Municipal Election 2010

Is Hamilton an American City?

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!

The Spirit Level

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.

Startling Inequality

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.

Cars vs. Equality

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.

David Cohen is a freelance writer and a part-time teacher. He has worked as a journalist and a communications officer (promoting workplace health and safety). He served on the Dundas Town Council from 1991 to 1994.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 16:39:05

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By urbanhealthprof (anonymous) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 17:30:06


I think it's possible to make a persuasive argument that the pattern of poverty in Hamilton is similar to that of many US cities. Cities like Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon have a similar pattern too. The 'hollowed out' core, large disparities between the inner city and the suburbs, etc. One big difference? The magnitude of inequality is MUCH greater in the US, although we should not laugh up our smug, self-satisfied Canadian sleeves too quickly - the gap between rich and poor has been growing rapidly for over a decade and the incomes of the bottom 90% of the population have stagnated or shrunk (in real terms) over the past 1/4 century, as documented by the Growing Gap project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. So while the smaller gap (than in the US) may be cause for optimism, the overall societal trend towards growing inequality is working at cross purposes.

BTW, regarding the Wilkinson hypothesis, at least in the early 1990s, Canada fared fairly well, at least compared to the US. Among the 53 Canadian cities bigger than 50,000 people, there was no relationship between income inequality and population health. In the US, in the 282 similar cities, there was a very strong relationship between income inequality and population health. Looking at a larger set of countries, Canada is similar to Sweden and Australia, while the U.S. and the U.K. are similar - inequality is bad for health. Wilkinson has expanded his interest to other outcomes that are affected by inequality.

See: http://www.springerlink.com/content/a424l2222q21n6m1/
and: http://www.bmj.com/content/320/7239/898.full?sid=560b5f8d-6327-40a7-beb8-f6725a52fa3c

Also regarding Wilkinson, he is speaking in Toronto on December 10th: http://unequal.eventbrite.com/

Follow me on Twitter: @urbanhealthprof


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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 17:34:17

good post urban

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 17:43:23

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By Fred Dawes (anonymous) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 18:09:52

The political system will be on our backs until people understand why it is.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 18:12:35

No its not personal

No, it's personal. You sir are a douche.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 18:24:32

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By adrian (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 19:18:32

It's time to stop feeding this particular troll, folks.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 19:33:29

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By Realist (anonymous) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 20:32:01

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By caretaker (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 22:09:36

Your friend Judt is not a "great historian". He is another expat brit who lived large off the American capitalist society that he spent a lifetime criticising. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Judt

By his own description he was a "a public intellectual voice within the American Left" He was no doubt a big fan of the old Soviet systems where equality was the norm - equality of poverty.

As a group the members here have a lot of good ideas about how to distribute wealth more equitably, but I've seen very few posts about the need to create an environment to nurture and attract entrepreneurs and businesses to our community to create additional wealth.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted October 22, 2010 at 08:20:13

Mr. Cohen,

This is a very good article and provokes self reflection for our city at just the right time.

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By frank (registered) | Posted October 22, 2010 at 08:20:20

^then I guess you haven't been around long enough...

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By Goodpoint (anonymous) | Posted October 22, 2010 at 09:56:57

Good point caretaker - We need to create an environment to nurture and attract entrepreneurs and businesses to our community to create additional wealth. One way to do this is to develop a comprehensive vision for revitalization that has buy-in from the community and sends a message that we have confidence in our city and will be investing public money to start the process of development. This gives a sense of certainty for investment and attracts people willing to invest and start businesses in Hamilton - In short, it attracts talent and money. What you don't do is let individual, single-minded interests hijack broad-based public processes about city-building. This sends the message that Hamilton is not a safe place for investment and for mobile talent, it shows that if the city and the interests of influence have so little confidence in Hamilton's future, why should individual entrepreneurs.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:06:04

I don't think you'll get an argument from Caretaker on any of your points. I'm sure you'll disagree but thats been the problem coming from city hall. It hasn't been about broad based public process city building. Its been about back room old style politicking and vote trading rather than whats good for the city

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By joejoe (anonymous) | Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:20:36

I remember listening to a lecture by an Economist (it was a long time ago, I don't remember the specifics - sorry) who compared income gaps between the US and Japan.

