We Need More “Human” in “Development”

In an Edmonton Journal article written by David Staples on May 9th, he asked:  “Is Edmonton suffering from a bad case of Big-Shiny-Thing-itis? Often the answer is in the question, isn’t it?

Our community spent $90 million on the Art Gallery. The Arena and the Museum will cost $820 million. Add to that all the other development Staples mentioned and we are looking at another $1.25 billion financed through private investment and of course tax dollars from the city and province. Add the total cost of the city’s office tower and additional development promised as part of the deal and we hit $2 billion  – that’s $2,000,000,000.

Staples didn’t even mention all of the development in the Quarters or the City’s plans to lease an office tower being built by the Edmonton Arena Development (EAD) (a partnership between WAM Development and the Katz Group). It looks like it will save the City of Edmonton substantial money (by 2039), and the deal includes the EAD investing another $500 million in development surrounding the Arena by 2021 although they can buy out of that commitment for $10 million.

And to be fair Staples did not mention the significant dollars the city and province have been and will putting into public transit – perhaps the only major development that will also benefit low income people.

In general, I support development – not all of the above, but much of it.  But where’s the balance in terms of investing in human development, especially with respect to addressing poverty, homelessness, and rising tide of economic vulnerability experienced by nearly half our local population.

Not only do 120,000 Edmontonians live in poverty — 36,000 of them children but the Canadian Payroll Association reports that over 40% of the population is living paycheque to paycheque. That’s a lot of people (most of them working) living on the edge and perhaps something businesses and governments might pay more attention to, if not out of human kindness then for their own sake. (See United Way’s Pathways out of Poverty Report for solid information about poverty and what it costs the community.)

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I imagine the family budgets  of that 40% don’t have line items for  admission costs to hockey games, the Museum, Art Gallery, or much in the way of expendable income to spend at all the proposed Galleria shops and entertainment outlets. My experience suggests most of their personal budgets are trying to figure how to balance their food, housing, and transportation costs.

I sit on the Mayor’s Task Force to End Poverty, and I am impressed with Mayor Iveson’s  strong , public commitment on doing just that. I plan on contributing what I can to assist making his vision a reality. I know it’s complex and that governments must address a multitude of obligations. That said, the community as a whole might benefit from a re-think on its approach to community development.

There is something amiss when the provincial funding of preventative programs has remained flat for the past six years, with two more years of the same planned.  Being told there just isn’t enough money to increase such funding doesn’t wash when so many millions billions are being invested in buildings.  It’s about choices.

There is a big problem when our school teachers have to spend their own money each year to buy the supplies required to teach our children.  On average, teachers spend around $500 per year, but the local teachers I have spoken to claim teachers spend $2,000 and up. Of course they are not told they have to do that. Instead they are given a paltry sum – in some schools it’s 100 dollars for the entire year – to use for supplies (even pencils and paper) and educational tools. Imagine if your employer arranged things so that you had little choice but to buy your own office supplies. Imagine the outcry.

Not long ago someone I care about was in a terrible car accident. She was brought to the emergency ward of the University Hospital on a back board – there was concern that she had spinal damage. It took four hours for her to be seen by a doctor and there was virtually no one in the waiting area. The ambulance driver had to stay with her all that time because the hospital would not admit her. They didn’t want the liability risk. That’s four hours the ambulance personnel could not respond to other emergencies. Weeks later, she got a bill for all that time they spent waiting with her. What a waste. And how inhumane.

My estimates are that it would cost $125 million to make public transportation free for everyone. A single mother making minimum wage has to work about 12 hours to pay for her bus pass. If she has kids, the cost goes up. That’s money that could be spent on food, clothing, school supplies, health, and so on – in other words money that goes into the economy and the infrastructure of our community.

Solving social problems frees up the money that they cost society. The cost savings of housing a homeless person is better than $3.00 for every $1.00 spent. That’s a good return to the tax payer, isn’t it? A sufficient stock of affordable housing stabilizes our community, decreases the costs of homelessness, and also adds value to the economy in terms of consumerism.

Owning a small business in our city is not easy. Small business owners have to make it on their own. Why don’t sports teams that pay their employees more in one year that most others won’t make in a life time.  I get there are economic benefits of such development, but benefits for whom? No one really believes in trickle down economics anymore, do they?

For example, the Arena and all the associated development in the area will serve to displace people who will no longer be able to afford housing in the area. Some will make a lot of money as property values increase. More will be left to figure out how to subsist. Where’s the balance?

Offering inner city residents free ice skating and calling that a community benefit is a tiny consolation.  Ice skates aren’t in the personal budgets of the poor.  For the few loud voices that blame the poor for being poor, do you realize that the poverty trends for those who work (often more than one job) are increasing each year? That’s not just a social problem, it’s rooted in how we collectively manage our economy.

In recent years, the Government of Alberta has stepped up in ways it never did before with funding targeted to end homelessness and more recently is turning its attention to addressing poverty. This is a huge change in a government that not too many years ago was reluctant to admit Alberta has a poverty problem to solve.

I am encouraged by the government’s Social Policy Framework. It’s progressive, reasonable, and accurate in its call for the community to work together on our collective “aspirations for a province that offers all Albertans the opportunity to reach their potential and to benefit from the highest possible quality of life.”

All the development in our urban core has increased interest in the number of homeless people on our streets, but not in a good way. Pressure is increasing to move the homeless along. They are no longer welcome it seems now that so much development is going on that will benefit the rest of us. I was actually called to a meeting by government officials to discuss the grocery cart problem that the homeless are causing everyone else.

The homeless use grocery carts because they have no place for their belongings. It is a symptom not a problem.

Here is something else to think about. Funders at all levels of social programs, and the province is one of the biggest funders, often stipulate or at least clearly expect that the people who work every day to help address poverty, homelessness and other major social problems should accept sub-par wages. Apparently such employees do not deserve pensions or sufficient earnings to buy a home. It is not uncommon for a good number of those working to help the poor to themselves live on poverty wages or paycheque to paycheque.

This speaks to the value placed on this kind of “development.” I imagine those investing in all of the development Staples wrote about do not invoke controls on the wages of architects, engineers, and business people who are a part of all the capital development Staples wrote about. How come?

Human service agencies won’t solve social problems because they can’t do that alone. But the community can. It appears we can come up with the money when we want to. If we don’t pay sufficient attention to human development we will reach a tipping point that will hurt everyone. One only has to look at the civil unrest that occurs elsewhere in the world when income inequality overwhelms society.

Yes, we need to continue to develop our city. It does create jobs and attract people to our city. But all the voices that speak out for more buildings, shiny or not, are not the only voices we should pay attention to.

We need to hear the voices of single parents who are working two jobs and struggling to raise their children. We need to understand and act on the plight of the mentally-ill and the disabled who no one will hire and are left to live isolated and without opportunities that the rest of us take for granted. We need to address the trauma governments inflicted on our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.

The Arena won’t do anything for the poor. I love the design of the Art Gallery, and I like the proposed design of the library,  but my affection for aesthetics is secondary to my interest – and I know many share this interest –in undertaking collective actions and making significantly more investment in the future of people – parents and children, the elderly, victims of abuse, and the homeless.

That investment is not simply about funding more social programs. It’s about investing differently in our economy, finding ways to put more people to work in living wage jobs and providing decent education and health services for all citizens.

It’s not about not having enough money. It’s about choices. It’s about how we choose to invest in our community. It’s about everyone taking more responsibility for everyone.

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