Food for Thought about Charity

Don’t let philanthropy, government or otherwise, work as a silencer, even if our media opts for cheerleading the charity game instead of asking the hard questions.

Two cheers for us.

The instant we heard that fire had destroyed the Community Food Sharing Association (CFSA) warehouse and its stock of food last Wednesday, people in this province reacted with their usual generosity. Alongside the scores who donated quietly, a long list of local businesses, public figures and organizations sprang into action. By Saturday, donations to the CFSA had topped $300,000 in cash and 50,000 pounds of food for distribution to food banks across Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Edge, the Growlers, the oil industry, vendors at the farmer’s market, the public library, municipal councils, labour organizations, politicians and media outlets including VOCM and CBC, are among the many who rallied. Topping the charts, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador donated $50,000 to food banks and, in a giffed-up exchange between the premier and Eg Walters, handed over keys to a replacement warehouse.

Wait. What?

Think about that for a minute longer than Dwight Ball’s sound bites, predictable as the outpouring of help.

Our government has just donated public space and reallocated $30,000 from the Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour and $20,000 from Children, Seniors and Social Development to support food banks in this province.

Do traitorous thoughts creep in? Traitorous because—I’m repeating myself here—in the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s observation that it’s much easier to sympathize with suffering than to sympathize with thought, it’s much easier to celebrate charity than to analyze it.

To echo Rutger Bregman’s speech to the do-good wealthy at Davos, it feels like being “at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to talk about water.” For Bregman, the problem with billionaires is that they’re far happier talking about philanthropy than about taxes.

Perhaps for us, the problem is that we’re more comfortable responding generously to trouble now than asking how food banks have become a lifeline for so many people in Newfoundland and Labrador: more than 28,000 visits last March alone, according to a new report by Food Banks Canada. Of those served, 36.6 percent were children and well over half were single people. Four-fifths were on social assistance or disability-related support. All of them share one basic problem: not enough money.

In these circumstances, it’s easy to see why the destruction of the CFSA warehouse felt like a disaster. Paradoxically though, even as the sense of urgency spurred us to action, the crisis narrative may be part of the trouble here.

What’s in a crisis?

Food Banks Canada has several recommendations for reducing food bank use, starting with “federal leadership towards a basic income for all Canadians.” A second obvious way to address chronically inadequate incomes is to pay low-waged workers better. Another is to iron out income disparities through taxes and social transfers.

Governments are central to the first and third and play a major role in the second, notably through their power to set minimum wages, which research by Nicole Fortin and Thomas Lemieux indicates has a knock-on effect beyond those in the lowest paid jobs. When provinces have increased their minimum wages, income for workers up to the 15th percentile of earners rises.

Fortin and Lemieux also found that mean wages increased and wage inequality declined in 1999-2013 in provinces most reliant on extractive industries, reflecting the resource boom of that period. That includes us, although it’s worth noting that men gained more from the boom than women. The differential advantage of a university degree also decreased, as less-educated workers benefited from jobs in mining and petroleum. But as the researchers note, their analysis “precedes the substantial drop in oil prices that started in the third quarter of 2014.”

It might seem like that market change is enough said about why one warehouse fire appears to us as an immediate crisis. But might our sense of urgency be part of the problem?

Joseph Masco argues that crisis sensibility now works as a force for conservatism. It “blocks thought by evoking the need for an emergency response,” diverting attention from the ways that crisis is built into the institutions and ideas that organize our lives. In this mode, crisis trains our focus on restoration of some imagined prior state and orients us to the present, diverting attention from the collective work of building alternative futures.

Getting back to Davos: why would the wealthy balk at taxes when they profess readiness to spend their money on philanthropy? After all, as Bregman points out, in the postwar era, the top income tax rate in the United States was over 90 percent and capitalism thrived. Similarly,  Ontario raised its minimum wage by 21 percent last year. Six months later its unemployment rate hit an 18-year low.

But the argument at Davos is not about evidence. Philanthropy, unlike taxation and a minimum wage, is arbitrary. As such, philanthropy is no bulwark against future crises. It might even foster them.

Food banks, after all, subsidize inadequate wages and failures of our welfare state. We might say the same for personal debt.

Meanwhile, tax deductions for charitable donations take money from public revenues. As the public share shrinks, the private response becomes ever more consequential. Remember, there were no food banks in Canada until the 1980s. They are now so taken for granted that it can be hard to grasp that they were a response to historical circumstances. They were not supposed to become an industry. That food banks are now so widespread, and seen as such an unquestionable social good, only takes the pressure off governments, depoliticising chronic insecurity.

I am not advocating that we turn our backs on need when we see it today; a generous response is much better than a mean one. But I will end where I started: two cheers for us.

So donate now. But don’t stop there. Translate that generosity into outrage that crisis has become routinized. Ask what that’s doing to our politics. Don’t let philanthropy, government or otherwise, work as a silencer, even if our media opts for cheerleading the charity game instead of asking the hard questions (see here for a partial exception).

As Robert Sweeney details, regressive tax cuts during the boom years, coupled with anti-social transfersmeasures that increase inequality through handovers to the wealthiest—played a major role in depriving the province of revenues that could have funded much stronger social welfare programs. Then there’s our minimum wage, nearly the lowest in the country. Check out Common Front’s $15 and Fairness campaign for more information and suggestions for action.

On this front, it’s too bad that Food Banks Canada, despite its policy proposals, lists only charitable actions under its “How you can help” tab. Organising and agitating are nowhere to be seen. But read their recommendations. Federal and provincial elections are on the horizon. Get ready to ask candidates about how they plan to eliminate food banks, not patch them up.

For Masco, “crisis talk without the commitment to revolution becomes counterrevolutionary.” If talking about revolution makes you squirm, think of it this way. Charity without a commitment to political action becomes anti-political, and that changes nothing.

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