Circe Luna is one of the shining faces of success in Hamilton's increasingly bright employment picture.

The 26-year-old single mom is working at her dream job as a creative and design specialist at City Kidz, a non-profit agency that works with inner-city youth. Getting here wasn’t easy and she considers it a personal triumph that she was able to get off welfare and find a job she loves.

But this isn’t only Circe’s success story. It’s also one of the city’s.

Ontario Works average annual caseload

One case can represent an individual or a family.

  • 2008: 10,035
  • 2009: 12,224
  • 2010: 13,330
  • 2011: 13,807
  • 2012: 13,288

Circe (pronounced Sursee) was one of more than 1,300 people who came off Ontario Works (OW) in the Hamilton region last year. It was a significant enough drop in the welfare caseload that officials say it’s a sign the economy is definitely getting back on track.

The drop in OW cases was the biggest since the recession hit in 2008, when welfare numbers began to climb. The OW caseload in the Hamilton region grew by 38 per cent over four years, peaking in July 2011 at more than 14,100 cases.

Since then, the numbers have slowly edged down and by December 2012, they had dropped to 12,536, a decrease of about 1,500 cases. OW officials measure success in the differences between annual caseload averages, and from 2011 and 2012 there were 519 fewer cases.

"We’re optimistic that we’ll continue to see that downward trend," said Kerry Lubrick, director of income and employment supports for the City of Hamilton.

"Our economy is quite good in Hamilton, so that has had a significant impact on our caseload. We’ve seen people returning to work and that’s good."

Tough climb, big reward

Circe proudly shows off some of the posters she’s designed as she talks about the long, difficult climb to where she is now. Five years ago, after a relationship breakdown, she was living in a homeless shelter and eight months pregnant.

After her son, Gabriel, was born, she was desperate to get off welfare. She enrolled in an academy in Thornhill which offered a graphic design diploma in an intensive one-year program. It was a six-hour commute by bus there and back every day and sometimes meant getting up at 4 a.m. Her family helped by taking her son to daycare and picking him up when she wasn’t able to.

One year later, she had her diploma. After graduating, her OW caseworker found her a volunteer position at City Kidz, which she did for eight months until her supervisor hired her on full time last spring.

"It feels great to be independent and to be in a job where I’m able to help others," said Circe, who teared up as she talked about her exhausting year of study.

"I hated it that I never saw my son," she said, wiping away tears.

But looking back, she added, "I’m glad I stuck it out. I’m doing something that’s my passion, that I always wanted to do."

Besides people like Circe who are finding ways to get off welfare, Hamilton’s economic comeback is also being reflected in unemployment rates which were the lowest of all major cities in the province in November. They dropped from 6.4 per cent in Hamilton in October to 5.9 per cent in November (Statistics Canada figures for the region include Burlington and Grimsby).

The rate dropped again in December to 5.8 per cent, representing a decrease of almost nine per cent from one year ago.

This is good news for the local economy, because welfare numbers typically don’t change until about a year after a recession hits, when employment insurance benefits have been exhausted. Likewise, Lubrick said it also takes longer for OW numbers to go down once a recession is over.

"Unfortunately, our (OW) caseload takes longer to get work because their skills and education levels tend to be lower than the general population. So those things impact on how long people are out of the workplace and when they can get back."

The difficulty for welfare workers when the caseload numbers go up is that they have less time to work with clients to get them off welfare. The average caseload per worker is 110 to 120, but during the recession it went up as high as 170. One case can represent an individual or a family.

"It’s really not effective in case management. With the decline (in caseload numbers), we’ve seen the ratio go down and now you get more effective case planning because you get somebody being able to spend time with a client and help them off OW," said Lubrick.

Welfare rates may be dropping, but poverty is still a problem in Hamilton. A 2011 report by the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton showed that some 30,000 working Hamiltonians and about one-quarter of children and youth are still living in poverty.