The health and crime related statistics were alarming. The US near the top of the charts for everything from heart disease to divorce, to bankrupcy. Japan was near the bottom.

"What could cause such a disparity?" he wanted to know.

He showed the economic numbers. Both had excellent GDP, average incomes etc, all were similar - what was it that set them apart? Then he gave the income gap numbers. I recall the income gap in the US was astonishing. Something like a 1000% difference between the richest 2% and the poorest. It Japan it was something less than 20.

His conclusion then, was that the income gap had a role to play in the health and happiness of a nation.

The lecturer used to work in healthcare. He gave an example of non-white Americans who came in for surgery.
"They were always comforted by an array of family members" he explained, "And yet, when the white American's came in - the born and bred citizens - they were often alone"

His point was that income gaps create a disconnect in our society, where the poor really do get left behind. Chasing money and worrying about money and being obsessed with money prevents you from focusing on what is really important - community, friendships, enjoying the little things in life. A country that is obsessed with growth and the accumulation of income and property and 'things' loses sight of what is truly important and succeeds only in increasing the gap between rich and poor and propogating the problem.

I don't know how the income gap is controlled in Japan but I wondered, what would happen if we set a barrier to income growth? What if that CEO could only earn no more than 10 times the salary of his lowest paid worker. Would he pay himself less, or pay the janitor more? Would he run off to the US and work, or stick with his home country? Would our economy flouder or would our society excel?

I think income disparity is a critical issue. It's not enough to simply throw money at the bottom of the heap and look away. We are all interconnected, we are all part of this problem, and the solution. Only when our incomes and futures are linked will we be able to work together towards a solution.

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By d.knox (registered) | Posted October 22, 2010 at 23:39:12

I also read Spirit Level and found it interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying. I didn't think the authors took enough time to consider their anomalous findings.

It's a little extreme to consider Hamilton to be an American city, for a variety of reasons: 1. We have sidewalks; 2. Our "inner city" is really close to a beautiful waterfront; 3. Our "inner city" has great grocery stores; 4. Our education funding does not come from restricted geographic regions - directly linking poor neighbourhoods with poor quality education; 5. We have a good public transportation system equivalent to a much larger city. 5. Our city is beautiful.

There are obviously flaws we still need to deal with - mentally ill people really shouldn't be left to fend for themselves for one thing - but we are pretty great.

I was once part of a tour company that brought a busload of tour guide operators to Hamilton from New York State. After they toured the city, and we took them everywhere, including any bad areas you are thinking of, and at the end, they said it was nice, but they wanted us to show them the bad areas. They insisted, while driving down Wellington, Bay North, and all along Barton, that we were sugar-coating the tour.

Finally, half our relatives are American, and when they come to visit, most of them wish they could move to Hamilton - because it's so lovely (except for the winters).

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By Alice (anonymous) | Posted October 23, 2010 at 10:23:19

Great article David. I was especially pleased to see the connection between poverty, transportation and choice, outlined in your piece. What I find upsetting, however, is that people are still unaware that Hamilton IS moving forward with LRT. They have developed a strategic 50 year plan for a LRT system connecting the entire City. The first leg of which being the B-line running east-west, with community consultation and design already underway. And contrary to uninformed councilors, the A-line, running north-south is currently in feasibility analysis.

The ball is in motion, and nobody seems to know. My greatest fear is that 2 years from now, when we aim to start building this thing, citizens will think it's coming out of nowhere and somehow derail it (pun intended). The LRT project is just the kind of progressive City Building initiative that the Mayor and Council should be promoting at every step, yet few seem to truly understand the process.

