2011: Bridging the gap

Hamilton would be a better place for everyone if incomes were more equal



What would Hamilton be like if we were all the same?

Probably a lot less interesting, for starters.

But let’s change the question slightly – what would Hamilton be like if we were all equal?

Turns out that there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the city would be a better place for everyone – and not just those who have been pushed to the margins of society.

There’s growing interest in examining the harmful effects of income inequality – at the level of communities right up to the size of nations. Hundreds of studies now provide powerful support for the notion that the greater the income inequality across a group of people, the worse the outcomes are for everyone for any number of health and social factors.

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The bad news?

Data collected by the Hamilton Community Foundation as part of its annual Vital Signs report card shows that the gap between the rich and the poor in Hamilton has shown no improvement over the past decade, and in fact, the gap might even be growing.

From 2001 to 2009, the number of households earning less than $20,000 a year dropped by 15 per cent. At the same time, however, the number of households earning more than $100,000 a year jumped by 67 per cent, suggesting that the gap between the two ends of the spectrum is widening.

There are now almost as many households in Hamilton earning $100,000 a year as there are with annual incomes of less than $20,000.

Use another measure of income distribution and the picture is no better.

In 2009, the poorest 20 per cent of Hamiltonians earned a combined total of just 5 per cent of the city’s total income. Meanwhile, the richest 20 per cent earned a combined total of 41 per cent of total income, a gap between the bottom and top that has remain unchanged for nearly a decade.

“More people are making $100,000 than ever before, but we also know that more Hamiltonians are using food banks and are on social housing wait lists than ever before, ” said Tom Cooper, director of Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.

“Prosperity is vital, but we need to ensure that Hamilton’s most vulnerable also have opportunities to move forward. Right now, too many are being left behind.”

Many of those being left behind are children. Poverty – particularly child poverty – remains a stubbornly persistent problem in Hamilton.

From 2006 to 2009, the rate of children living in poverty actually climbed slightly from 25 to 26 per cent, an appalling rate in either case.

Using data from what are known as Forward Sortation Areas – the first three characters of the postal code – the HCF’s numbers show that only one of the 22 FSAs in Hamilton has a rate of child poverty below 10 per cent. On the other hand, the three FSAs that cover most of the lower inner city all have rates of child poverty greater than 50 per cent.

If that’s not enough, Hamilton’s Ontario Works caseload grew by a whopping 40 per cent from 2008 to June of this year and is now over 14,000 cases.

“What we’ve learned is that there’s both a human and a fiscal cost associated with income inequality that impacts everybody in a metropolitan area, ” said Terry Cooke, president and CEO of the Hamilton Community Foundation.

“Too often, people think as long as the problem of concentrated poverty is not in my neighbourhood, it’s not going to affect me.

“Inevitably – if we learn nothing from big American cities – we should understand that over time, if we don’t deal with reinvesting in people and in neighbourhoods, the problem spreads and it undermines economic performance and the cost of responding for everybody, ” Cooke added.

“So there is an enlightened self-interest for everybody who lives in the broader City of Hamilton to understand that what happens at Barton and Sherman takes a toll on everyone in terms of social isolation, certainly in terms of health and mental health issues, in terms of policing and crimes rates and certainly and most destructively in terms of educational performance.”

The connections between poverty and poor health in Hamilton were laid out starkly last year in the Spectator’s groundbreaking Code Red series, which showed there were staggering discrepancies in health outcomes and life expectancy across the city.

The series showed that some neighbourhoods in Hamilton are living with Third World health outcomes.

“We are paying an extraordinary price in terms of the human health and the educational costs on our society by concentrating people and neighbourhoods and schools where they have few resources and lots of challenges, ” said Cooke.

The problem of income inequality extends far beyond the borders of Hamilton, of course.

According to a 2006 article by University of British Columbia economics professor Robert Evans, “income in North America is now concentrated in the hands of the very, very wealthy to a degree not seen since before the Second World War.

“With greater wealth comes greater political influence, ” Evans wrote. “Public policy, including health policy, is increasingly driven by the priorities of the wealthy, overriding the concerns of the general population.”

South of the border, the gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater.

Nearly one-quarter of all income in the U.S. is earned by just the top 1 per cent of the workforce.

