Posts tagged ‘Poverty’

October 8, 2009

The Ontario HST: a counter-intuitive remedy?

The Ontario-based 25-in-5 Network for Poverty Reduction met in the basement of a community agency this week to hear some radical news. U of T’s Ernie Lightman and Andy Mitchell were at the front of the room. Economist Hugh Mackenzie had joined them. Policy wonk John Stapleton came in soon afterwards. Various funders, networks and advocacy groups sat around the room. Now Magazine’s Alice Klein sat at the side.

Lightman explained that this was a preliminary discussion rather than an off-the-record one.

We were there to discuss the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). Despite the hue and cry against it, Mitchell and Lightman’s analysis was showing that it is a progressive tax.

When the HST was announced, Lightman, habituated by a long history watching the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, was an early critic. Soon after he was interviewed one morning on CBC radio, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan followed with his own rebuttal: university professors shouldn’t speak about things they didn’t know about, Duncan said.

Lightman, to his credit, took up Duncan’s challenge. He and Mitchell, a stats master, met with Treasury Board staff, gathered some data and began the number-crunching. The preliminary results have induced them to rethink their original position and to broaden the discussion to this audience.

Mitchell’s analysis looked at the announced changes to the HST, personal income tax and Ontario Tax Credits and their combined effect on economic families (which includes singles too). The calculations did not include the transitional “bribe”. Here’s what they found:

  • While the overall effect on families is a wash, the HST’s impact is progressive. On average, low income families will benefit from the changes; middle income earners will come out neutral; and, high earners, over $100,000, will see an increase in their total tax burden.
  • Single parents should, on average, do better under the HST, whatever income bracket they are.
  • Couples with children should also do better with the HST. (Families with children will likely do even better than projected because of point-of-sale exemptions on items such as books and children’s clothing.
  • Singles who earn under $50,000 – $60,000 should benefit from the changes.
  • Only seniors showed a more mixed result, probably because of a range of reasons.

Now, Mitchell and Lightman cautioned this was a projection using SPSM Stats Can data. It does not account for any changes in spending habits which may occur after the changes are brought in. So, for instance, if a consumer decides to a get a haircut less frequently because of the higher costs, then these numbers may shift.

As the gathered group began to thresh through what this meant, a few obvious advocacy positions emerged.

  1. If low income people are to face higher day-to-day costs through the HST, the tax credits will have to be paid more frequently throughout the year so that, as Voices from the Street Mike Creek, reminded us, they didn’t run out of money even earlier in the month. Small, regular payments are better than a few large lump sums paid months apart.
  2. Because more tax credits and income benefits will now be flowing through the tax system, community-based tax clinics will continue to be a vital means of ensuring low-income people are filing returns so that they can benefit from the credits they deserve. Community agencies will need additional resources to improve the take-up.
  3. As the changes are currently structured, young income-earners are more likely to come out better. The impact of these changes on seniors, particularly low-income ones, should be looked at more carefully to ensure they are not left behind.
  4. Ontario tax credits are now fully indexed and so are protected from inflationary erosion. They are however always be vulnerable to a government’s whim to move to partial or zero indexing. Full indexation is vital.

Hugh Mackenzie had the final part of the discussion, framing the importance of taxes because they boost “the robust fiscal capacity of government which allows government to drive services.” And, if services are boosted, as his work with Richard Shillington last spring in A Quiet Bargain showed, the poor were more likely to receive an equitable share. When it’s implemented, this “tax-grabbing” change introduced by the Ontario Liberal government may just raise enough millions and billions to do that.

The HST sounds like a good deal to anti-poverty activists, after all.

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October 1, 2009

David Crombie on neighbourhoods and belonging

Quick notes from David Crombie, the former mayor of Toronto, speaking at the WoodGreen Community Services’ annual general meeting tonight:

Someone wise once said there are three questions everyone has to answer:

    1. Who am I?
    2. Where do I belong?
    3. How do I behave?

Neighbourhoods are where we do that.

Crombie also took a moment to reflect that he is the same age as the agency itself, 73 years old. Evoking the issues the agency faced at its start, Crombie reminded the crowd of  its founder Ray McCleary’s rallying call in the 1930s, “We need to reduce the power of poverty.”

Ever so. The work goes on.

July 1, 2009

Toronto swimming pools: Class in session

One of the strongest arguments put forward to save the school pools in the TDSB has been the issue of equitable access to a public resource. Or as the headline on the Globe and Mail article by Margaret Atwood put it, without pools, “Rich kids swim. Poor kids sink.

Critics have groused because swimming pools seem a unjustified demand on the public purse for a perk which many school boards outside Toronto do not enjoy.

However, the argument goes, school pools allow students who don’t have access to summer cottages and camp to learn a basic survival skills.

It’s a debating point that has held some sway. Last week, the TDSB voted to save twenty pools, and to put 13 more on hold while the schools look for further support. Seven pools will be closed. [Declaration of potential conflict of interest: A pool will be closing at a high school which my son will be attending next year.]

Given the relentless cuts over the years, the news came as somewhat of a relief.

A closer look, though, at the pools which have been saved gives some credence to the “pools as perks for the already privileged” argument.

The list of saved pools (Forest Hill, Lawrence Park and Humberside, among others) are in some of the toniest parts of Toronto. Similarly, the list of closing pools (Bickford Centre, Central Commerce and Parkdale among others) are in poorer neighbourhoods. Such anecdotal evidence requires a closer examination.

Using these schools’ ranks on the TDSB’s Learning Opportunity Index lets us see who has won this fight. The Learning Opportunity Index uses student-level data to rank schools according to their socioeconomic bracket. The Stats Can taxfiler data measures include the percentage of students below the Low Income Measure and the percentage of families on social assistance. The higher on the Index a school is, the more rich student population is.

A rough analysis, breaking the schools into upper, middle and lower tiers shows that schools in richer neighbourhoods are the ones being saved.

Of the 20 pools which have been saved:

  • 12 [60%] of the school pools (8 high schools and 4 elementary pools) are in the top third of the LOI (i.e. the schools with the richest students)
  • 6 [30%] of the saved pools are in “middle-class” high schools, and
  • 2 [10%] of the pools which will remain open, in high schools, are in the bottom third (the neediest schools).

Comparatively, looking at the 20 pools that are still threatened or being closed, poorer schools fared worse:

  • 2 elementary school in the upper tier have a pool being put on hold.
  • 8 pools in middle tier schoolsface a threat
    • 4 closed;
    • 4 threatened (3 high schools + 1 elementary)
  • 10 pools in the poorest tier are under threat
    • 3 closed (2 high schools + Bickford Centre);
    • 7 threatened (5 high schools + 2 elementary)

Troubling, indeed.

The sample skews in favour of schools in more well-heeled neighbourhoods, but this may be a result of a “sampling error.” Perhaps more of the  pools are simply located in richer schools and so, by saving them, more “rich pools” will be saved.

So, there’s another way to examine this.

Let’s look at the number of pools saved against the number of pools threatened in each of these three income tiers. If these numbers are disproportionate then we may have evidence of a systemic problem of classism.

Sadly, these numbers tell the same biased story.

  • In the top tier, 14 pools were threatened. 12 are being saved, or six-sevenths of them (86%).
  • In the middle tier of schools, 14 pools were threatened. 7 of them are being saved (or half).
  • In the bottom tier, the poorest schools, 2 pools have been saved of the threatened 11  + the unranked Bickford Centre for Adult Students & Continuing Education. (So one in six or 17% of these pools which serve poorer students has been saved.)

Also worth noting is that the only 4 pools in elementary schools which are being saved are all in the top bracket.  However, two “top tier” elementary school have been put on hold, as have six other elementary schools, all in the middle or bottom tier.

It’s a pretty damning picture. “Higher class” pools are five times as likely to be saved as pools in the poorest schools and twice as likely to be saved as pools in the middle tier.

How can this be so?

Part of the way this has fallen out may well be because one of the key criteria used to determine whether a pool would be saved, that is whether it could “generate sufficient revenue to offset operating costs.” Pools which serve richer populations are probably more likely to be able to do so. It was a sound decision — without the further vetting needed to assure it was an equitable one.

There’s no maliciousness here, but no one asked the question, so we have created further inequalities along class lines.

If our public education system is to meet its stated ideal of leveling the playing field for all students, another look at this decision must be taken. Rich kids are swimming, and the poor ones aren’t.

For list of school pools and their status, see more.

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May 16, 2009

The annual summer learning deficit looms for low income students

Soft summer days will soon be upon us, schools will let out, and poor kids will be left to fall further behind academically.

In a recent summer, my own son was able to collect a number of free T-shirts when he attended consecutive weeks of science, computer and basketball camps. He was provided with a rich range of experiences, excursions and learning opportunities.

In contrast, this week, I put together a funding application for one of my agency’s summer camps. The budget broke down so that each child would allocated bus fare for one return trip/week with an additional $8 per child for admission or other costs, $5/day/child for food (because food security is a real issue), and $2/day/child for supplies for arts & crafts, games and recreation. We’re hoping to be given the $10,000 maximum grant. Otherwise these amounts will have to be cut.

However, these are differences of opportunity between poor kids and their more privileged counterparts that are apparent even in schools within the public education system.

The real inequity emerges from the learning shortfall or “summer slide” that occurs when school is out in July and August. The students from more privileged backgrounds continue to gain academic ground through the summer, boosting their verbal, organizational and other learning skills. At best, students from low income families tread water. More often they backslide.

Learning disparities accumulate each summer so that by high school, the summer learning gap strongly predicts whether a student will take an academic course load, finish high school or attend post-secondary education.

Perhaps most startlingly, the implications from the research are that if schools are able to help low-income students catch-up when they are in session, then supporting these learning opportunities through the summer break may be more important even than the early learning initiatives, which first gave kids their leg up, but which are not as long-lasting.

This issue of the summer achievement learning gap has some respectable backers:

In February, the Toronto District School Board received a staff report on year-round schooling. Unfortunately, the report was limited by an examination of whether the current 185 days of instruction should be spread throughout the calendar year, rather than looking at whether additional instructional days might have an impact.

While not making a formal recommendation, the door is still open. The Board report left the possibility of moving to a different calendar if a school community requested the scheduling change.

The summer learning gap is not an issue that can be easily addressed at the board-level. Funding and teaching contracts are provincial matters.

However, within Ontario,Toronto probably has the most compelling reason and capacity to act on the issue. The TDSB’s leadership on inner city and urban issues offers the opportunity for the board to lead on this issue, in the best interests of low income students.

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April 19, 2009

The riches that social networks provide

One of my neighbours complained to me recently how the neighbourhood had changed. With the reconstruction of Regent Park, a wave of newcomers had been (dis)placed into the TCHC housing behind his house (also social housing).

“They have no respect for the neighbourhood,” he said, “and they’re causing all kinds of trouble.”

Now on the face of it, Don’s complaint could be seen as a predictable reaction to the arrival of newcomers, however I sympathized with him. This wasn’t a case of NIMBY-ism, because his complaint was really more about bad planning than about “bad” people.

In a hard-hitting article published in The Atlantic last summer, Hanna Rosin explored what happened to residents of large urban housing projects who had been moved to housing in “better neighbourhoods.”

Rosin followed residents of the projects and spoke to academics who were examining the impact of these displacements. She described some foreboding findings:

  • Social problems which had been concentrated in high poverty areas were dispersed into the neighbourhoods where residents found new housing and were more difficult to police. In effect, the bad spread further.
  • Social networks were decimated. Moved to new neighbourhoods, residents lost any long-standing or supportive relations upon which they might have come to rely and were slow to build new ones. In short, the good was lost.

Without supports, either formal or informal, to ease the transition, outcomes were bound to be poor.

Strong social networks build when we live near someone for years, or send our children to the same local school, or meet on a summer stroll past a front porch. Social networks are even more important in a low-income neighbourhood because we share resources among us.