So, get the word out. A integrated, sustainable mass transit system has the potential to provide ALL citizens with transportation choice and to affordable access employment opportunities throughout the City. It has the potential to stimulate economic development and the revitalization of derelict buildings and neighbourhoods. But be warned, gentrification is a serious issue and steps should be taken to ensure that low-income families are not displaced from the neighbourhoods that will be effected most.

http://www.hamilton.ca/ProjectsInitiatives/RapidTransit/

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 23, 2010 at 11:33:13

I think everyone knows its being planned. What I don't think is understood is how much its going to cost. Its easy to get agreement on a need for improved transit and its easy to get people to agree one form is better than others but once people know what its going to cost them in increased taxes there is a whole new dynamic and thats whats going to ultimately derail the LRT

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted October 23, 2010 at 23:50:03

I think that a city building mindset must include businesses and entrepreneurs where some of these, all of these actually, may appear to be out to only be a successful business rather than interested in "city building". I've never met a business man anywhere who wasn't in it in the first place for his business and his pocket. Did Ron Joyce start out to help "build the city"? Of course not. But in the end having a sucessful business operating in Hamilton rather than someplace else is "city building" even without that as a primary goal of the business in the first place.

It's like working. Some people are fortunate enough to be working in a field they love. But they wouldn't have gotten into that field if it wasn't going to at least put some food on the table and able to feed themselves and perhaps a family.

We look after ourselves first, secondly that contributes to a healthy city if you have people working and businesses thriving.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2010 at 16:01:39

Cohen >> all indications are that we are a city of startling inequality... What is to be done? ...Public transportation is one of the main facilitators of equality in urban societies.

WTF? How does subsidizing a money losing transportation system help put money in poor people's pockets? Currently, the HSR costs $30M more than it raises in revenue. How about taking this $30M and giving it to poor people and let them spend it the way THEY want to, rather than the way YOU want to?

If public transit is as valuable to poor people as YOU say it is, then poor people will use that $30M to pay the higher fares the HSR currently gets in subsides. However, if you're wrong, they will spend some or all of that $30M someplace else, like on clothes, or food, or tools for a new business.

If Hamilton has too much poverty the reason is because government is too big, not too small. In the past 5 years, city wages have grown by about 40%, about 4x more than the average Ontario worker.

If wages for city workers had only increased as much as the residents of Hamilton, we would have an extra $135M to give to poor people. Take 18.4% of 500k residents and you get 92k people. Then take that $135M in wages to city workers and divide it equally amongst the 92k poor and what do you get? An extra $1,467 per poor person, or almost $6,000 for a family of four. If you add the $30M in subsides to the HSR, the $1,467 number jumps to $1,793 per poor person, or an extra $149 every month.

That is what would help reduce poverty, not hiring more high paid city workers to run a business that produces such a poor product, it requires almost half of its budget to be in the form of taxpayer subsides. Public transit is a scheme to enrich public employees and their unions, nobody else.

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By Paul (registered) | Posted October 24, 2010 at 16:44:43

Public transit is a vital resource to urban living and is not "for the poor" but for anyone wishing to travel through the city without having to have a car. The reason HSR is not making money is it has this unfair stigma attached as well as the car having a certain kind of success status.

Further investment has lagged behind in Hamilton and so service is not what it could be. A most recent example is the use of gas tax money. While most cities put into their transit system we did not. We increased fares and lowered services and spent the mmoeny elswhere. Consequence? less ridership, larger debt and less gas tax coming this year as it is based on ridership.

This I am certain will continue unless we make it an issue. So far Di Ianni and Eisenberger refuse to truly make it one preferring instead to tout LRT as the answer to our transit woes without realising we need improvement now as well as a fare freeze if not a lowering to stimulate ridership. I spoke to Mr. Eisenberger about this specifically and he refused to commit and was the person who pushed for a .20 increase which was higher than was finally approved. He also failed to have the gas tax invested in transit.

People need to look beyond dependence on the car and realise there are many quick easy ways to get around without the car. That is not to say it is not needed for many because it is in our current lifestyle especially with a family.

But not every errand requires a car and if more people got behind transit as a viable alternative instead of thinking of it as a form of charity for the poor who cannot afford a car, this city would be in better shape.

LRT fortunately does not have the same stigma but is still distant and bus transportation will remain. Regarding Bratina's statement of a north/south LRT, I do not think it is about shying away from the East/West issues but pointing to the need we have to also provide N/S transport especially as we exploit our remaining farmland and destroy greenspace to placate Airport interests. If jobs will in fact be there, there has to be a way of getting there beyond the car. Especially since most jobs will likely not be sustainable or enough to afford a vehicle.

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