If Charles Dickens were alive today, he’d have plenty of material. His literary landscape was largely the poor, the disadvantaged and the ignored.
He juxtaposed Scrooge — mean, miserly and rich — with Bob Cratchit, downtrodden and struggling to make ends meet, but happy, heroic and optimistic. Oliver Twist asked for more. Little Nell couldn’t quite hold on.
But that was Victorian London, where they had workhouses and street urchins, a seething mass of humanity, beggars and unfortunates living alongside the wealthy and comfortable.
Dickens wrote of charity often (remember those two old kindly men who try to collect for the poor from Scrooge; he turns them away and says, memorably, that the poor should die and decrease the surplus population).
This week, a report suggested Canadians aren’t as generous as we think we are. We donate significantly less than Americans. We in the media carried stories that showed Salvation Army kettles are almost empty and food banks are continuing to struggle as an increasing number of people require their services around B.C.
This week I was at the Christmas Wish breakfast in Vancouver, an annual event where thousands line up in a spirit of bonhomie to give to poor or underprivileged children.
It is my favourite day of the year, a day of big-hearted giving to kids — those who really deserve a break. Each kid, from baby to teenager, will get a stocking stuffer and one larger gift.
On this morning, people lined up for as long as an hour to donate a toy. More than 25,000 toys and $25,000 were collected. A record. The Pan Pacific Hotel atrium was turned into a giant studio as we broadcast live from the scene.
Firefighters stacked the gifts high, a gospel choir sang carols, a ukulele band entertained people in lineups, we had a crooner, there was a bagpiper-led march by 75 police officers, firefighters rappelling down four storeys.
By the end of the day, the 13 tonnes of toys collected was so massive that the Christmas Bureau’s warehouse was full, and it had to borrow an 8.5-metre trailer to store the excess donations. Yet later that day we ran a report from the Fraser Institute that suggested we in British Columbia aren’t the most generous of people. Only 22 per cent of the B.C. population donates to charity, an average of $1,832 per donor, seventh overall in the country. Manitobans, among the provinces, have the biggest hearts.
If we gave at the same level as Americans, said the institute, we’d raise an extra $9 billion more a year across the country.
None of this is startling news. We know that a small percentage have big hearts in the country. They’re the people who deliver tinned goods and pasta at the food banks, or volunteer or donate to the United Way.
We know also that some are overwhelmed by charitable requests. Charity fatigue kicks in. So many need so much. So many hands are out. Particularly at Christmas.
Poverty may not be as visibly bad as it was in Dickens’s day, but it’s still very much with us. The food bank organizers point out that it’s not only the street people who come in for food, but your neighbours, your workmates, your teammates.
We know how tough it is to make ends meet at the best of times.
But while one in five is happy to help out others in the community, almost four in five of us don’t give a penny. That’s a sad figure.
There’s still a huge body of the population that believes poverty is the fault of the poor. If only they’d pull up their socks, get a real job, knuckle down and stop goofing off, all would be fine and dandy.
Well, yes, the poor aren’t perfect. Nobody is. But there are many, many people who, through no fault of their own, need serious help. They’ve lost jobs, become single moms, got sick, got depressed or just can’t cope.
Dickens would have plenty of evocative, highly readable material today, but I’m not sure that many people would be as interested in novels about the social problems of our age.
We’re into thrillers, romance, fantasy. Escapism, not realism.
For too many, the poor really are surplus population. Best ignored. Or avoided. Bah humbug, 21st-century style.
Ian Haysom, news director for Global News in B.C., divides his week between Vancouver and Central Saanich.
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