When you ask Judith Bishop if Hamilton is the best place to raise a child, the frustration in her voice quickly boils over.

"It's an embarrassing statement," says the former chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and longtime trustee. "If we're not going to do anything concrete about the large problems before us, then we can hardly go on saying that."

She's right – those concrete results are nowhere to be seen. It has almost been 10 years since the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction and the city set the goal of making Hamilton the best place to raise a child, and yet almost one in every four kids are still living in poverty.

The goal was a guide to action and investment, but also a way to get community support for a sustained effort to reduce Hamilton's significant poverty.

But Statistics gathered by CBC Hamilton show almost no forward momentum on the issue. How can that be, when a host of initiatives have been implemented to improve the lives of kids in the city? Is that the true picture?

'I want a society where every child starts on a level playing field – and that's just not where we're at.' - Judith Bishop, childcare advocate

Peeling back the layers of that question reveals a complex web of problems. Those involved in the strategy say the city has laid the groundwork to make things better, but it will take time for those actions to show up in the statistics.

They also argue real progress depends on higher levels of government stepping in to fix the larger issues. Critics maintain that's no excuse for not pushing forward municipally — and say a major problem is the key players are not working together enough at the local level.

Still others maintain that Canada's floundering economy is to blame, and that has Hamilton's parents constantly swimming against a deluge of challenges when it comes to raising kids.

No matter what the cause, all of that is little solace to parents and kids who are trapped in a cycle of systemic poverty right now, says Bishop, for many years a prominent advocate for children's well-being. "The numbers that indicate health in children aren't great," she said.

"You can hardly say it's the best place to raise a child."

Building a plan

It's not like nothing has been done in the last ten years to help children in the city.

Among the major initiatives:

  • Parental supports have grown through Ontario Early Years Centres, new subsidies have been created for recreation programming for kids.
  • Educational markers are improving, advocates say (albeit slowly).
  • The Tastebuds student nutrition collaborative has been growing steadily in recent years, serving 30,000 students over the last school year.
  • Wait lists for childcare subsidies have shrunk considerably, dropping from 1,347 in 2012 to just 144 in June — something the city says is a great success, attributing it to increased provincial funding and the implementation of all day kindergarten.
  • The Hamilton Community Foundation has made strides to make child well-being a focus in the city.
  • Mohawk College has planned a downtown centre for disengaged youth to bridge the gap to college programs.

"The landscape in Hamilton has totally changed in the last ten years," said Grace Mater, the city's director of children's and home management services. "The reality is we're doing okay, and we are truly trying to get better."

"We're building the conditions for success," added Paul Johnson, the city's director of corporate initiatives, who also chaired Hamilton Best Start for several years.

'We're just dealing with symptoms of a problem'

But what Hamilton hasn't had in the last 10 years, Bishop says, is a comprehensive and focused "children's plan" that encompasses childcare as well as large scale factors like housing and income to truly drag families out of poverty. She maintains that various city departments are doing worthwhile things, but that they don't talk with each other, which hampers effectiveness.

"We don't have a comprehensive strategy," Bishop said. "We're not dealing with this in a coordinated way."

"Individual small programs are really worthwhile, but we need to see all of these things together. Right now we're just dealing with the symptoms of a problem."

Poverty from taxfile data

Hamilton isn't beating child poverty. There are almost as many people under 18 in the city who are poor as there were over a decade ago.

A strategy that involves housing and income needs much more support from provincial and federal levels of government than the city is currently receiving, says Tom Cooper, the director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. "The city simply doesn't have the fiscal resources to tackle a problem of this magnitude," said Cooper, who has long pushed for both living wage and affordable housing strategies on a national scale.

"We're seeing a picture of a society that continues to become more inequitable," he said. "It's tough to fix that without a commitment from other levels of government."

That can be difficult to do when results won't show up within a four-year election cycle – but Bishop says local government shouldn't be let off the hook.

"It's at the local government level where we really understand our communities," Bishop said. "We've become complacent at the moment to start thinking 'without investment from elsewhere, there's not much else we can do.' But there is."

Swimming upstream in an economic downturn

It's also important that people understand these statistics don't exist in a vacuum, says Magdalena Janus, an associate professor with McMaster University's Offord Centre for Child Studies.

The Canadian economy had a lacklustre 2014, with a weak manufacturing sector contributing to a decline in GDP. Households are dealing with record levels of debt and precarious employment reigns in Hamilton like never before.

Parkyn screening

The number of families with a new baby considered at risk for developmental challenges has spiked sharply in recent years. This measure evaluates the infant's health, as well as other family and health factors, including the mothers' age and if she smoked during pregnancy.

With Hamiltonians constantly dealing with those pressures, standing pat statistically could actually be interpreted as a win, Janus says.

"You have to look at how other things have been changing," she said. "I think what we're seeing is that things are more difficult for families."

"We have made big changes for a small number of children, but that doesn't show in the big numbers."

On the city's end, Johnson says he sees the wisdom of that interpretation. "We are fighting against some pretty strong currents," he said. "Sometimes, maintaining ground is progress."

Then there's the sheer amount of time it will take for investments in child health to show up on the statistical end. Janus says it could be closer to 20 years before we start to see results – if Canada doesn't spiral into a recession, or some other factor sours the economy even further in the meantime.

Bishop acknowledges that it's going to take time to tackle Hamilton's systemic problems. "But we can't just accept that what we have at the moment is the best we can do," she said.

"I want a society where every child starts on a level playing field – and that's just not where we're at."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

Part one, Tuesday: The bleak statistics around child well-being in Hamilton

Part two, Tuesday evening: Why we haven't seen more progress in the last 10 years

Part three, Wednesday: What society needs to do to truly make Hamilton the best place to raise a child