Why Cities? Why Poverty?

Resource Type: Audio Seminar | Speaker: Brock Carlton
Brock Carlton

This seminar features Brock Carlton, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities (FCM) discussing the report, Mending Canada's Frayed Social Safety Net: The Role of Municipal Governments.

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This seminar features Brock Carlton, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities (FCM) discussing Mending Canada's Frayed Social Safety Net: The role of municipal governments.

The report introduces the concept of social infrastructure, the support system provided by municipal governments and made up of direct social services, such as affordable housing, emergency shelters and subsidized childcare, as well as public services like transit, recreation and libraries. The report finds that while the need for these services has increased, investments have not kept up.

Learning Objectives:
•    To understand the role and current context of Canada’s cities in reducing poverty

Seminar Highlights:
•    Quality of Life
•    Destructive Dynamic
•    Cities as Safety Nets
•    Social Infrastructure
•    Challenges
•    Reflection Questions
•    Links & Resources
•    Meet Brock Carlton

Quality of Life
Brock explained that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) began the Quality of Life Reporting System in 1996. Currently the system measures, monitors and reports on social, economic and environmental trends in 24 communities in seven provinces. These communities are home to more than 17 million people, making up 54 per cent of Canada’s population.

FCM and the municipalities collect data that reflects the health of the local economy, the availability of affordable, appropriate housing, dependable community infrastructure, and reliable access to clean air and drinking water, among other factors. The thematic reports and issue briefings produced from the data provide advocacy and planning tools for municipalities, allowing them to better target policies and resources aimed at improving the quality of life in their communities.

In this clip, Brock explains why the Federation of Canadian Municipalities invests in collecting data and how they believe it will help Canadians.

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Destructive Dynamic
FCM’s latest report, Mending Canada's Frayed Social Safety Net: The Role of Municipal Governments, talks about two forces that have changed the dynamics for municipalities:
1.    Shrinking federal and provincial investment in social services
2.    Federal and provincial downloading onto municipalities that has resulted in a watering down of social infrastructure as well as the growth of vulnerable groups in Canada

As Brock explained, municipalities don’t have many sources of revenue to deal with their new responsibilities. As a result, the property tax base is now supporting traditional social services like child care, emergency shelters, housing, social assistance, and immigrant settlement initiatives for which it was never designed.

Here, Brock talks about the destructive dynamic and the effects it has had on low income Canadians.

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Cities as Safety Nets
Brock pointed to the persistence of poverty despite the period of economic growth from 2001-2006. More and more people have been slipping through Canada’s frayed social safety net and are struggling to find childcare, affordable housing or ways to get to and from work. Vulnerable groups like single-mothers and families with young children, the working poor, immigrants, and social assistance recipients are falling farther and farther behind. Most of the communities studied in the report have seen an increase in the number of working poor families and a growing gap between the highest and lowest income earners. Meanwhile, the federal government's role in national social programs has declined. For example, there is less funding for social housing, restrictions on Employment Insurance eligibility, and the elimination of the Canada Assistance Plan. The report concludes, “For a growing number of Canadians, their city is their safety net.”

In this clip Brock talks about the consequences for municipalities of more low income Canadians using more municipal services, using an example from the Toronto transit system.

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Social Infrastructure
Brock explained that municipal governments have traditionally looked after physical infrastructure like roads and water systems, but they also support public services like transit, recreation, and libraries. Now these facilities, programs and services increasingly fill the gap left by shrinking federal and provincial social assistance programs. More and more people rely on this social infrastructure, but it doesn’t get the same attention as roads and bridges.

In response to a question, Brock defines social infrastructure and why it is important.

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Municipalities are doing what they can to fill the gaps created by the federal and provincial cuts of the 1990s, Brock said, but they can’t do the job alone. All levels of government have a role to play, but municipalities need a seat at the policy tables. At the root of the problem, Brock said, is a broken fiscal system. Municipalities don’t have the cash nor the policy or regulatory frameworks to do the jobs they now have. As well, a reliance on the regressive property tax means that municipalities end up increasing taxes on the very people they are trying to help.

Here, Brock calls for all levels of government to sit down to work out a new system.

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Reflection Questions
1.    The report discussed in this seminar suggests that Canada’s traditional safety nets are failing. Do you agree? In what ways have social assistance supports changed?
2.    Do you agree that Canadians see services in their cities as a safety net? Has this changed over the last few years?
3.    What examples of social infrastructure can you give from your own community?

Links & Resources
Federation of Canadian Municipalities - This is the home page of the FCM, the national voice for municipalities.
Mending Canada’s Frayed Social Safety Net: the role of municipal government - This FCM report was issued in March 2010,
Quality of Life Reporting System - This page describes the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ data collection methods and the publications based on the data.
Community Roles in Policy - This resource from the Caledon Institute’s Sherri Torjman explores ways communities can participate in shaping government policies related to poverty.

Meet Brock Carlton
As Chief Executive Officer of Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Brock Carlton manages FCM’s global program that focuses on strengthening municipal government, local governance and enhancing policy frameworks toward local sustainability.

He has a master’s degree in International Affairs from the Norman Patterson School, Carleton University. He represented Canada on the OECD Urban Municipal Development Secretariat’s Sustainable Cities Working Group in the early 1990s, and has been a faculty member of the Local Government Leadership Institute at the Banff School of Management, and the Business and Environment Program, Cambridge University, in Cambridge, England.

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