Trevor Hancock: Charity is big — but is that a good thing?

A front-page article in the Business section of the Times Colonist caught my eye: “Charitable sector generates $4 billion in economic impact” (Nov. 28).

The story was about a report from the Victoria Foundation and the University of Victoria on the economic and social impact of registered charitable organizations in the capital region.

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The report estimates this level of economic activity translates into the equivalent of 63,000 full-time jobs, which in turn support more than $300 million in municipal taxes. The article also notes that this puts the impact of the charitable sector close to the $5.2-billion economic impact of the high-tech sector. So charity is big — but is it a good thing?

Don’t get me wrong: I am not opposed to or seeking to undermine the charitable sector. I have worked in and with numerous NGOs and charities and have seen our work benefit from the funding and other support of numerous foundations. I have a lot of respect for charitable organizations, including the Victoria Foundation, which does great work.

Thus, I strongly agree with their opening comment: “Civil society, also known as the charitable sector, is vital to both Canada’s economy and the well-being of its citizens. Indeed, each of us is regularly enriched by the work of civil-society organizations, whether we recognize it or not.”

My concern is at a wider level: Is it really such a good idea that civil society shoulder the responsibility of meeting people’s basic needs? In doing so, are we not enabling an abdication of responsibility by both our federal and provincial governments and by the business sector — especially large corporations — which avoid paying their fair share of the taxes that should support the meeting of basic needs for all?

This report comes hard on the heels of three recent reports that show how poorly we are doing in meeting basic needs. The annual report card on child poverty from First Call and the Social Planning and Research Council of B.C. finds that one in five children in B.C. live in poverty, which is the same as it was in 1996. New this year was a report from SPARC B.C. and the United Way of the Lower Mainland that found B.C. has the highest seniors’ poverty rate in Canada; eight per cent in B.C. compared with six per cent on average across Canada.

Meanwhile, a report from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control found the average cost of a nutritionally adequate, balanced diet in 2017 for a family of four was $1,019 per month, or more than $12,000 annually. In an accompanying infographic, the B.C. CDC notes that this healthy diet would take 44 per cent of the family’s income if they were on social assistance and 24 per cent if both parents were earning minimum wage.

The infographic also notes: “Household food insecurity takes a major toll on our health and health-care system,” with health-care costs in food-insecure households (who also are likely to be suffering other deprivations) twice as high as households that are food secure. Noting “the root cause of household food insecurity isn’t the price of food — it’s lack of income,” the B.C. CDC concludes: “Policies to improve household income are the most effective way to lower food insecurity.”

We should also conclude that such policies would address homelessness. Shelters, tent cities and trailer housing should not become normalized, any more than food banks and community meals. Instead, we need to raise the minimum wage and social-assistance levels, both to restore humaneness and dignity, and to improve health.

So if businesses sincerely want to help the poor and disadvantaged in society, there are two things they could do that would be more effective, and more fair (because all would contribute, not just those with a social conscience) than donating to charity.

First, pay a living wage, so people are not living in poverty. Second, they and the wealthiest members of society could stop avoiding their social responsibility by moving their money and profits offshore and otherwise evading taxes.

This would take the burden of meeting basic needs off the shoulders of charities, enabling them to focus on other ways to enrich life in our communities.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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