5 ways to truly make Hamilton a better place to raise a child

The city hasn't made the inroads hoped for to improve Hamilton's child well-being. So what needs to be done? In Part 3 of our series, we look at five ways to truly make Hamilton a better place to raise a child.

Part 3 of our series looks at how to keep moving toward the goal

It will take a consolidated plan that includes elements of affordable housing, student nutrition, employment and childcare to truly make Hamilton a better place to raise a child, advocates say. (The Canadian Press)

If Hamilton wants to keep chasing the goal of becoming the best place to raise a child, it's doable, experts say – but it won't come easy.

It will take a focused, coordinated effort with buy-in from multiple levels of government – something close to a Herculean task.

Politicians and advocates remain committed to the goal despite some sobering statistics. 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 statistics gathered by CBC Hamilton show almost no forward momentum on the issue. Almost one in every four kids are still living in poverty.

So if the city hasn't made the progress it had hoped for, what more needs to be done?

Here are five ways to truly make Hamilton a better place to raise a child.

1. Don't let it become just a slogan

The danger of a grand, sweeping statement like "making Hamilton the best place to raise a child," is that it doesn't capture the complexities of Hamilton's child well-being issue.

Terry Cooke, the CEO of the Hamilton Community Foundation, says the idea was initially "a really nice sentiment" that wasn't truly thought through in terms of just what kind of investment would be necessary to make it a reality.

We're fighting against some pretty strong currents.- Paul Johnson, city director of corporate initiatives

"It will require this community to do more than it has historically," Cooke said. "Right now we're not doing well enough, and all of us have to bear the responsibility for that."

City Director of Corporate Initiatives Paul Johnson says he knows the dangers of underestimating the gravity of that statement. "All visions have the potential to be just empty things we put on the wall," he said. "But I think the commitment is still there. I see it on a daily basis."

2. Decrease levels of precarious employment

Almost every expert CBC Hamilton has interviewed for this series has said that the state of precarious employment in the city is hurting families, and by extension, children.

Studies say that nearly 60 per cent of Hamilton workers are in some version of precarious employment, a number that has risen since 2011. Precarious employment encompasses people working short term, contract jobs with little to no security or benefits, or full time hours without security.

A single person with a precarious job can have a hard enough time getting by – and throwing kids into the mix adds to the complexities of the problem.

"Now, entering the workforce isn't always a pathway to sustainability," Johnson said. "We're fighting against some pretty strong currents."

Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction Chair Tom Cooper told CBC News that without a true living wage, Hamilton families will continue to struggle. "Many of the children living in poverty have parents who are working – they just aren't earning enough."

3. Improve affordable childcare

The city's licensed childcare capacity has grown by over 4,000 spaces since 2011, but the number of families and children served by subsidies hasn't grown to match. The city says it has made strides to improve the situation, but Judith Bishop, the former chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, says not nearly enough is being done.

The 2013 Ontario Municipal Benchmarking Initiative shows licensed child care spaces in Hamilton were below the Ontario median, with only Waterloo and Windsor having lower percentages. Bishop also maintains that childcare spaces in Hamilton aren't evenly distributed. The majority of licensed care is in Ancaster, with spaces for 32 per cent of all children.

Officals from Hamilton's student nutrition collaborative Tastebuds maintain that if the city would fund the program, it would make Hamilton a much better place for children. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Families living in wards 2, 3, 4, and 5, have much more limited choices with spaces ranging from from none in some neighbourhoods to 12.3 per cent in others.

"I can't be satisfied with these really brutal kinds of statistics," Bishop said.

But Grace Mater, the city's director of children's and home management services, says the city is making strides to improve the situation.

"Yes, there are more spaces per capita in Ancaster," she said. "The challenge is that we as a city don't determine where those operators set up. We are continually monitoring that, though."

Hamilton does, however, have the second highest percentage of subsidized childcare in the province after Toronto at 23 per cent – but that number has dropped from 27 per cent in 2012, the largest such drop in the province.

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.

4. Fund school nutrition

The Tastebuds student nutrition collaborative has been growing steadily in recent years, but so has the need for its programs. In the 2009-2010 school year, 23,708 students were served. That number jumped to 30,082 in 2014-2015, as the program expanded by 68 locations.

The province funds 15 per cent of Tastebuds' programs, while the rest is fundraised by the organization itself. Unlike Toronto, the city doesn't fund the program at all – though organizers have been pushing for it to be included in the city budget for four years.

The vulnerability rate of Hamilton's children from the Early Development Instrument has stayed stable for years, and hasn't shown the improvement the city had hoped.

Instead, community partners like the Hamilton Tiger Cats, Dofasco and others have stepped up to fund the project, alongside cash from area rating funds and participatory budgeting.

Organizer Deirdre Pike says it would be "huge" for the organization if universal student nutrition programs could be implemented, which would lower the stigmatisation that's sometimes associated with school breakfast and lunch programs.

"If the city would step up, that would definitely make this a better place," Pike said.

5. Create affordable housing options

Hamilton's housing crunch is having a direct effect on children.

According to The Hamilton Community Foundation's Vital Signs report, rents have risen by over four per cent in a year, and rental vacancy rates have dropped to an "unhealthy" level of 1.8 per cent, which the foundation says foreshadows a "looming housing crisis."

The lowest-income renters already pay an average of 69 per cent of income to rent, leaving them at high risk of homelessness if their housing costs increase. "Some schools have a very high turnover rate because the parents are endlessly moving around," Bishop said.

"I've met children who have been in three different schools in one year. Housing has an enormous impact on children."

Both Bishop and Cooper maintain that without a comprehensive child-focused plan that includes real affordable housing initiatives, children will continue to be left in the lurch.



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