Charity or Justice?
In his book on spirituality, The Holy Longing, Father Ronald Rolheiser relates the following story. One day, some children spotted three bodies floating in the river that ran through their village. They ran to get help. Of the three bodies, one was dead, one was injured, and one was a healthy child. Everyday for years, three more bodies came floating down the river. The villagers buried the dead, nursed the injured, and found homes for the children. The villagers were proud of the systems they had established for dealing with the bodies. But, no one ever went up the river to find out what was happening.
Rolheiser was drawing a distinction between charity and social justice. While charity relieves the symptoms of a problem, social justice looks beyond the symptoms to the cause, and works for change. Social justice is an essential aspect of spirituality.
Not unlike the villagers in our story, Canada has put systems in place that are intended to address social problems, like poverty. While our politicians talk about poor Canadians, rarely do any make a trip up the river to experience the harsh reality of poverty.
Who are the poor?
Jagrup Brar, a Surrey, BC MLA, is a notable exception. Brar accepted the “Raise the Rates” challenge to live for one month on the BC welfare rate of $610. He did so this past January.
During his month long experiment with poverty, Brar lived off about $4 per day, after deductions for basics like rent, buss pass, and phone. He was constantly hungry and fatigued. He lost 26 pounds. He had to make choices between purchasing toiletries and food. He said the experience changed him, making him a humbler, more compassionate person, committed to working for justice for the poor.
Brar’s experience challenges a common Canadian mindset about welfare recipients. The poor are not typically lazy individuals taking advantage of taxpayer dollars. The poor are working people who do not make a living wage. The poor are individuals affected by job loss, illness, disability, or, they have suffered a crippling accident. The poor are single mothers and their children who have fled from abusive situations. The poor are immigrant farm workers who lack the basic rights and benefits that we have come to expect in Canada. The poor are refugees from United Nations refugee camps whose sponsors have reneged on commitments to support them for a year. Poverty is a tapestry of individual stories, and is not defined by one group of people.
Claw back policies keep people poor
Brar discovered some problems with policy. Child support payments, which many mothers do not regularly receive, are deducted from welfare payments. Earnings from any type of work, even snow shoveling for a few bucks, are deducted.
Income from other sources does not improve the situation for people when welfare is clawed back. While social assistance was originally intended to provide short-term relief, claw back policies keep people poor, penalize the recipient for working, and encourage dishonesty.
A crippling discrepancy
“Raise the Rates” puts the Market Basket Measure (MBM) for metro-Vancouver at $1300 per month, but the welfare payment for an individual living in British Columbia is only $610 per month, of which $400 is deducted for rent. The MBM is a goods and services measure that takes into consideration the cost of living in different geographical areas, and is based on after tax income. The categories of the basket are food, shelter, clothing, footwear, transportation, and other goods and services, which includes a miscellany of things, from postage stamps to school supplies to newspaper subscriptions to entertainment.
Where there is such a grave discrepancy between the actual cost of living and the welfare allowance, is it any wonder that food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters have become permanent features of many communities?
The poor deserve justice
These services are examples of charity that caring citizens have established to assist the poor among us. Although these charitable endeavors are essential to promoting the dignity of the poor, the poor deserve more than charity. They deserve justice.
The three western provinces lack any kind of comprehensive strategy to reduce or prevent poverty. Justice calls for the development of measurable strategies to reduce poverty, and to prevent more people from falling into poverty.
Unlike Brar, who was able to return to his comfortable home after a four-week joust with poverty, 500,000 British Columbians are caught in poverty. Poverty is not going to go away, unless we develop the political and social will to create a more just society. Until then, the bodies will continue to float down the river.