For instance, my neighbour Marlene announced no one needed to buy a bundt pan because she had bought one recently. And, I know, that if I need a ladder, Ming and Doug both have one, or if they need a jigsaw, they can borrow mine. If I lived in another, less well-networked neighbourhood, we each would have faced the choice of buying our own or doing without.

Our new, displaced neighbours were settled here in a strange neighbourhood without these resources, and no provision was made to fill the gap.

I should borrow that bundt pan to make a welcome cake and introduce them to the neighbourhood.

March 22, 2009

Advocacy in a time of change

To commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Discrimination, 130 community activists gathered at the  School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. The auditorium was filled with familiar faces, with familiar messages in this old, familiar place (the old Toronto School Board office). However, this time, there was change in the air.

“We can’t sit around and watch our children die anymore,” said one presenter. “The Ontario government will use the economic downturn as a reason not to act on its commitments to poverty reduction and to the Roots of Violence recommendations,if we don’t act.”

Akua Benjamin, Ryerson Social Work professor, underlined the point, that young Black men are the ones who are dying most often, and that we need to address this specifically. Too often the broader terms of racism or people of colour occlude the particular issue of anti-Black racism.

The keynote speaker was the honourable Alvin Curling, co-chair of the recent Roots of Violence report. He has been making the rounds to numerous community meetings since its release because “writing that report was just one part” of what needs to be done.

If the recommendations are to be implemented, he explained, citizens need to push the government to carry out its commitment and to develop an implementation plan with hard goals and timelines.

Curling sounded pessimistic as some of the deadlines from the fall report loom.  However, he had people laughing out loud as he described the structural problems which lay in the way of successful implementation of the Roots of Violence report.

Siloed government ministries are like the kids in a family who each have to have their own iPod. Now, he explained, they can’t use their iPod 24 hours a day, but they also cannot share, so they each go out and get one. In fact, he explained, they won’t even tell each other what they have on their playlists.

The problem is so deep, he said, that there is no way we should throw money at it “unless the government gets its act together.”

In response to a question, Curling highlighted the recommendation on mental health supports, though, noting that this was the one recommendation which had money attached to it because of the seriousness of the issue.

Curling also touched on the topic of race-based collection of statistics, recounting a story from the consultations.

“We can’t do that,” the review was told by law enforcement officials. “The Blacks [sic] don’t like us to collect that.”

“Oh no,” snapped back one of the staff. “We just don’t like what you do with them.”

Other presenters at the day:

The City of Toronto public health report,  The Unequal City (2008), which demonstrates how different health outcomes are tied to income.

Sarah Blackstock, from the Income Security Advocacy Centre, exemplified how the 25 in 5 Network has ably kept poverty reduction on the agenda. [Conflict of interest, 1st alert, I sat onthe Steering Committee for a number of months.] The Network has had to balance maintaining an authentic link to community and labour while balancing Blackberries and meetings with the Premiers’ Office and the cabinet-level Results table, now charged with implementing the poverty reduction strategy. It’s a long way from the barricaded doors of old.

Lance McCready, from OISE/UT described his work in inner city and high need schools and his participation with the People for education report on Urban and Suburban schools. [Conflict of interest, 2nd alert, I was involved in this report and P4E before that.]

Margaret Parson of the African Canadian Legal Clinic described the upcoming World Conference on Racism and her participation, with many others in the room that day, at the conference ten years ago. Parsons urged Canadian NGOs and activists to participate even if the Canadian government was choosing not to participate in anticipation of a descent into”regrettable anti-Semitism.” She concluded by reading the final version of the controversial paragraph which had sparked the furor at the 2001 World Conference, and urged participants not to allow the broader issues of racism to be so easily set aside by a government seemingly unwilling to act.

Colin Hughes gave participants the long view, describing how the unanimous (and now notorious) 1989 parliamentary motion to abolish child poverty is  nine years overdue. Yet the momentum to keep the promise has not waned through the efforts of groups like Campaign 2000. Far from defeated, Hughes kept his sense of humour, laughing about his “useless Powerpoint slides” which had lost all his labels on the graphs.

