Hamilton’s poverty decline misleading, expert says

While new national numbers suggest Hamilton’s poverty rate is in decline, a local expert warns the data should be taken with a grain of salt.

According to the newly released 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) — which has replaced the long-form census — Hamilton is now ranked as the city with the 14th highest poverty rate in Ontario.

On paper, that looks like a major improvement after being ranked fourth highest in 2006, and second highest in 2001 (according to the past two census reports).

But Sara Mayo, social planner for the Social Planning and Research Council, says the figures are like apples and oranges — and advises against drawing comparisons.

“Because they changed the poverty measure, you can’t even compare the rankings,” Mayo said.

The census used a relative low income cut-off to measure income and poverty city-to-city.

Now, the NHS uses a universal after-tax low income measure that shows the number of people making less than half the national median income.

“There’s very little value to the National Household Survey… it’s a very poor replacement, and a replacement that is of no use to many users,” Mayo said.

Unlike the long-form census, which was scrapped in 2010, the NHS is a voluntary survey. The response rate in Hamilton was 65.3 per cent, compared more than 90 per cent with the census.

In the household survey, 60 per cent of respondents filled out the income questions.

Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, says the report — and Hamilton’s improved ranking — is a sign the city is moving in the right direction.

But it’s also a reminder that there’s lots of work still to be done.

“There are still 80,000 people living in poverty in Hamilton and while the numbers are improving, there’s so much work left to be done,” he said.

(The low income cut-off showed there were 96,000 people living in poverty in 2001 and 89,000 in 2006).

On Friday, the provincial government is holding a consultation session at McMaster Innovation Park to discuss a new poverty reduction strategy.

Cooper hopes that will help address the need for both provincial and federal poverty reduction and housing strategies.

Meanwhile, Mayo says she and her data-analyzing peers will continue to dissect the household survey information and look for meaningful conclusions. “It’s a very confusing time for data right now across Canada … it’s a real problem for data users, and for people who want to know about Hamilton.”