Taking action to break the poverty cycle in Hamilton

*The following post was first published as my July column in Hamilton’s full broadsheet monthly newspaper Urbanicity. *

The 2011 Census collection is complete. We won’t see the results for many months, but we can surely expect Hamilton’s poverty indicators will continue to show a crisis in our midst.

The McGuinty government declared addressing poverty as one of the top priorities of their second term with a goal of reducing child poverty by 25%. Numbers compiled from StatsCan by Ontario’s Social Planning Network shows that poverty is actually increasing.

[pullshow id=”magicbullet”]What can we do? Is there a macro solution to poverty that we are missing? [pullthis id=”magicbullet”]There isn’t a magic bullet, we are moving in the right direction[/pullthis].

The investments made last decade in early learning are starting to produce results in our most poverty-stricken neighbourhoods.

One of my old neighbourhoods, Crown Point – home to the Hamilton East Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club – the Queen Mary Public School grade 3 classes are showing encouraging and substantial improvements in numeracy and literacy as measured by EQAO scores.

In 2005/06, only 21% of Queen Mary’s grade 3 students wrote at or above the province standard for their age. The provincial average at the time was 64%. In 2009/10, 73% of the grade 3 students met or exceed the standard. The provincial average was 70%.[pullshow id=”highschool”]

Literacy is important for being able to overcome poverty. We’re moving in the right direction, but what happens to these children when they reach high school and hopefully make it to post-secondary education? [pullthis id=”highschool” display=”outside”]What are we doing when our kids become teenagers?[/pullthis]

Are we doing enough as a community to promote and assist in the obtainment of post-secondary education for our most disadvantaged citizens?

We can do more. We need to create the atmosphere for success. I attended the University of Manitoba for my first year of university. On my first day in Winnipeg, I travelled to the Winnipeg Boys and Girls Club to volunteer. The Boys and Girls Club in Hamilton is the primary reason for my success and the Winnipeg Club continued the Club’s support for me.

I’ve grown up in Hamilton’s poorest neighbourhoods. Near Christmas of 2004, I was volunteering at a small Boys and Girls Club in North Winnipeg. The poverty in this neighbourhood shocked even me – how could we as a country allowed for this? I could not help but notice the majority of people in the neighbourhood were First Nations.

As I was building relationships with the members of this club, a young boy of no more than age 7 or 8, with a torn shirt and shoes with holes that could barely protect against the summer elements let alone a Winnipeg winter, started asking me why I was in Winnipeg.

He, much like any child in a poor neighbourhood, knew I was an outsider. I tried to avoid telling him I was attending the university. Eventually, he cornered me – I had to tell “I go to the University of Manitoba.”

His reaction shocked me: “That’s awesome, my cousin goes there. I’m going to go to the University of Winnipeg because that’s where my uncle goes.”[pullshow id=”nodream”]

Growing up, there was no one around me attending McMaster University. A few people went to Mohawk. There was no chance that a child in my neighbourhood would dream of – let alone plan – attending McMaster.
[pullthis id=”nodream” display=”outside”]A child in my neighbourhood wouldn’t dream of a university education[/pullthis]

Both universities in Winnipeg offer extensive outreach programs both in Winnipeg’s poverty stricken North End and for first generation students on their campuses.

We’re making strives with our younger children, now we need Mohawk, and especially, McMaster to move into our neighbourhoods and build the dream of higher education in all our communities.

McMaster’s president Patrick Deane served as Provost of the University of Winnipeg. He knows the positive impact that University is having in overcoming poverty in Winnipeg. I’m hopeful that he’ll bring the best practices of how a university can address poverty to Hamilton.

We, as a community, need to do our part as well.

A child born in Hamilton’s wealthier suburbs is nearly guaranteed to attend post-secondary education, most likely university. Why? They have the supports to succeed. They have the financial resources to focus on studying and have the mentorship (their parents who attended university) to deal with the challenges of university.

A first-generation student rarely enjoys a mentor. For them, the adjustment to university is greater as they attempt to integrate into a foreign culture.[pullshow id=”bethatmentor”]

I challenge Hamilton’s professional community to make a commitment of both their financial resources and their personal time to lifting young people out of poverty. [pullthis id=”bethatmentor”]Be that mentor[/pullthis].

Hire a high school student from one of our “Code Red” neighbourhoods for administrative work during the summer. Be the person they can call in their senior year for homework assistance. Hire them back in subsequent summers. Fund a bursary to assist them in paying for residence during first year.

Let’s produce a generation of young professionals who seed future leaders from our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

We cannot afford to squander the modest – and still inadequate – investment in early years made last decade. It’s time to step up to the plate.