Sunday, December 30, 2007


I don't give to many charities, except those that have demonstrated an empowerment philosophy or preserve the lives of innocent animals.

Unfortunately, in order to legally become a charity, empowerment of others cannot be the mainstay of your organization's objectives. Further, using your organization's voice as a tool for advocacy is also severely restricted, which only results in further covering up the real problems your organization may be trying to address. In particular, if you want to become a charity that assists low-income people, you can't predicate your mission on reducing and/or eradicating the root causes of poverty. You can only propose to provide band-aids. You can become a food bank, a second hand clothing distributor or one of those organizations where you can "sponsor" a child in a Third World country. Most of these charities have existed in this country for a very long time, yet the rate of poverty among people - including those who have jobs - has increased by leaps and bounds.

There are some people who actually believe that if we eliminate government support services to people living in poverty, they will no longer be poor because either the "market" will fix their situation or "families" or "charity" will step in. Let me repeat that point I made in the above paragraph. The number of charities geared to serving the poor have more than quintupled since 1980, yet our rate of people living in poverty has almost doubled since. The rate of poverty has particularly increased after cuts to social programs began. Contrary to what some people say who believe that social programs lead to poverty, their reduction has actually caused a spike in poverty and an increase in the number of homeless people over the past twenty-five years. After Mike Harris cut welfare rates by 21.6% in 1995, a large number of people "disappeared" from the social services statistics. When they were contacted (or an attempt was made), many had their phones disconnected or have been evicted from their housing. Yes, a few people found other housing, but it is offices like the legal clinics, advocacy paralegals like myself, and others, who have only seen the spike in the number of slumlords and unsafe, Third-World conditions many of these people were living in. As I stated before in these posts, more than half of my OW to ODSP clients are homeless or have had spells of homelessness while living on OW, prior to getting onto ODSP. Some others went into shared housing situations, only to find the shared arrangements were destructive: their "roommate" moves out suddenly leaving them holding the bag only to get evicted for non-payment; the person buys food and others in the household eat it; items are stolen from the person by "roommates" and sold to pawn shops and to others on the "street"; and so forth. If middle class dictates make you feel these kinds of conditions would not be good for you, why are they good enough for others?

At Christmas time and Thanksgiving, there is often an explosion of media coverage about the need to give to food banks, women's shelters and so forth. People do tend to give more at these times. However, I am a bit of a skeptic in some ways, particularly when it comes to some of the businesses in the region that give large amounts to these charities at Christmas time. My questions to these businesses are obvious: (a) Do you employ low-income people and pay them decent wages that get them out of poverty? (b) Do you pay your existing workers decently enough so they will never have to rely on the services of charities to which you are donating?; and (c) Does your business have a social conscience, whereby you do not continue to push for more and more tax cuts, which you know will only translate into a reduction of services to low-income people? Don't believe that? Well, even when Mike Harris cut personal taxes by 30%, grants and pay-offs to big business did not stop; however, services in health care, education and social services significantly deteriorated. To me, if I were a business, my "charity" would begin at home first ... hire and pay my employees well, offer some benefits and a certain level of job security and where possible, growth within the company. To further exemplify this point, did you know that stores like Wal-Mart donate to a lot of charities, including poverty band-aid programs, while they continue to pay their own employees so little that they often have to use these very charities for basic survival? To me, this is not acceptable.

This ethic is charity by example. I would show respect for people by offering wages that a person can survive on, as after all - it is these very employees that are making ME money. Therefore, these employees deserve a decent pay package. Some businesses argue against minimum wage increases, saying that less jobs get created as a result of legislated pay hikes. There are plenty of arguments that have proven this wrong. If this was the case, wages would have remained at the same rate of pay as it did in the 1920's ... a few pennies a day, perhaps. As the cost of living increased, so did minimum wage. Some people would argue why should they hire relatively low-skilled workers for more money? It doesn't matter ... if the job needs to be done and you can't get chimpanzees to do these jobs for free, then you need to hire human beings. If a person doesn't work out, you can fire them. No big deal. Also, if you were literate in business as I am, you can get hold of numerous publicly traded company reports and learn that many of these companies that earn substantial profit are those that pay its workers minimum wages or close to them. Yes, some of these profits have to go to the executives and shareholders and there is nothing wrong with that (but I do question multi-million dollar pay packages), but a large portion of these profits go to GROWTH strategy. They keep wages low, shaving themselves more and more money, so they can put it towards more and more stores .... call centres are developing this strategy as well. Why else do you think they are sprouting like weeds in communities all over Canada, especially in economically depressed regions?

