Hamilton social assistance rates still haven't recovered from the recession

The recession started a cycle of poverty that many Hamiltonians still can't escape.

The recession started a cycle of poverty that many Hamiltonians still can't escape

Hamilton social assistance numbers still haven't bounced back from the 2008 recession. (Wikicommons)

The recession was eight years ago now, but the number of Hamiltonians on social assistance still isn't back down to pre-recession levels, shows a report on the state of local poverty.

It's really, really hard to get off the system once you're on it.- Tom Cooper, Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction

Hamilton still has about 12,000 people on Ontario Works, says Joe-Anne Priel, the city's general manager of community services.

That's far above the 9,753 cases in 2007, a year before the recession hit. And the recession is to blame, she said.

People with low incomes are the first to be hit by a recession, and the last to bounce back, said Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. The stubborn OW rate is evidence of that.

"It's really, really hard to get off the system once you're on it," he said. "It's particularly so because people don't have the resources to do that job search. To maintain."

Hamilton's number of people on social assistance has fallen faster than any Ontario city since the recession – but remains above the provincial average.

This was just one of the highlights of the 2015 Vital Signs report presented to city councillors on the city's emergency and community services committee on Wednesday. The report, which came out in October, was commissioned by the Hamilton Community Foundation from the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton (SPRC). The report shows the lingering impact of the recession on Hamilton's social assistance numbers.

'This is not a local issue'

People with low incomes are the first to be hit by a recession, and the last to bounce back, said Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. The stubborn OW rate is evidence of that.
In 2007, for example, there were 5,016 social assistance cases per 100,000 households, show numbers from the Ontario Municipal Benchmarking Initiative. 

That rose to 6,042 in 2009, during the thick of the recession. The city hired 30 more workers that year just to deal with the surge.

This is a world issue that we have not recovered from the recession.- Joe-Anne Priel, general manager of community services

By 2012, the numbers had climbed to 6,340 households per 100,000. They've dipped since, to 5,788 households in 2014. But Priel said they still show the strain of the recession, which took jobs that have not returned, particularly for lower skilled workers.

"This is not a local issue," she said. "This is a world issue that we have not recovered from the recession."

The lower rents have increased the most

The lowest income tenants spend the highest proportion of their income on rent, according to the Vital Signs report delivered Wednesday. (CBC)
Being on social assistance creates a deep poverty that's hard to escape, Cooper said.

Sara Mayo of the SPRC told the city's public works committee Wednesday that there's a roughly 25 per cent gap between cost of living increases and social assistance rates. 

Here are some other highlights of the report:

  • The city's unemployment rate is improving.
  • The lower city has a large number of teenagers, but teen jobs tend to be located elsewhere, such as the Mountain, Mayo said. So transit is important.
  • The lowest income tenants spend the highest proportion of their income on rent. People with an average income of $11,032, for example, spend about 69 per cent on rent and utilities. Households with an average income of $83,691 spend 13 per cent.
  • Hamilton's steepest rent increases are in small, lower priced units. In 2007, the average rent for a bachelor unit was $495. In 2015, it was $634 — a 28 per cent increase. Rent on units of three bedrooms or more increased 12 per cent.
  • Hamilton has lost about 1,000 rental units since 2004, in large part because of condo conversions.
  • The committee voted to ask the federal and provincial governments to start incentive programs to encourage more businesses to offer a living wage. In Hamilton, that's $14.95 per hour. Ontario's minimum wage is $11.25.

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC