It took David Hulchanski five years to create the most sophisticated tool to track urban poverty ever devised. The work was painstaking. The result was startling and worrisome.
It took Tony Clement five minutes — if that — to destroy Hulchanski’s mapping device.
“My research has been turned into a historical project,” the pioneering urban planner said disconsolately.
This is one of the first documented cases of the damage done by the Conservative government’s 2010 decision to scrap Canada’s mandatory, full-length census.
In 2005, Hulchanski, a specialist in urban typography at the University of Toronto, was doing field work at St. Christopher House, a social agency in the city’s west end. He knew the population in that part of Toronto was shifting. What he did not know was how quickly poverty was encroaching on once-comfortable neighbourhoods.
That discovery prompted him to study the entire city to see if pattern was more extensive. It was. He was surprised at how economically polarized Toronto had become. He wanted to illustrate his findings in a way people could easily understand.
He began by assembling socio-economic profiles of each of Toronto’s 531 census tracts. Then he combined them in a single map. What it showed was that there were three cities within Toronto; a stable high-income central city, a shrinking middle-income city in a ring around the centre and a large low-income city to the north and northeast.
Hulchanski unveiled his eye-opening map in 2007. Besides being a graphic depiction of poverty in Canada’s largest city, it showed that most of Toronto’s social service agencies were in the wrong place. The downtown core was no longer where the city’s low-income households were concentrated.
Over the next three years, he produced a retrospective series of maps dating back to 1970 when Toronto had isolated pockets of inner-city poverty surrounded by leafy suburbs with modern homes and upscale apartments. Over the next 36 years, the face of the city changed. Once run-down neighbourhoods were gentrified. Once-desirable suburbs went downhill. Immigrants settled in ethnic enclaves then dispersed. Downtown condominiums sprouted. Mixed-income neighbourhoods waned.
Using the same methodology, Hulchanski developed maps for Montreal and Vancouver. He secured funding to expand his project to Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary and Chicago, waiting expectantly for the 2011 census so he could move forward.
Just as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council approved his seven-year grant, Clement dropped the guillotine.
On June 17, 2010, the former industry minister cancelled Canada’s mandatory full-length census, claiming the government had received numerous complaints that Canadians felt their privacy was being invaded. (Just two complaints were filed a parliamentary committee later learned). To replace the census, the government promised a voluntary household survey in 2011.
To Hulchanski, this was a body blow. Without statistically accurate data, his methodology was useless.
Hoping to keep his project alive, he tried to patch together other indicators — income tax files, immigration statistics, real estate data, municipal and school and board records — but he could not come up with anything approaching the scope or depth of the census.
He also attempted to use the 2011 voluntary national household survey. That proved to be a dead-end. For one thing its results contradicted the patterns that had emerged in the census. More seriously, the non-response rate for Toronto was 26 per cent — a level so high it made the figures “worthless.”
“The National Household Survey is not valid,” he concluded. “It should not be used or cited. It should be withdrawn.”
Hulchanski’s work is now at a standstill (except in Chicago.) He can look farther backward, but he can’t move forward. Nor can he tell whether the trends he detected are accelerating.
This is just one example of the harm done by the cancellation of the census. There are others — in fields ranging from public health to direct marketing — but most of them are backed by anecdotal evidence. Hulchanski can quantify exactly what he has lost and demonstrate the impact on the quality of urban life.
He hopes the full census will be restored in 2016. In the meantime, he is speaking out urgently.