While the shrewd executives of these stores would argue that they are creating a lot more jobs by building more and more stores, there is a point at which this reaches saturation. That means, there will become a point where Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Tim Hortons and other similar franchises simply cannot serve more people ... and if more of the jobs in their serviced communities are on the lower paid end of things, less people will have large amounts of disposable income to spend at these kinds of places. Further, these franchises will have to fight harder and harder to find and retain workers, particularly if people can't afford to live on what these franchises pay. With an aging population, there are less workers available that are able and willing to work at these wages, particularly if they still have offspring living at home or are still paying off a mortgage. Statistics Canada has found that the average age that a child leaves home has increased substantially over the past twenty years. At one time, we were all ecstatic to leave the nest at the age of seventeen or eighteen, but today - it is quite possible for children to still live at home until they are in their late twenties. This places financial pressure on their often older parents, who cannot afford to earn only minimum wage at Wal-Mart or Starbucks and to compete with their children for the same jobs ... this is a reality created by governments that have a drive-down philosophy. While governments will speak out of one side of the mouth to say they are reducing its expenditures, the only areas that are actually cut are those that impact the most vulnerable people.

To me, there should be no reason for people living in Canada to be relying on food banks, homeless shelters, clothing assistance places and similar programs. If a charity were to be proposed, I would rather see it developed with the goal of eliminating poverty for every person that uses the charity. Recipients of charity do not benefit from the use of charity over the long term. However, those who operate and manage charities often make very good salaries. Because of this, there is no incentive on the part of charities to eliminate their purpose and reason for being. The more "need" there is, the more these charities will crop up. There can be hundreds of these charities in a large urban area, while absolutely none of their charges ever gets out of poverty. The charitable sector sadly admits this, though not directly. A reading of many of Toronto's United Way reports tells you the increased depth of poverty and the minimal impact charities actually have. When a charity tries to be more pro-active in its purposes, they get shut down by by Canada Revenue Agency for failing to promote "charitable objects". See the recent case of ICAN and a former case re the National Association of Minority Women. More on the charitable sector as a whole later ...

During their early development, food bank leaders did not want to become a permanent part of the landscape. They did not ask for government funding and hoped that the need for their programs will diminish over time. Graham Riches wrote an excellent history on the development and growth of food banks and the growth of food insecurity. However, as time went on, United Way and other community-based funding came available to these organizations, and they were able to grow and thus, have less incentive to shut down. This is not an evil conspiracy; this is a reality of the charitable sector. I was executive director at one time of a national charity and had no other goals than to assist the organization in its growth and breadth of services. It is only natural and that is what your Board of Directors wants you to do. However, we had a bit more leeway as a charity as our focus was on public education, as opposed to providing direct services. However, I have sat on boards of other charities, where there was almost a sense of competitiveness in terms of providing more and more services, while not necessarily studying the impact of such services on its recipients.

Because charities are not licensed or regulated outside of their fund raising methods, nobody knows if anything is getting better because any particular charity is at work. At this point in time, there is no rule against hiring somebody to run a charity that has a grade six education and is a convicted felon. While some charities require police checks for their staff and volunteers, these are usually only for those who are working directly with children or the elderly. There is also no rule about how much compensation the charity's executive staff get paid, not that there really should be, but when you consider my earlier posts about the number of well-educated people who are unemployed or under-employed, the education and skill level of the staff and administrators in all charities should be examined. I am aware of several charities operating in my region, which I will not name, who have high school drop-outs at the helm of these organizations, or who are directly involved in dealings with vulnerable persons. Many of them have not undergone police checks. In a private business, for example, I can *choose* to hire somebody who is a high school drop-out, or even a convicted felon, as it is my risk if this person makes a serious mistake in judgment. Only I lose money if this person does not work out. However, charities and publicly funded non-profit organizations are putting the public's money at risk whenever a hiring or spending decision is made, and to some extent - the well-being of vulnerable people served may also be compromised with poorly qualified workers.

