Sara Mayo, the report's author told the Hamilton Spectator.  

And yet progress is slow, remains precarious and at the whim of political expediency. For example, individuals in receipt of provincial social assistance programs often live in the deepest poverty in society. Their experience has not been one of progress out of poverty, but of sinking deeper into distress over the last two decades. Today in Ontario, fully three-quarters of all people using food banks are on provincial social assistance programs – because rates don’t come anywhere close to reflecting basic needs. These individuals, (943,000 in Ontario) survive at one-third of the poverty line and there are few signals their situation will change anytime soon.

While we should applaud a reduction in poverty rates, let’s never be content with incremental change and gradual steps.  Let’s instead devote our energies to daring, life-changing goals to end poverty.

Take Your Learning Further:

Poverty Reduction, Cities Reducing Poverty, Poverty Reduction Strategy

Tom Cooper

By Tom Cooper

For the past nine years, Tom Cooper has served as Director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction - a collaborative organization formed to tackle the City's unacceptable levels of poverty. Through the Roundtable's work, Tom has engaged governments at all levels to invest in poverty reduction initiatives and worked to give people experiencing poverty a voice in the decisions that affect their lives. He's advocated for social assistance rates that reflect the real costs of living, fought to end to predatory lending in Ontario and helped co-found the Ontario Living Wage Network - an initiative of 30 Ontario communities endeavouring to address working poverty. Tom, was involved in helping to establish Ontario's first basic income pilot: a critical research project testing whether providing a basic income could stabilize housing, improve health and enhance social inclusion opportunities for low-income residents. That pilot project was pre-maturely cancelled last summer by a new government, and Tom continues to advocate on behalf of 4,500 pilot participants for a political or legal resolution. In 2017, the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction was recognized with the national 'Leadership in Poverty Reduction Award' by Vibrant Communities Canada for "stellar leadership in advancing poverty reduction".

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