According to U.S. census statistics, the combined income of the bottom 90 per cent of the American workforce is equal to the combined income of the top 10 per cent of wage earners.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau reported last month that more than 46 million Americans live in poverty – essentially one out of every six people, the highest rate since the Great Depression.

“This is a matter of the rich and the rest of us, ” said Jim Dunn, a McMasterUniversity professor who specializes in research involving urban neighbourhoods and community health. “The very rich are getting richer, and everyone else has incomes that are flat or declining.

“This has been happening for the last 25 years or so, driven by the persistent drive to cut taxes, ” Dunn noted. “This mainly benefits the rich – and not the rest of us.

“To help fund those cuts, the rest of us get reduced services and benefits – for example, declining levels for social assistance and disability pensions, tighter restrictions on Employment Insurance – and higher user fees at the same time that incomes are flat or declining.”

Two years ago, a small group of British academics and activists got together and formed The Equality Trust.

Its mission sounds simple, even if the path is complex: To reduce income inequality in order to improve the quality of life in the United Kingdom.

The trust has compiled evidence from hundreds of studies over the past 30 years and the findings are worth contemplating.

If income inequality in Great Britain could be cut in half, the trust states, the murder rate and obesity would also be cut in half, mental illness would be reduced by two-thirds and imprisonment would be cut by 80 per cent.

“People in more equal societies live longer, have better mental health and are more socially mobile, ” according to The Equality Trust. “Community life is stronger where the income gap is narrower, children do better at school and they are less likely to become teenage parents.”

It’s a message that Hamilton would do well to consider, said Dr. Chris Mackie, the city’s associate medical officer of health.

“We know that you’re a lot less likely to care about a person if you don’t know anything about them, if you’ve never seen what their life or their environment is like, ” said Mackie, “and there are a number of institutions in our society that reinforce the separation between neighbourhoods.”

The question, Mackie added, is whether or not Hamilton sees itself as a caring community.

“Or are we just a bunch of individuals out there fighting for ourselves, ” he added, “and that’s all we should be doing, and just allow those people who have more to protect what they already have and make sure the people with less don’t get any of it.”


Art in a transforming city

A healthy creative class has a role to play in the overall health of a community


Amber Edgar remembers the day well when she pulled into Hamilton in a beat up Saturn, trying to pick up the pieces after her folk rock band broke up a few days before.

The small-town Alberta guitarist had never been to the city before, but she remembered reading an article in a newspaper about an emerging arts scene, with all kinds of artistic people moving to Hamilton because the cost of living was so much more reasonable than bigger cities such as Toronto.

“The article said young artists should head east. Usually the thinking is to go to somewhere like Vancouver or something. I had never been to Southern Ontario. I have relatives there. So I guess it made sense.”

That was three years ago, and the 27-year-old musician, photographer and graphic designer has never looked back. She plays in a couple of different bands, but more interestingly, she’s developed a microbusiness called Citizen A, which designs CD covers and posters for musicians she has come to know.

This summer she moved the company out of her living room and into Studios at Hotel Hamilton on James Street North to take Citizen A to the next level.

She’s still in the early stages of her venture. But according to Jeremy Freiburger – who manages the converted hotel that houses 19 studios in a kind of incubator – Edgar is part of a spinoff phenomenon that’s starting take hold with the growth of the arts sector in Hamilton over the past few years.

Hamilton in general and James Street North in particular have seen huge increases in arts-oriented businesses. There are all kinds of new galleries and other artistic ventures on James that are celebrated with monthly art crawls and the annual blowout, the Supercrawl, which attracted an estimated 50,000 people in September.

But there are also new businesses emerging that serve artists, such as Edgar’s. A bigger more established example would be Dave Kuruc’s Mixed Media store that sells art supplies.

Paul Shaker, of the Centre for Community Study, says “you look at James North and you see a lot of galleries but you also have other firms moving in such as architecture firms, digital media firms and animation companies. It’s evolving that way.”

The development has been captured in an oft-quoted slogan seen on shirts that “Art is the new steel” (words that were ironically coined by a local artist who has since moved to Toronto).

But virtually everyone acknowledges that arts or the so-called creative class – as author and academic Richard Florida refers to it – is nowhere near generating the kind of wealth that steel did, or even does, in Hamilton.

