Give to charities, but also advocate for justice for the poor

TheProvince.com – blogs/opinion
December 6, 2011.    Trish Garner

We are very generous during the holidays. In fact, we are one of the most generous provinces in Canada if we look at the average percentage of income we donate to charity in comparison to the rest of the country. We give to food banks, we donate to charities, we volunteer at soup kitchens, we collect clothing for families in need; in short, we give our time and money because we care about those less fortunate than ourselves.

But, this holiday season, let’s seek to make a bigger difference. Let’s go upstream and advocate for real change in provincial policy. Giving to charity is necessary in a province with over 500,000 people living in poverty. But we should also seek long-term solutions to hunger and poverty.

Homeless people will enjoy turkey dinner on Christmas Day, and food-bank users will receive a fuller basket during December. But, come January, homeless people will still be on the street, fridges will be empty again, and the season of giving will be over for another year. After decades of these annual cycles of charitable generosity, poverty is still alive and well within our communities.

The state of our inner-city schools and the plight of their young students have been in the news recently, as Carrie Gelson, an elementary school teacher, wrote about the desperate poverty of her students.

In response, money and clothing came flooding in to that one classroom in that one school. Those students now know that people care about them and that is not insignificant. But what about other students in equally desperate situations around the province?

The fact is our individual and collective acts of generosity are simply not enough to rise to the challenge of ending the poverty in our midst. At 12 per cent, B.C. has the highest poverty rate in Canada and charities cannot cope with the increasing demands for their services.

So let’s ask for more this holiday season. Let’s think charity and justice. Justice is the gift that keeps on giving, through January and beyond. It tackles the root causes of poverty rather than focusing on its temporary alleviation.

Last month, Vancouver-Hastings MLA Shane Simpson re-introduced a Poverty Reduction Bill. If adopted, it would provide a framework for a sustained, comprehensive poverty reduction strategy to tackle the crisis our province is facing.

It would rebuild the social safety net that is supposed to help people get back on their feet but increasingly holds them down. It would tackle the chronic hunger experienced by so many in our province. It would set out a plan to boost the incomes of low-income households and reduce the costs of needed services, like childcare. It would address our education system and provide for the basic needs of the poorest students who cannot learn until they are adequately housed and fed. It would meet the community health care needs of low-income seniors, and people with disabilities, mental illness and addictions. It would put “families first,” as Premier Christy Clark has pledged to do.

You might think it will be too expensive. But we all pay for poverty through higher health-care, policing, criminal-justice and social-service costs. Purely on economic grounds, it makes sense to tackle poverty directly rather than to continue to pay out year after year for its long-term consequences. We need to stop mopping up the water on the floor and fix the hole in the roof.

You might think poverty is here to stay. But there’s nothing inevitable about poverty. B.C. is now one of the last provinces in Canada without a poverty reduction plan. Most other places in the country have a strategy or are in the process of developing one, and many are already seeing success. They are saving money and lives by tackling the issue of poverty head-on.

So, next time you drop off some cans at the local food bank, consider doing something that will make an even bigger difference. Write to the premier and ask her to support the Poverty Reduction Bill and commit to a poverty reduction strategy that includes legislated targets and timelines, so that it’s dependable, effective and accountable.

If you think that sounds too political, you should recognize that giving to charity is also a political act that supports the government not doing enough, an act that says you’re OK with things the way they are.

But are you?

Trish Garner is the organizer of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition. For more information, go to bcpovertyreduction.ca.

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