Mayor Rob Ford, a man spectacularly unsuited for the crisis that opened beneath his feet last week, committed so many gaffes after the Danzig shooting that it’s almost difficult to know where to begin. So I’d like to focus on the one comment he made that contained a morsel of truth, or at least warrants closer consideration.
In an attempt to defend his objection to the so-called “hug-a-thug” programs for low-income youth, Ford parroted one of the right’s favorite bromides — that the best social program is a job. As with “family values,” I’d say this is one of those partisan constructions that progressives would do well to appropriate and re-cast.
When conservatives like Ford use the phrase, they aim to belittle social programs as a wasteful public expense that drains wealth from the deserving rich to the undeserving poor. Better, the argument goes, to use tax cuts and other productivity enhancing policies to spur job creation. Et voila, social problem solved.
But I’d argue that progressive public policy can also focus on job creation and, more precisely, the enlargement of the labour pool such that public spending finds its way into communities that lack jobs, investment, and opportunities for young people. It’s no secret that unemployment is especially high in those pockets of the city that are also afflicted by gangs, drug dealing, and family breakdown. More part-time gigs flinging coffee and donuts at the local Tim’s won’t make a big dent.
So what about transit?
Metrolinx, lest we forget, is poised to spend billions of dollars building LRT lines through some of the city’s economically forlorn regions. Indeed, if Queen’s Park has the courage to follow through on its promises (not a given), the city and the region will see billions more spent on transit construction for decades to come.
When David Miller first unveiled Transit City five years ago, he made a point of stressing that these new lines would connect several of the 13 priority neighbourhoods to Toronto’s more prosperous core, thus setting the stage for easier commutes and perhaps access to better jobs.
Through all the subsequent downsizings and political pivoting around the LRT proposals, the conversation about transit has come to focus on results such as less congestion, more intensification and fewer costly shipping delays.
All worthy objectives, yet we seemed to have lost sight of a huge social dividend that buttressed Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s campaign to secure $40 billion in transit funding through a dedicated sales tax four years ago. Both he and the business leaders who supported him talked loudly and often about how the transit spend would put thousands of unemployed Angelinos back to work.
Beginning with the Great Depression, governments have been well advised to use large public works projects as a way of reducing unemployment. But I don’t hear that conversation in Toronto as we talk about future transit expansion.
Yes, the extra spending will generate jobs. But will they go to the usual cartel of contracting and construction firms? Or is there a way for Metrolinx and the Provincial government to ensure that the payroll and skills from these massive projects pool in neighbourhoods like Malvern or Kingston-Galloway?
Metrolinx, for example, could establish tendering policies that compel bidders for these big projects to demonstrate how they plan to recruit employees from communities with unemployment rates that exceed certain thresholds. The Province could underwrite apprenticeship programs geared to training people to work on these complicated projects. And the feds could tap into the immense EI surplus to provide wage top-ups for construction companies that hire and train local youth. These are not alien policy ideas, but they must become part of the debate about alleviating poverty in Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods.
What’s more, as the push to launch the Big Move investment strategy lurches into gear this fall, it seems to me that transit-focused advocacy groups like CivicAction and the Toronto Board of Trade should make a point of stressing the links between transit investment, job creation, and the opportunity to leverage all those dollars to improve employment levels in have-not communities.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that such measures will prevent an idiot from bringing a gun to a crowded party. But the germ of insight in Ford’s job quote is that communities always win when there are more adults around with decent work.
The mayor, I’m guessing, won’t be making these connections when he meets Dalton McGuinty today. The premier, who is obviously seized with the issue of Toronto’s mounting gun crisis, is going to have to figure this one out for himself.
Photo by ocad123