“While there is a lot of hype, it’s not a huge influencer, ” says Judy Travis, the executive director of the Hamilton Training Advisory Board. She says the 2006 census identified 7,100 people working in “creative” jobs in Hamilton, about 3 per cent of the labour market.

She believes the census being put together this year will show some noticeable, but not huge, growth in the arts sector.

Yet Freiburger says the situation is more complicated than raw Statistics Canada numbers portray. The economic benefit is much greater than the dollars that directly move in and out of wallets of artists.

He says the economic effect needs to be analyzed at in “multiple layers” to be properly understood. The real activity happens with the spinoffs, he says. Once artistic ventures are established, other businesses, such as restaurants, artist support firms and other retail stores, are encouraged to open to capitalize on the trendiness and the growing crowd. That’s the level where most of the wealth gets generated.

That’s what happened in the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. Thousands flocked to DawsonCity to find their fortune moiling for the precious metal but few got rich.

The ones who did well financially were those involved in related industries, such as bars, hotels and supply stores that set up to take advantage of the influx of people.

Some have argued there are further benefits to a community by artists taking up space in rundown parts of town. They fix up the area and give it some character, which pushes up the price of the property and rent. Eventually, market forces drive the artists out because they can’t afford to live there.

It’s a source of endless frustration for artistic people that the spoils of the economic renewal they create tend to go to Johnny-come-lately firms that have taken far less risk.

Freiburger says, “It’s been proven in cities across North America that 10 years after artists arrive, then other people start making money.

If you apply the 10-year rule to James Street, we should be seeing tangible economic activity soon.

“In early 2002, the you me gallery (at 330 James St. North) opened at the far end of street anchored by Sonic Unyon Records (on Wilson Street just east of James North) and since then 20 to 30 owner-operated businesses have moved onto James Street.” A good portion are not-for-profit, he says, but many others are bona fide businesses.

Another example of economic spinoff, he says, is the Hotel Hamilton project that he manages.

The growth of small businesses on the street, encouraged the “$1.5 million investment from local people” to refurbish the dilapidated former flophouse at 195 James St. North, as well as a condo project near the Acclamation Restaurant.

“Those developments would not be happening if there was not a vibrant scene of people engaging on the street, ” says Freiburger.

But there are other important benefits as well. Hamilton has had a problem in recent decades keeping its youth.

A city with a vibrant arts and cultural sector is more able to dissuade them from leaving, says Jacqueline Norton, of the city’s economic development department.

“We don’t want young people to consider Hamilton as a place to leave. We want them to stay here and be part of that creative community.”

The growth of the arts and culture sector, she says, has brought “an overall improvement to the quality of life in the city. There is more creativity to be seen and consumed by people. It makes a much nicer and richer environment for people to live in. Really that is the biggest bonus that more of this stuff can be found in our city. You can find some pretty neat things.”

One promising area of growth has been in animation. Four animation companies have recently moved to the city, creating about 150 jobs, she says. Hamilton is benefitting from provincial government tax incentives for film companies – that more-recently included animation firms – to locate outside the Greater Toronto Area.

Norton says that while Hamilton has made a name for itself as a place to shoot movies and television programs in recent years, that economic benefit has been limited.

Meanwhile Amber Edgar is optimistic about the future even though she has to supplement her income sometimes working in coffee shops.

She’s planning on making Hamilton her home for the long run. It’s everything she hoped for as a place to grow her artistic talents.

“I didn’t know Hamilton even existed for most of my life, but now it’s become the centre of what I do.

“It’s like the New Orleans of Canada. It seems like almost everyone is into music … I think it is on the verge of something really big and everyone is really pumped about it.”


Do you feel like you belong?

If you’re over 45, have kids and live in Westdale, chances are that you do. But when we don’t, it’s bad news for our overall quality of life.


To feel like we belong is a basic human need.

Abraham Maslow, a prominent American psychologist, made the concept famous with his hierarchy of needs theory.

Remember learning about his pyramid-shaped diagram in school?

At the bottom of the pyramid are the largest and most fundamental needs: our physiological need to breathe, eat, sleep. Then comes our need to feel safe and secure. But ranked as next important is our social need to belong.

How we perceive our own sense of belonging matters because it’s considered to have great influence on our overall quality of life.

A McMasterUniversity study, to be published in the international journal Social Indicators Research, analyzes how Hamiltonians’ sense of belonging to their communities differs dramatically depending on where we live, among other factors.

The results are both typical and surprising.

About 67 per cent of Hamiltonians believe we have a very strong or somewhat strong sense of community, slightly under the national average of 68 per cent.

Among 17 major cities, including Toronto and London, only two cities reported higher numbers: St. John’s at 72 per cent and Thunder Bay at 73 per cent.

“Overall, it’s a good news story for Hamilton.

“People definitely have a strong sense of belonging in the region, ” said Peter Kitchen, co-author of the report, Sense of Belonging to Local Community in Hamilton, Ontario: An Intra-Urban Analysis.

Also consistent with national research, the local numbers reveal a strong association between a lower sense of belonging and poorer mental health.

If you consider your mental health as fair or poor, you are also more likely to have a weak sense of belonging to your community.

Our sense of belonging is generally strongest among those in rural Hamilton and weaker closer to the city’s centre.

But there is a notable exception: Ancaster.

Although Ancaster residents recorded the highest level of positive mental health among all Hamilton neighbourhoods, with 92 per cent reporting excellent or very good mental health, its residents reported one of the lowest levels of sense of belonging at 60 per cent.

Other findings include:

Westdale residents were eight times more likely to have a higher sense of belonging than those living in east Hamilton near Parkdale Avenue.

The lowest sense of belonging came from residents in the lower city, defined as the north section of Hamilton, south of the HamiltonHarbour.

Couples with children report the highest sense of belonging to their communities. Single parents report the lowest.

Are you 45 or older? If so, you are more likely to feel like you belong in your neighbourhoods than anyone younger than you.

People who earn $80,000 or more a year are more likely to feel a strong sense of community belonging compared to people who make under $20,000.

But back to the Ancaster anomaly.

Kitchen points to a few possible factors. Ancaster residents are typically seen as affluent professionals who commute. When you live and work in different communities, that could create disconnect. Although centred on a historic village, new homes have expanded Ancaster into farmland and other open spaces. Add to that the big-box retail stores of places such as the Meadowlands and many are left lamenting the loss of what they see as the historic charm of old Ancaster.

Tom St. Michael, a lifelong Ancaster resident, feels a great sense of belonging to his community but he can understand why others do not, especially people living in the newer subdivisions.

“Ancaster was just one of those places that if you were lucky enough to have been born and raised here, you hoped that you’d be able to spend your life here.”

But now the whole area has changed dramatically, he said.

“You’ll find that any pocket of land that’s available, developers are trying to push in this intensification, and this density of condos and townhomes. It’s just changed the whole look of Ancaster and what it represented, ” he said.

But further down Highway 403, two longtime Westdale guys drinking coffee outside Second Cup on King Street West have no shortage of compliments about their neighbourhood.

Berni Beckmann, 52, has lived in Westdale since he was a child.

“I can’t think of a reason why I’d ever move. It’s a nice village here. Everything’s here and I can walk anywhere I want to go, ” he said. “It’s small-town charm in a big city.”

Frank Sylvester, 77, who has lived in Westdale since 1967, said he has a very strong sense of belonging to the community.

“The atmosphere is nice and people are very friendly, ” he said.

City officials know work needs to be done to improve neighbourhoods.

Paul Johnson, the City of Hamilton’s director of Neighbour Development Strategies, said more than 2,000 residents from three high-needs areas will be interviewed face-to-face beginning this fall as part of a McMaster University-led survey to assess community needs. It’s one of the first steps in an overall $2-million plan to improve the social, economic and health outcomes of several neighbourhoods.

The neighbourhoods include the Keith neighbourhood in north Hamilton, The Stinson neighbourhood and the community surrounding Ivor Wynne stadium, both in central Hamilton.

The Keith and Ivor Wynne neighbourhoods reported among the lowest levels of self-perceived mental health as well as a low sense of belonging.

Johnson stressed this isn’t about quick fixes.

The objective is to engage residents to create their own neighbourhood improvement plan; to become advocates for what they believe their community needs.

“We’re setting a tone that the more you are engaged in your neighbourhood, the healthier your neighbourhood is going to be on a whole bunch of levels … This is about building healthy neighbourhoods, ” said Johnson.

“The hope is that we really do see the change.”