Uzma Shakir, filled out the panel, and finished with a candid and rousing summary:

  • Racism might not be healthy for us,but anti-racism is.
  • It’s not good enough to hope that by ameliorating poverty, you are ameliorating the effectsof race. Because if good jobs are created, they run the risk of becoming generic jobs, ones that reenfoce the same old power structures. And then people of colour will be right back where we started.
  • Race and marginalization are not a newcomer phenomenon. There is a long history to racism in Canada. Immigrationis being blurred with it because most newcomers are people of colour.
  • The issue of race has to be disaggregated. If you use averages, then you could put my head in the freezer and feet in the oven, and say my body temperature was average. But that wouldn’t mean that I was healthy.

The Colour of Poverty campaign convened the one day forum with anti-racist and poverty activists, entitled Social Determinants, Growing Colour-coded Inequality in Ontario , and Racial Justice – the Pathway Forward.

A few short hours the provincial government announced it was increasing the Ontario Child Tax benefit and funding for housing. “A classic case of Liberals under-promising and over-delivering,” said one participant as his Blackberry buzzed with the leak of the announcement. “They undercut us again.”

Not that many minded. (But we’ll see what the provincial budget holds.)

February 8, 2009

A Night at the School Council

I wrote this a few years ago as a Facebook Note. It seemed an appropriate time to revive it:

My son’s school is considered a high-needs school according to the school board’s Learning Opportunity Index, at the top end of the range, just edging into the middle of the pack.

The neighbourhood is full of working class families, Canadian-born or from other lands, who grow vegetables rather than landscape rocks in their front yards. Nearby homes are, increasingly, filling up with young professionals, congratulating themselves on finding homes so cheap within easy commuting of downtown.

However it is also a school that stands out. The Toronto Star says that its EQAO scores are above what they “should” be given the student demographics. The school librarian picked up a book and taught herself cricket so that she could coach the group of young boys who asked for a school team. We have family dances and great community movie nights in the gym. And we still have itinerant music teachers. My son has learned cello and steel pan for the past couple of years. One of the Grade Six teachers organized a knitting club this year, and kids knit 750 dolls, which will be used as packing for medical equipment being sent overseas to hospitals which need it. (The dolls will then be distributed to kids in those places.)

So this is what I learned at this week’s school council meeting:

1) Rosedale Public School (a small K-6 school that serves one of the richest enclaves in the country) recently contacted our school principal. They wondered if they could borrow our steel pans this summer. Parents had raised $16,000 to send their junior students to Australia for a tour. (We’ve loaned them, because we know the importance of cooperation, in a place like this.)

2) My son’s graduation trip has been set. They are going to the well-treed park, five minutes north of the school, on the other side of the tracks, and bringing some Frisbees. The price is right, and the school council is going to buy everyone a Popsicle.

Sigh.

February 8, 2009

Toronto's Disappearing Middle Class

For those of you who missed Sunday’s Toronto Star article with mapsThe Three Cities within Toronto: Income Polarization, 1970 -2000 is being updated by authors, David Hulchanski, with Richard Maaren, at University of Toronto. Their recent update brings us to 2005, and the 2006 Census data will be included by the research team later this year.

What the maps show is not a shifting middle class, as described by the Star headline, but a disappearing middle class. Toronto has become a city of growing inequality. Fewer and fewer areas of the city are “middle class,” defined at close to the average individual income of $40,000 in 2005. Areas of high income are remaining essentially stable geographically, concentrated in the middle of the City and along the Lake, while low income areas are consolidating where they were previously and spreading out through the suburbs.

February 4, 2009

The TDSB's Learning Opportunity Index

Tonight the trustees of the Toronto District School Board will be looking at revisions (and here) to the Learning Opportunity Index, a measure which ranks schools according to the needs of their students and then focuses resources on the most needy ones. (The final rankings are available here.)

I had the pleasure over the past eighteen months in helping to revise and improve it, so I have two arguments to make:  first, why the LOI is an important, and essentially Canadian, educational tool, and second, why this new version is an improvement.

The purpose of the Index is to support students who are falling behind in school because of challenges they face outside of school. This new Index will allow scarce school resources to be driven to those most in need, those who are facing some of the greatest barriers to academic achievement and who are, by our measures, doing poorly in school.

The LOI deserves continued support because:

  • Our Canadian ideal of public education is to allow every student a fair chance to participate in our broader society. To do this, we have to make sure every child has a good start. Because the effects of poverty are cumulative, building exponentially, poor kids in poor schools face the largest learning barriers.
  • This is a best investment of educational dollars. Investments in poor kids make a bigger improvement than investments in kids in other income brackets – they just have more room to grow.
  • The LOI is and has always been one of the most cutting-edge educational measures in North America, mimicked in other jurisdictions, because of its statistical validity and reliability. It does the job it’s supposed to do: leveling the playing field.

The proposal going forward to the school board tonight should be supported because it shows an even stronger relationship between external challenges and academic achievement. The revisions should be supported because they:

  1. strengthen measures of poverty
    The current LOI measures income, looking at average and median incomes in the neighbourhoods where students live. These measure the middle of the pack. However educational research shows that low income is one of the main drivers of poor academic performance.

    • The proposed LOI keeps median income, for stability and consistency, but strengthens the measure of low income, adding
    • the percentage of Families who fall below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Measure (those living with incomes that are less than half the median Canadian income, i.e. those who are in the bottom quarter of income earners), and
    • includes, for the first time, a measure of families receiving social assistance.
  2. eliminate variables which confuse the issue
    Variables with a weaker correlation to academic performance were dropped; the new LOI is better able to predict how students would perform academically.

In recent years, housing type has become a poor variable because of problems of under-reporting and because no distinction is made by Statistics Canada between high-rise rental apartments and condominiums. Housing type no longer shows a strong correlation to academic performance.

Immigration is also a poor predictor of how students will perform. For instance, students from some areas of the world outperform students from other parts of the world, including students who are Canadian born. So, immigration status alone does not accurately predict academic problems.

The removal of immigration and housing type will mean that school located in areas with high immigration and multiple story dwellings may not be as high on the LOI if those income levels are not comparable to other parts of the city. However, when we looked at the academic performance of these same schools, we found they were performing more closely to the level predicted by the revised LOI. In actuality, the LOI is now a more accurate predictor of those students’ academic potential.

Some critics have also raised the issue of race as one variable that is missing from the proposed LOI. Educational research shows this can also be a factor in academic achievement because it is a substitute measure for racism. (i.e. one’s race does not predict one’s academic potential, but it does predict the barriers to academic achievement). Even though I chaired the school board’s equity advisory committee for a number of years, I feel comfortable with leaving the variable of Race aside for the moment for two reasons. First, the Board is being asked to make a public commitment to look at the variable of race when Toronto data is available, and I believe this should and will be done. Second, and sadly, because visible minority status and low income are so closely correlated in Toronto, that by strengthening the poverty measures, the proposed LOI captures many of the same students that a race variable would. In effect, race is currently a fair proxy for poverty, and so the strengthened poverty measures capture many of these same populations.

In another post, I will explain the mechanics of the LOI that make it work so well.

(Update on the TDSB’s LOI, after its release: Belonging Community: School board releases new Learning Opportunity Index)

December 8, 2008

A school in every neighbourhood

Parents know instinctively that neighbourhood schools are worth protecting.

And there is a lot of research to support what they know. A few of the obvious things local schools do are:

In Toronto, schools sit at the hub of every neighbourhood . When the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce analyzed the accessibility of community resources across Toronto neighbourhoods, schools were the most commonly available resource across the city’s 140 defined neighbourhoods. They are a rich and under-utilized community resource.

So, this week, there was good news and bad for the idea of a neighbourhood school:

  • The good news was the recognition in the province’s newly announced Poverty Reduction Strategy that, in the effort to reduce child poverty, schools need to be community hubs. Provincial funding is being increased for the community use of schools.
  • The bad news came from the chair of the Toronto District School Board that he will use his second term to work to close schools identified as “under capacity” so that these resources can be put to build new schools.
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