The Problem with Charity

There’s a better way for us to help each other

By Jackie Flanagan

Christmas is coming, snow is flying and bells are jingling around Salvation Army kettles. Albertans will be personally generous, not only by filling the kettles, but in countless other ways: volunteering at food banks, filling hampers for the needy, donating toys, writing cheques to homeless shelters. Of all provinces, Alberta has the highest average amount donated to charity. Just as theatregoers are uplifted by Scrooge’s yearly miraculous transformation, we feel good about giving.

How do the recipients feel? The National Council of Welfare (before it was scrapped by the Harper government) conducted a survey for their report Solving Poverty. One of the over 5,000 respondents wrote: “I grew up in a home where my father was disabled and unable to work. My mother worked as a housekeeper to make ends meet. I went with her to apply for a mother’s allowance and I will never forget how humiliating it was.” The respondent emphasizes the difference between charity and public services. “Thanks to a free education, I was able to go to school and become a professional, which is why I am absolutely convinced that it is necessary to maintain universal public services…. poverty is unacceptable in a rich country like Canada.”

Many of us feel positive about charity because of a familiar and often quoted passage from Corinthians: “And now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” Here the word charity is from the Latin caritas, which means love. To have a charitable attitude still means to be loving and forgiving. But today the word charity usually refers to an organization set up to help those in need, and the voluntary giving of money to the poor. Albertans especially are unreflective about such organizations. The impulse to be generous is a fine thing, but there’s a problem with charity.

Under the Canadian Constitution, provincial governments have responsibility for providing for those in need. Social and welfare services are operated primarily under provincial legislation. The Alberta government’s explicit strategy of late has been to transfer the provision of social services to the private sector by contracting out service delivery to businesses, not-for-profits and charities. When government provides insufficient funds to deliver a service, charities make up the shortfall by pleading for donations. The aged, infirm and vulnerable end up relying on the generosity of individuals to receive necessary care, while government ducks its responsibility.

There are many problems with having charities deliver social services. Take for example the Salvation Army, one of the most venerable charities of them all. Among religious organizations, the Salvation Army is remarkable. They don’t preach a theory of compassion from the pulpits of elegant cathedrals to well dressed parishioners in comfortable pews. They get out into the streets and walk the talk. Most Salvation Army employees make less than $40,000 a year doing very difficult jobs.

According to their latest available financial statements, the Salvation Army in Canada took in more than half a billion dollars in 2013—$571,586,000, and of that, $213,596,000 came from government. The Canada Revenue Agency Charities Directorate lists 29 Alberta Salvation Army organizations including numerous community churches, family service centres, a hospice (Agape) and a seniors’ nursing home (Grace Manor). In Alberta the Salvation Army runs food banks, thrift stores, soup kitchens, addiction treatment facilities, homeless shelters and a corrections program (!). Alberta Sally Anns have total annual revenues in excess of $55-million, about a third of which comes from government. Some community churches such as the Peace River Community Church receive almost nothing from government, while others receive significant government funding. Medicine Hat Community Church receives 37 per cent of its revenue from government ($895,358 of $2.45-million total). Grace Manor is 55 per cent funded by government ($2.4-million of $4.4-million total revenue). According to their website, “The Mission of Edmonton Grace Manor is to provide a home in a Christian environment for persons who require physical and mental health support and accommodation, following the example of Jesus Christ.” The Salvation Army Fort McMurray Corps operates a shelter with space for 30 sleeping mats and 32 beds, plus programs for low-income families and the chronically homeless. It is 65 per cent funded by government ($4.6-million of a total revenue of $7-million).

When a government provides insufficient funds to deliver a service, charities make up the shortfall by pleading for donations.

As with most charities, a large proportion of the budget goes to pay employees. For example, the Salvation Army Community Services Calgary, which operates the Centre of Hope (a 270-bed temporary shelter) and provides “counselling and other programs to relieve poverty,” spends more than half its revenue on compensation for its 107 full-time and 11 part-time employees ($5.8-million of $10.3-million, 36 per cent of which comes from government).

From their own website: “The Salvation Army is an international Christian organization that began its work in Canada in 1882 and has grown to become the largest non-governmental direct provider of social services in the country. The Salvation Army offers practical assistance for children and families, often tending to the basic necessities of life, providing shelter for homeless people and rehabilitation for people who have lost control of their lives to an addiction. When you give to The Salvation Army, you are investing in the future of marginalized and overlooked people in your community.”

What’s wrong with this? First of all, in a multicultural, secular country why is a Christian organization with the explicit mission of “salvation” the second-largest provider of social services? It is our government’s responsibility to provide social services with no religious strings attached. Why is it left up to the Salvation Army to tend to children’s “basic necessities of life”? Should a child’s survival be at the whim and vagaries of optional charitable donations? And given the Salvation Army’s beliefs about moral rectitude and depravity, what does their “rehabilitation” consist of?

The very existence of “marginalized and overlooked people” in our community is a sorry comment on the state of our society. What happened to our collective responsibility as citizens? To leave support for essential services to charity is an abandonment of civic responsibility. The individual donor gives, or not, as he pleases. Care for our most vulnerable is left to chance, because donations can and do disappear at any time.

It is a slap in the face to citizens who pay taxes for services from government—and who have a rightful and dignified claim on those services when they need them—to find themselves instead beholden to a charity imbued with a moral agenda and assumptions about the virtue of the giver and the questionable character of the receiver.

This is not intended as a criticism of the Salvation Army, which is only doing what it sees as necessary, right and good. This is an indictment of a government that leaves charity to deal with social problems—a return to the world of Dickens.

The charitable impulse to alleviate immediate suffering does nothing to solve root problems. During the industrial revolution in England, the Enclosures Acts drove thousands of tenant farmers off the land and into city slums, factories and coal mines. Vast wealth, property and power were concentrated in the hands of the few, leaving the propertyless masses utterly vulnerable to exploitation. There were no laws regarding safety, sanitation, hours, wages or age of workers. Desperate men, women and children suffered in horrific working conditions and crowded squalor. Many died of tuberculosis, lung diseases from the mines, cholera from polluted water, and typhoid. Charities provided some relief, giving food to the hungry and ministering to the sick. But the root problem lay in the laws and structure of the society.

When injustices are built into the system, charity mitigates and masks the consequences of the injustice, actually perpetuating the wrong. As English economist John A. Hobson wrote in 1914: “Every act of charity, applied to heal suffering arising from the defective arrangements of society [systemic injustices], serves to weaken the springs of social reform. It substitutes the idea and the desire of individual reform for those of social reform, and so weakens the capacity for collective self-help in society.”

Social problems require social change. Charity may reduce the pain of symptoms, but it can’t get at the cause of the disease. Only government has the tools, and it needs the political will to use them.

During the Depression in Canada, a flawed economic system caused massive unemployment. It was not the fault of those who were out of work. Hunger and privation reached crisis proportions. Government had the tools to intervene—tax, borrowing and monetary policies—which they did not use until the outbreak of the war. Then, suddenly all kinds of money was available to stimulate the economy.

Why didn’t the government take action during the 1930s? In the June 2014 issue of the Literary Review of Canada, historian Edward Whitcomb says that “two of the most important questions in Canadian history are why Ottawa did not do more to deal with the suffering and why it did almost nothing to address the causes of the Depression. Although 25 per cent of workers were unemployed, 75 per cent had jobs, and they resisted paying higher taxes for those in need. Many believed that there were plenty of jobs available and that the unemployed were just too picky or lazy to take them. Ideology was an important factor, as politicians, elites and much of the public rejected new ideas.”

An ideology of individualism holds the individual accountable for his hardships. But not everything is a matter of individual choice. People are affected by the circumstances into which they are born, and by large movements of history over which they have no control. We are not merely an aggregate of isolated individuals, we are members of a particular society—a society that can be more, or less, just.

Why is any child in Alberta hungry today? Should we be relying on some kind-hearted individual to provide a hamper for Christmas dinner? Is that enough? Why is anyone homeless? Should Albertans have to resort to mats on the floor at the Salvation Army? The province’s hungry children without toys, the homeless, the mentally ill roaming the streets—all these are a direct result of misguided government policies and an ideology of individualism. It was government that shut down facilities for the mentally ill. It was government that privatized formerly subsidized public housing. It was government that cut welfare for single mothers. Now charity steps in and lets the government off the hook. If citizens had to step over the bodies of dead homeless people on the streets in winter, they would pressure the government for a real solution to homelessness. Governments could find a solution to poverty, but they don’t have to when charity preserves the status quo.

Charity and the need for charity are on the rise. Food banks—that stopgap measure to deal with a “short term” need—are now big business. “Rebranded as Food Banks Canada” (according to their website), they have 450 locations and a $1,444,700 payroll.

In the US the philanthropic sector is growing faster than business and government sectors; $335-billion was given away in 2012. Peter Buffett, the son of Warren Buffett, has an insider’s perspective: “Because of who my father is, I’ve been able to occupy some seats I never expected to sit in. Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.… As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’ It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’—feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity. But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over.”