If the same government that throws multiple units of billion dollar checks to hundreds of thousands of these organizations, decided to regulate people like me who deal directly with vulnerable people, why are these people working in the non-profit sector also not similarly regulated? I think in many ways, taxpayers would feel a little better about how their tax dollars are being spent if they knew that well-qualified, dedicated and motivated staff that adhere to a Code of Conduct are working in these organizations and that the services provided are regularly monitored to ensure that they are producing results. I have seen lots of publicly-funded poor results, and so have many other people, hence the frequent calls for tax cuts. In many western European countries, citizens pay way more taxes than we do in Canada, but rarely complain of their burden. Why? It's likely because they see results from the goods and services funded through their taxes.

Further, the definition of charity needs to be broadened to allow organizations that have as a primary purpose to empower their clients to lift themselves out of poverty, for example, as well as organizations that choose to advocate directly for or against government policies. For example, I should be able to register as a charity an organization that focuses on providing financial and mentoring assistance to persons with disabilities (or other low-income groups) to start and operate a small business, advocates for these same people to all levels of government on how social assistance rates MUST be raised and regulatory claw backs must be removed to aid such persons to reach their goals. OR an organization that invests its money on behalf of its "consumers" to purchase goods and services they may need to escape poverty, e.g. pay for a college course, obtain an up-to-date computer system, help somebody access a driver's license, or provide start-up funding for a small business. The reason I say this is there is a charity that I provided consulting advice and services to from time to time that WANTS to be an empowering agency, but ever since I assisted them in getting their charitable number - their advocacy efforts have waned. I asked them at one time about this and their concern was they did not want to cross the line on this, as they benefit substantially from their fund raising efforts in town here. The same concerns came from other charities I respect in town here.

As a result of this thwarted freedom of speech and in some cases, lack of specific direction towards actual results and empowerment of disadvantaged persons, this same group of people have no voice except their own. Given what gets written in the media about "homeless people" and "low-income" people, it would take a very brave person from this disadvantaged group to speak up and demand respect for themselves and their peers. They are forced to prove they are innocent of typical stereotypes, such as aggressive panhandling, so-called mental illness and/or addictions first (yet when CEOs and respected middle class people suffer from the same issues, they are not viewed as 'incompetent'), as well as have access to resources to empower themselves and get themselves to the next rung on the ever rising ladder out of poverty. I am talking about people who do not drive, therefore, they cannot get a job they can otherwise do. Or people who don't have ID, and can't get a bank account. Or can't get a home outside of a homeless shelter, which has not historically been effective in moving people into their own housing. Or getting their OWN income so they can purchase their OWN housing, their OWN food, their OWN clothing, etc. Charities are forced to continue to do for, as opposed to do "with" - leaving their charges forever dependent on them.

In my own informal studies of people who have used the various band-aid charities, as well as the limited academic research that has been done in the community psychology community, I have found that those who had to use these services more than once tend to have lower self-esteem, and continue to lack resources to empower themselves ... in other words, a charity may feed them for one day, but they are still hungry the next. More work has to be done towards making their services unnecessary. I don't think the charities can do this on their own because they will always lack enough money and volunteers to do what is truly necessary. Government policy must be changed to enable all of us - working or not - to live decently. Some of this can be corrected through a change in business ethics, whereby salaries truly reflect the area's cost of living and worth of an employee to that business, as well as increased income supplements to those that either cannot work or who have trouble securing work due to some type of disadvantage. Workplace barriers need to be identified and removed for those that may be otherwise employed. And finally, an economy CANNOT and SHOULD NOT be predicated upon bringing in more big box stores like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, etc. as the "answer" to the region's economic woes. Workers come from a variety of skills, education, career aspirations and economic requirements ... when programs are set up to assist folks with these issues, the individual's needs should be the foremost objective in achieving financial goals for them.

So, in conclusion, contrary to the neo-cons that seem to want less and less government spending, to Hell with the consequences, we should instead be demanding better results for our tax dollar and be asking for equal dignity being afforded to all persons in the community, regardless of their economic circumstances. People should not have to beg for their bare necessities of life or receive them from "sympathetic volunteers", whose services may not be a reliable and consistent effort, or delivered in a non-partisan way. Everybody has a right to feel they are contributing to the community, and not always be the recipient.

No comments: