photo by Nir Bareket
For a long time there was a piece of graffiti on the wall of a 7-11 store in Toronto's Kensington Market that read CHARITY IS NOT JUSTICE. In very different ways, these five books about poverty help to illustrate why this anonymous slogan's is accurate.
Anyone who follows the news has experienced some fatigue when it comes to the the subject of povertyłan inability to register more images of long lines at food banks or further reports of bed shortages at homeless shelters. We have become accustomed to seeing people living on the street and begging for money to feed and clothe themselves; we regularly step across sleeping bodies to get to our bank machines. Consequently, writers dealing with the subject of poverty have a difficult task in rousing readers to see the problem afresh, to make them rethink what it means, and what, as a society, we are obliged to do about it?
Pat Capponi's book The War at Home represents an effort to do precisely this. Her book is a tour of the outer margins of Canadian society, a collection of vivid profiles of the homeless and the addicted, victims of domestic abuse and survivors of psychiatric institutions from Vancouver to St. Johns. Poverty is what all of Capponi's subjects have in common. Capponi challenges her readers to place themselves in the position of her subjects: "Imagine having to live your life, every aspect of it, in full public view." It is one thing to be without a place to eat in private, but picture yourself, as she asks her readers, without a place to sleep in private, without a place to be alone with a lover, and without a place to wash or go to the bathroom in private. This is what it means to live one's life in public view as a consequence of poverty. If Capponi's readers can imagine themselves in such circumstances, they may be enabled to glimpse poverty in a new way.
In Pay the Rent or Feed the Kids, Mel Hurtig provides an enormous, even overwhelming amount of statistical data demonstrating that there is an increasing number of poor Canadians with a decreasing quality of life. The distribution of wealth in Canada, as in any other industrialized society, has historically been polarized. In Canada, economic inequality has become even more exaggerated in the last portion of the twentieth century. The incomes of the richest Canadians have been growing consistently during this period while those of the remaining population have fallen. The cause of this trend, according to Hurtig, are the tactical changes in government policy, such as the reduction of taxes, the zealous fight against inflation, the effort to weaken organized labour, and the reduction of social spending. The pressing question posed here is what is to be done to reverse this trend.
One possible response to the persistent and growing problem of poverty is charity. However, as these books show, charity cannot begin to address the problem for a number of reasons. Most importantly, charity simply does not meet the needs of those it is intended to assist. This is a significant point if one intends, at the very least, to offer relief from the effects of poverty. Hurtig relates the instructive story of a generous business man who donates six pairs of warm winter boots to a school to be given to children in need. Unfortunately, of the 240 students at the school 150 need the boots, and so they are distributed by lottery. In the end, less than half of one percent of the children in need are helped, and even then only one of their needs is met; of the six lucky children given boots, one refuses to remove her boots at school because she had no socks.
Hurtig's book and Janet Poppendieck's both document the growth of poverty-related charity during the last twenty-five years. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is the proliferation of food banks. According to Poppendieck, the number of food banks in American and Canadian cities has exploded since around 1980. The first Canadian food bank was established in Edmonton in 1981; by 1998, over 17,000 people a month relied on it. Food banks have become an essential service not only for the unemployed but for working people as well. Social benefits and working incomes are too often insufficient to meet people's basic needs. While the proliferation of food banks is made possible by greater charitable effort, the expansion is directly linked to rising demand. The growing number of food banks is a sign not so much of a new charitable spiritłalthough it does testify to thatłbut of the failure to find an effective response to poverty.
Poppendieck's book, a sociological study of one branch of poverty-related charities in the United States, ends with a parable. A downstream riverside community finds that abandoned babies keep arriving on their shores. The community adopts and cares for each successive child as it arrives, but never ventures upstream to discover the source of these needy children. The community provides for each needy child, but does not inquire into the cause of the need. Charitable activity, Poppendieck's story implies, is a necessarily ineffective response to poverty.
Charity is not an effective response to poverty, but it may, nonetheless, be an attractive option for governments disinclined to deal with the fundamental problem. Juan Luis Vives' republished and edited little tract On Assistance to the Poor is an exhortation to the government of sixteenth century Bruges to deal with the problem of poverty by encouraging its rich citizens to be more charitable. Read in a Swiftian spirit, the argument seems quite contemporary. Vives argues that the government ought to do its utmost to encourage its rich citizens to be charitable in order for them to realize what he calls "material advantages" for themselves. Their society will become safer, healthier, and more pleasant if the rich are charitable. Without charity, Vives warns, crime and disease will threaten social stability, so charity is actually in the interests of the rich. Even if the rich don't care about poverty or the poor, self-interest should motivate charitable activity. In Vives' argument, there is a role for government in the administration of charity. Vives recommends an official register of the poor in order to efficiently facilitate compulsory work programs; for the recalcitrant poor, those unwilling to participate, imprisonment might be an option.
While for the most part Canadian governments have not adopted all the policies recommended in Vives' tract, all governments have been only too happy to allow charitable organizations to multiply. At the same time that charitable organizations continue to grow, and continue to fall short of meeting the demands of poverty, governments slough off their own obligations. They have, in effect, privatized the battle against economic inequality. In following this course, governments fail to insure that the most basic needs of their own citizens are met. What are these basic needs? Adam Smith, avatar of the market economy, provides a good definition in The Wealth of Nations. "By necessaries I understand, not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for people, even the lowest order, to be without."
It is not only indecent, as Adam Smith would have it, but also unjust that the basic needs of so many Canadians are not being met. Despite the awe-inspiring efforts of volunteers and under-paid staff, charitable organizations are simply incapable of meeting these basic needs. But then charity should never have been expected to do what is ultimately the responsibility of governments. Poverty requires not a charitable but a political response. Governments have an obligation to deal with poverty effectively, to craft policies in order to guarantee that the needs of citizens are met. It is in this way that the graffiti artist is right: charity is emphatically not the same as justice. ņ
Andrew Gray holds a PhD from the University of Toronto and is currently completing a law degree.