Poverty to prosperity solutions for Hamilton’s lower city

The following op-ed "Breaking down economic segregation: Is moving poor people out of the lower city an acceptable anti-poverty strategy?" ran in The Hamilton Spectator May 15th. The op-ed was in response to The Spectator's Code Red series that highlighted concentrated poverty and 3rd world health outcomes in some of Hamilton's lower city neighbourhoods. Hamilton needs some gamechanging solutions and could those solutions include getting folks out of poverty by getting them out of the lower city? Borrowed some of the solutions from a great book — Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh.

Breaking down economic segregation: Is moving poor people out of the lower city an acceptable anti-poverty strategy?

We all agree the poverty in our lower city is unacceptable and unsustainable.

We all agree something must be done and done now with an urgency, a single-mindedness and an unreasonableness that's equal to the crisis at hand

We all agree we need to ramp up and double down on game changing poverty-to-prosperity solutions.

We agree that we need to adopt and scale up the most effective and efficient solutions we can find, whether those solutions are Hamilton-made or imported from other communities.

There's a lot we agree on.

But are we going to agree on the solutions?

What if we discover some of the best solutions for getting people out of poverty are to get them out of the lower city?

What if those solutions include giving lower-city families the option to send their kids to any school in Hamilton? Or requiring developers to earmark a percentage of all new housing built anywhere in Hamilton for low-income families from the lower city?

Getting families out of poverty by getting them out of the lower city will put our values to the test. And odds are good that there will be pushback from more than just the NIMBYs.

Suggest these solutions and you may be told that you're being disrespectful and insensitive. That what you're proposing is a slap in the face of hardworking community builders who are proud and passionate to call the lower city their home.

Yet for every resident who's proud, passionate and about to write a letter to the editor, there's a family who's planning to get out. There's a family who's desperate to get out but doesn't know how and needs help. And there's a family who's all but abandoned any hope of getting out.

Not helping these families is disrespectful. Choosing not to listen to these families is disrespectful. Telling these families to hold tight and wait it out is disrespectful.

And promising an influx of the middle class, upper class and creative class may be wishful thinking. The Hamilton Spectator's Code Red series exposed third-world health outcomes and living conditions in some lower-city neighbourhoods.

We're not seeing an exodus of Canadians who are packing up and moving their families to third world countries. The migration is all one way. People leave for the promise of new opportunities and a better life. So why would migration be any different within our city? Creating magnet schools in the lower city with unique programs and great teachers may encourage an influx of families. But will it be enough, will it happen soon enough and should that be our only solution?

While our postal codes are different, we all share the same aspirations. We want good jobs that pay living wages. We want to live in safe neighbourhoods. We want to send our kids to great schools where they will flourish. Above all, we want a better life for our family.

If families can get that in the lower city, that's great. If families want to get that and can get it now by moving out of the lower city, we absolutely need to make it happen as fast as we can.

Moving people out isn't an abandonment of our lower city. It may well prove to our best hope of saving the lower city and my father is proof of that.

My dad grew up in poverty. He was born and raised in a Code Red neighbourhood in the industrial east end of London, Ont. Getting out motivated my dad to stay out of trouble and be the first in his family to get a post-secondary education. With a degree in hand, he got a good job and he moved our family from the east end to South London. We lived in a safe neighbourhood. We went to great schools. And we had a better quality of life. He broke the cycle of poverty for his kids and grandkids.

Yet my dad didn't abandon his neighbourhood or forget his roots. For most of his career, he was a teacher and principal at high-need elementary schools in low-income neighbourhoods. Those schools were full of kids who'd been dealt the same lousy hand as my father. And my dad knew from experience and believed to his core that for many of those kids, school was their sanctuary, their safe harbour and their single best hope for getting out.

My dad set high expectations for teachers, parents and the kids. And he did everything he could to help those kids realize their potential. He set up breakfast programs. Ran a popcorn machine in his office so no one went hungry. Shot hoops with the kids during lunch. Always kept an open door. Lent out his dress clothes at graduation. Got rid of the bad teachers and stood up for the good teachers who somehow persevered in the face of the challenges that poverty inflicts on inner-city schools.

My dad made a real difference. He was a poverty to prosperity solution for hundreds of families. The proof came in the weeks after my dad died suddenly and unexpectedly. Parents and former students sent my mom cards of condolences and letters of thanks. They talked about how my dad had believed in them. Looked out for them. Advocated on their behalf. Challenged them to do their best, to aim higher and to dream bigger.

At times when no else seemed to care, to understand their challenges or to even notice them, my dad gave a damn and he never wrote them off. And that made all the difference. These former students wrote about how they too had stayed on the straight and narrow. Went on to college and university. Got good jobs. Raised a great family. Had a better life. And broke the poverty cycle.

If we want the rest of Hamilton to care about what's happening in the lower city, if we want to get rid of the income inequality that has divided Hamilton and created a poverty that's concentrated, corrosive and uncontainable, then we may well need to get families out of the lower city and into the rest of Hamilton.

Lower city families deserve the best poverty-to-prosperity solutions and they need them now. Limiting what strategies get put on the table is not an option.

That's disrespectful, it's an abandonment of our lower city and it's an abdication of our moral obligation to our fellow citizens.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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