Patti Bacchus: The trouble with charity

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      I get queasy this time of year, and not just from too much eggnog and fruitcake. It’s those photos of needy kids and wealthy, smiling donors “giving back”, and, yes, even stories about school kids helping the “less fortunate”.

      I know; I know. ‘Tis the season of giving and helping those in need. What could possibly be wrong with feeding hungry kids or having kids learn to help those in need?

      I’m not suggesting anyone stop giving—the need for charity is real and urgent. Most people who give do so for all the right reasons, with little interest in recognition or thanks. But there’s a little wrong with it, and that also needs discussing.

      What makes my stomach churn is how normalized and entrenched annual food drives and hamper-giving have become, as if poverty is just an inevitable feature of our wealthy society and not the outcome of deliberate political decisions. And don’t get me going on the hypocrisy of wealthy donors who fund food programs for poor kids but also generously support parties like the B.C. Liberals, whose policies arguably made life even more miserable for low-income and disabled people than it already was.

      Every time I see a smiling, wealthy person in a photo accompanying a story about a donation to a school food program, I feel as uncomfortable and conflicted as I do about “needy kids” being photographed for those stories. I also cringe at smiling photos of kids from affluent communities handing out sandwiches to the “less fortunate”, as if that seasonal good deed is just part of a warm and fuzzy, feel-good holiday-season ritual.


      When I chaired the Vancouver School Board (VSB), I was often approached by people who wanted to know how they could donate to breakfast programs for poor kids. It was always well intended and, no doubt about it, badly needed, but on a few occasions the offer came with a request to involve a public-relations firm and the opportunity for the donor to be photographed with some hungry public-school waifs. Sometimes the donors sent their own kids to expensive private schools—including the one the former premier sent her son to—that charged almost $25,000 in tuition.

      The disconnect between the same folks who backed a political party that lowered taxes on the wealthy, froze social-assistance rates, forced school boards to make cuts, and appeared to turn a blind eye to the money-laundering crisis that helped make housing unaffordable for many also smiling for the camera as caring, charitable do-gooders is tough for me to digest.

      My eight years on the VSB made me acutely aware of the effects of growing inequality in our city, where streets are clogged with high-end luxury cars while kids come to school hungry and rely on charitable handouts for food.

      I know that many who donate—most, actually—do so quietly and without expectation of recognition. I know many make personal sacrifices to do so. I know that getting kids involved in charitable giving can teach them about empathy and raise their awareness about inequality. That’s all well and good, for the most part.

      Justice, not charity

      Vancouver teachers have been at the forefront of raising the issue of justice instead of charity. I’ve learned a lot from them and about why we need better ways to ensure kids get the nutrition and supports they need to be successful in school, rather than relying on charity.

      The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School Program has raised millions for kids in need, which is laudable and no doubt has helped many kids. The stories they run about the programs they fund and the kids those programs help are also a good way to educate readers about the needs out there in our communities.

      At the same time, what has the Vancouver Sun done to raise public awareness about how political policies have contributed to—or created—the conditions that cause kids to go hungry? It’s all well and good to run this much-needed program, but is it enough?

      The inefficiencies of charity

      Running a school meal program on charitable donations can be time-consuming and inefficient. A well-meaning donor steps forward with a $10,000 donation, wanting it to go directly to feeding hungry kids. That may require kitchen upgrades to meet food-safety and regulatory requirements, a system for ordering and storing food, along with staff to prepare it, serve, and clean up. Someone needs to manage that and handle the accounting. That $10,000 donation can end up creating new costs that actually exceed what it can buy in food.

      Cost-effective school-meal programs need consistent and stable funding that also covers the administrative costs of running a program. Kids whose families are affected by poverty shouldn’t have to rely on the whims of the wealthy for their nourishment.

      School stigma

      In 2011, a Vancouver teacher wrote a passionate open letter about poverty affecting kids she taught at a school in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The letter went viral and triggered a huge response. Donations poured into the school and a storage room at the school turned into a pop-up thrift store, filled with winter clothing and boots. People also made cash donations and gave other gifts to the school.

      It was heartening to see how much people cared. The donations provided immediate relief for many kids in dire need. It also sparked much-needed public discussion and greater awareness about how poverty is affecting kids in the Metro Vancouver area.

      It also created some problems. The school was overwhelmed by the response. The VSB had to hire a substitute teacher to cover for the teacher, who needed to deal with all the media attention and public response. Someone had to manage all the donations (ever tried running a thrift shop full of donations of varying quality and cleanliness?), the money had to be tracked and accounted for, and someone had to figure out how to distribute it. This was all at a time the former government was ordering school districts to cut their already lean administrative staff.

      Also on the downside, it became the poster school for what would become the Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School Program, as if it were a needy orphan in need of handouts. A staff person at the VSB commiserated to me at the time that they lived near the school and had planned to send their infant there when they were old enough to start kindergarten but were reconsidering due to the stigma now associated with the school.

      About that poverty-reduction plan

      The good news is B.C.’s NDP government is working on a poverty-reduction strategy. The former B.C. Liberal government made B.C. the lone holdout province in Canada without a poverty-reduction plan. I hope the Horgan government moves quickly and rolls something out soon that will reduce reliance on charity to feed hungry kids. It makes more sense to me to tax those who can afford to pay a bit more and distribute that revenue to schools and community groups that provide meal programs for kids. That would replace charity with justice.

      I also urge government to consider the benefits of universal meal programs for all kids in public schools. While at first glance it might not make sense to offer food programs to kids whose families can easily afford to provide them with healthy meals, there are those who argue it’s worth the investment and could teach better eating habits, reduce the stigma that’s associated with poverty, increase graduation rates, support local food production, and improve students’ mental health. That checks off a lot of boxes.

      Critical thinking

      It’s heartwarming to see the many wonderful ways schools and kids step up during the holiday season to help those who are struggling. It’s an important way to celebrate the season by sharing with those who have less than we do, and to increase students’ awareness of how difficult life is for many living in our affluent province. It is also important, however, that the students learn about the causes of poverty and how, as members of a democratic society, we are also bear some responsibility and have the power to improve things.

      And while I’m hesitant to criticize anyone who contributes to charitable causes, we also need to hold the wealthy and powerful accountable for their support for politicians and the policies that exacerbate poverty instead of reducing it. The same goes for major media outlets that tout the good deeds of the wealthy who give to charity but also endorse political parties that refuse to adopt effective poverty-reduction strategies and who serve the interests of the haves at the expense of the have nots.

      So, please, give what you can to worthy causes that help those in need. Please also ask your elected representatives to prioritize creating and implementing effective poverty-reduction strategies. Please teach your kids that handing out sandwiches to the needy isn’t enough.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.