It is a slap in the face to citizens who have a rightful and dignified claim on government services.

Canadians didn’t build this country to  reproduce a rigidly class-divided Old World society of inherited privilege for the few and degradation for the many—a wealthy elite and impoverished masses. Greater social equality is made possible by a tax system that collects revenues to provide public services. Universal access to free public education not only provides greater equality of opportunity to individuals: an educated and productive populace lifts the entire society to new levels of prosperity. After the Second World War, the demand for expanded public services eventually led to publicly funded welfare and healthcare so that every citizen would have support in times of misfortune. The whole idea was not to have to depend on charity.

A resistance to taxation is based on the belief that the individual has earned his money solely by his own efforts. But no individual gets rich alone and apart from society. Certainly, affluent owners of business and industry create jobs and wealth. But they also benefit proportionally more from the country’s resources and infrastructure. The roads, bridges and transportation systems they use are constructed with taxpayers’ money. Their employees are educated and kept healthy at public expense. Their enterprises can thrive here because this is a peaceful, law abiding society. It is only just for the wealthy to be taxed proportionally more for the provision of public services. Everyone should share in the economic benefits of society.

The irony is that charities spend large amounts on highly paid professional fundraisers. This is a waste, since we already have a very efficient fundraising system in place—taxes. Our tax system can raise money for something we agree is important for no extra cost. Donating to charities and foundations for individualistic and sometimes bizarre pet causes diverts money from government, which can spend it for the well-being of the entire society.

By far the most troubling problem with charity is this: Charity lets the giver feel superior and the receiver feel ashamed. It violates the egalitarian principle on which Canadian society is based. Charity may be better than neglect and disdain, but it doesn’t hold a candle to social justice.

Poverty is not having enough money to pay for the basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter and transportation. Poor people need more money. But instead of giving money to them, we give money to a charity to hire 107 full-time and 11 part-time employees to provide counselling and other programs to relieve poverty. Counselling doesn’t relieve poverty, money does. The government of Alberta pays $1,200 a month to a charity to give someone a mat at a Calgary homeless shelter when it would cost from $600 to $800 to provide the same person with an apartment. Managing homelessness costs more than solving it.

Poverty could be entirely and immediately eradicated in one simple and cost-effective way—with a guaranteed annual income sufficient to cover the necessities of life for those unable to earn enough to take care of themselves and their families. A similar program is already in place—the guaranteed income supplement for low-income seniors. A guaranteed annual income (GAI) can be thought of as a “negative” income tax. Glen Hodgson, VP and chief economist of the Conference Board of Canada, has outlined the benefits of a GAI. In summary: It would address poverty directly, neutrally, privately and confidentially, delivering income through a single existing administrative system—the income tax system. Earnings above the GAI would be taxed at a low marginal rate, raising net income for the individual and encouraging them to work, unlike the welfare system, which punishes people for working. Poverty and poor health are linked, and a GAI could create better health outcomes and slow the rising costs of publicly funded healthcare. The GAI would eliminate the costly administration of myriad social programs and interventions, replacing them with one universal system.

Senator Hugh Segal states the case this way:

“If the federal tax system topped up everyone who was beneath the poverty line to above it, there would be no Canadians eligible for provincial welfare, liberating millions of provincial dollars for other investments such as chronic care, early childhood education, retraining or health promotion.

“How we deal with the lowest-income Canadians among us would be different.

“They would not be ‘case load burdens’; they’d be citizens.

“They would not have to apply through Plexiglas for enough money to feed their kids.

“They would not be trapped in the rules and constraints of welfare and the excessive state involvement in their lives, such as ‘spouse in the house’ rules, or be prohibited from applying for post-secondary education support.

“They would not occupy homeless shelters, prisons, courtrooms and mental hospitals disproportionately to their percentage of the population, because they would be liberated from poverty-caused pathologies by having a basic income guarantee.

“They would file tax returns because they would have an incentive to do so. Their confidentiality and privacy would be protected by law, as it is for all tax filers.”

In a national Environics poll conducted in the fall of 2013, Canadians were asked for the first time what they think of the idea of providing everyone with a guaranteed income. Including the 6 per cent who said “it depends” (suggesting support for a GAI depending on how it would be administered), 52 per cent of respondents supported a guaranteed annual income. More favoured the idea (46 per cent) than opposed it (42 per cent). Most Canadians want a more equal sharing of the economic benefits of society.

Government, not charity, has the tools to eliminate poverty. All it takes is the political will.

Jackie Flanagan founded Alberta Views in 1997. The magazine advocates for the public good and a more equitable society.



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