Last week, the CBC's 26th annual food bank drive raised $567,000 for the food banks of British Columbia. This, according to some anti-poverty advocates, is not a good thing.
As well-meaning citizens dropped off food, cash and cheques, several dozen protesters gathered, placards in hand, trying to convince would-be donors that their efforts might be better spent petitioning the provincial government for an increase in basic social assistance rates.
The argument goes something like this: Food banks fill the gap left by woefully inadequate government social assistance rates. When that gap is filled by volunteer agencies and charitable organizations, it absolves the government of its natural obligation – to provide basic necessities for those unable to do so for themselves. Better to increase rates to the point where people have enough left over after paying for shelter and basic necessities to decide for themselves what they want to eat or can afford to eat. Lining up at a food bank, they argue, robs people of their dignity and self-respect.
I tend to agree; I don't think anyone feels proud of having to resort to the food bank to feed their kids. But according to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society, 27,000 people in the Metro Region do it every week.
During the CBC's food bank drive, I was approached by a woman who wanted to know whether I understood why there was a demonstration outside. I told her that I did, and admitted that I was sympathetic. But I told her what worries me is if she and others are successful, if they convince enough people that funding food banks absolves government of its responsibility, and those people stop giving to food banks, what happens next?
If you get your way, and the food banks go out of business for lack of donations, where are we? I asked her.
Her reply went something like: Well then the government would know the real need, and would be forced into action.
Really? How long might it take government to recognize the gap? What would that look like in the Lower Mainland? Would we see hungry families on street corners in the time between the closure of the food banks and the government being embarrassed into finally raising social assistance rates?
I imagine that the Raise the Rates Coalition and others would prefer things worked the other way around. That people on welfare were getting enough money to pay for basic necessities and that lines at the food bank would diminish as a result. "Hunger is the symptom, the root cause is poverty," says the coalition's Bill Hopwood. "Why would you not cure the disease rather than treat the symptoms over and over again? It just doesn't make sense," he told me this week.
At the same time anti-poverty groups try to make their point with the food bank, they have another target in their sights: Mark Brand, the owner of Save on Meats on East Hastings Street. Depending on what you read, Mr. Brand is either a ruthless businessman and self-promoting agent of gentrification climbing his way to the top on the backs of poor people, or he is a smart and sincere socially conscious entrepreneur who is serious about trying to make a difference in his adopted community.
Mr. Brand has printed tokens that can be purchased for $2.25 and exchanged for a breakfast sandwich at his establishment. The idea is when a person asks you for spare change, you can instead toss them a token, and feel better knowing it will provide food rather than drugs or alcohol. Ivan Drury of the Carnegie Community Action Project says the scheme has little to do with charity, and everything to do with marketing and pocketing the profits from tokens that will never be redeemed.
In a recent post on his group's website, Mr. Drury wrote: "Like the charity parking meters set up by the city to discourage panhandling, the message of Mr. Brand's tokens is that low-income people cannot be trusted with money of their own."
Mr. Hopwood is quick to point out the majority of welfare recipients are not the feckless work-averse stereotypes one might imagine. They are most often people with disabilities or people who, through no fault of their own, have ended up where they are.
Those people deserve the same right to dignity as anyone else.
My mother always told me that beggars can't be choosers.
That will be true as long as we make them beg.