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Charity is the community response to poverty but where is government response?

CBC’s Food Bank Day earlier this month raised $630, 314. For the 100,086 users of food banks, which includes those on income assistance, people with disabilities, seniors and low-wage workers, that amounts to only $6.30 per person for the whole year. Clearly, that’s no cause for celebration! (Also featured in The Province)

We’re reminded of the question that Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, encourages us to ask during the giving season: “We need to actually not only feed our neighbour’s children, but really understand why is it that their parents are not able to feed them. What is causing the degree of poverty that we’re experiencing?”

Charity is the community response to poverty but where is the government response? B.C. is one of the most generous provinces in Canada in terms of how much we give to charity as a share of our income but we have had one of the highest poverty rates for the last 13 years. We cannot fill the gap left by policies that put welfare, disability and the minimum wage far below the poverty line and do very little to ease the increasing cost of living, in particular, housing and childcare. We desperately need the government to step up and share the weight with us.

The fundamental problem with charity is that nothing changes. We have to continue to donate year after year while more and more people continue to use the food banks because the systemic issues that keep people in poverty remain absolutely unchanged, and perhaps even get more and more ignored as we cover over them with feeling good about dropping our cans off. If we don’t make change, CBC’s 30th anniversary food bank day next year will be the first of many big milestones and we will see you at the 40th anniversary and years to come beyond that.Bill Hopwood200

One strong way to change the system is to adopt a human-rights perspective to poverty. The existence of poverty in B.C. is a violation of human rights. There is not only a moral duty to eradicate poverty but also a legal obligation under international human-rights law. International Human Rights Day was Dec. 10 but we have little to celebrate here in B.C.

A human-rights approach to poverty is based on a fundamental respect for human dignity as opposed to a charitable approach, which, let’s be honest, situates poor people as pitiful. Why not, instead, give people a level of income that provides for them and their families? A human-rights framework recognizes people in poverty as rights-bearers entitled to assert legal claims rather than being passive recipients of charitable aid.

In 1976, almost 40 years ago, Canada ratified the United Nations International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognizes “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”

The B.C. government is failing to meet its human-rights obligations. One in 10 British Columbians live in poverty and B.C. is the only province without a poverty reduction plan.

Giving to charity is necessary in this time of great need in order to address the immediate needs of people living in poverty. However, charities can only provide short-term relief that addresses the “downstream” symptoms and we need long-term solutions that go “upstream” to fix the root causes.

So, this holiday season, we encourage you to rethink giving. At the heart of giving is caring for each other and charity even at its highest level is not the best avenue for taking care of each other: what can $6.30 really contribute to a family’s struggle to make ends meet? It is only at the level of government that we can have the greatest impact and truly make a difference.

So let’s match our donations with an action. Here’s an idea to take to our provincial government. Most other places in Canada have a poverty reduction plan and they are already saving lives and money. B.C. needs a comprehensive poverty reduction plan with legislated targets and timelines to really make a difference for families, communities and our province.

It’s time for the B.C. government to comply with its obligations under international law and stop relying on our generosity to tackle the crisis of poverty, a generosity that can never fill the hole left by government inaction.

Trish Garner is the community organizer of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, a broad-based network of over 400 organizations throughout B.C. calling on the B.C government to commit to a comprehensive poverty reduction plan with legislated targets and timelines.

Bill Hopwood is the organizer for Raise the Rates.