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The myopia of charitable giving

By: | August 20, 2014

Lewis Kearney’s story tugs on the heartstrings, but is charity the best or only response?

Jon Parsons
Power and Dissent offers a critical take on culture, society and politics in Newfoundland and Labrador

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Photo by Alex Proimos via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, people of the province were shocked to learn the story of Lewis Kearney, a St. John’s man who appeared in court to answer charges of theft for taking $40 worth of food from a local grocery store.

Kearney, who relies on income support totaling $115 per week, turned to crime when government subsidies for heat and light bills were cut and his financial situation became impossible. After the story broke, there was an outpouring of sympathy for Kearney in the form of food donations, and the provincial government quickly responded to his earlier requests for assistance with health-related issues.

Along with this, a new charity initiative for donating food, Reserve-A-Roast, is quickly gaining steam (check it out on Facebook or on Twitter). As opposed to food banks, which provide non-perishable food-stuffs, Reserve-A-Roast aims to provide meat, eggs, and other perishable food items, such as the pork chops Lewis Kearney was charged with stealing.

Charity addresses the symptoms, not the disease

On the face of things, the charitable impulse demonstrated by the people of the province and by the kind-hearted folks behind Reserve-A-Roast is certainly admirable. However, a certain school of thought takes issue with the charitable impulse, as was summed up nicely by Robin Whitaker in her Independent column last month. I would like to expand on a quotation she provides from Oscar Wilde and discuss this in relation to charity and Lewis Kearney. Wilde notes:

[People] find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence … it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease … The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim.

Applied to the current discussion of Lewis Kearney, Wilde is saying that it is admirable so many people feel sympathy and make a charitable donation of food or money; however, this charitable impulse may also be keeping people from realizing the root of the problem and calling for systemic change. In the now-immortal words of Stephen Harper, a case like this is one where we should “commit sociology,” so please allow me to pose a series of questions as food for thought:

Why does the situation exist in which Lewis Kearney was not able to have a pack of pork chops without resorting to theft? Why is he, in today’s economy, living on $115 a week? Why were his government subsidies on heat and light cut off? In a more general sense, why do 27,000 people in the province rely on food banks, this province so rich in resource wealth? How is it that in a province where so many are doing so well that so many are left behind and find themselves “falling through the cracks,” as the saying goes?

I don’t want to come off sounding entirely callous here. I believe charity is important in that it helps to seal those proverbial cracks. Food banks, shelters, soup kitchens, and all the charitable organizations in our society fulfil an important function. But at the same time, we must be vigilant that the charitable impulse does not dull the impulse to investigate the underlying systemic nature of poverty and inequality in society.

And on that point…

Oddly enough, the biggest recipients of public charity are those you would least expect to need it. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Canadian banks have been bailed out to the tune of ~$115 billion dollars. A 2014 International Monetary Fund report shows that Canada’s oil and gas corporations are subsidized by taxpayers some $34 billion per year. Most major industry sectors receive subsidies and tax breaks as well. All this while public programs, such as those that people like Lewis Kearney rely on, are stripped to the bone.

Of course, this isn’t the same kind of charity we are talking about when referring to food banks or donations to community organizations. This is something on an altogether different scale – the institutionalized corporate welfare system that is destined to cause the end of civil society. And the further paradox is many of these banking and energy corporations are major sponsors of community organizations, for which they receive tax breaks, advertising, and social capital for appearing to be responsible corporate citizens.

There are a raft of excuses from governments for why public services need to be cut and why it would be prohibitively expensive for everyone in our society to get a fair deal, and, once again, it is admirable the good-hearted people of the province step up for the less-fortunate. I don’t want to dissuade that at all.

What I’m asking is that the next time a story like Lewis Kearney’s comes up (and there will be a next time) we all take a moment to call out the root of the disease instead of just rushing to treat the symptoms.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read. – See more at: http://theindependent.ca/2014/07/18/the-trouble-with-charity/#sthash.TIT1KTBM.dpuf
Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read. – See more at: http://theindependent.ca/2014/07/18/the-trouble-with-charity/#sthash.TIT1KTBM.dpuf
Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read. – See more at: http://theindependent.ca/2014/07/18/the-trouble-with-charity/#sthash.TIT1KTBM.dpuf
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