I was talking about the basic income guarantee to a couple of friends and one of them commented on how the fundraising done for local agencies such as the food bank, the school nutrition program, or the heat bank brings the community together. She was right; events that raise money for important causes do foster community.
But I would like to see generosity and effort mobilized for non-essential programs and services. Think skateboard parks, libraries, and swimming pools. Fundraising results are too unreliable to provide basic necessities. Donations vary depending upon the financial situation of individuals and businesses and are subject to withdrawal at any time. Donor fatigue is another phenomenon that can diminish fundraising efforts.
If we do not challenge the status quo, I fear we will continue to respond to issues such as food security in a charitable manner because we focus on the value of community fundraising and generous actions. The effectiveness of this response is further reinforced when we read testimonials from recipients describing their appreciation of the help they received. I fully support giving to organizations that make our communities a better place. A charitable response to food insecurity however is not sustainable and it can distract us from the long-term work of justice.
Elaine Power spent many years as a food bank volunteer, including board membership and she came to this conclusion:
“Food banks also serve many unintended functions. To start, those of us who donate, volunteer or participate in food drives “feel good” about making a difference in the lives of others. But we need to look beyond this aspect of our volunteer experiences. Food banks also let governments off the hook from their obligation to ensure income security for all Canadians. They undermine social solidarity and social cohesion by dividing us into “us” (those who give) and “them” (those who receive). (‘It’s Time to Close Canada’s Food Banks’, Globe and Mail.)
In addition to food banks, school nutrition programs attempt to address food insecurity. These programs are open to all students and thus eliminate any stigma. Children who have food at home, however, are in a different situation than the children who do not have food at home. Parents living in poverty still experience the stress of not being able to provide for their families. A basic income would go a long way to ensuring that families can purchase the food they need. And yes, some kids will continue to attend school without breakfast or lunch, but with a basic income it is less likely the reason would be a lack of food at home. The work of justice is to address the roots of a problem.
I like what Dave Toycen, author of The Power of Generosity says about the connection between generosity and justice: “Some argue that generous charity is a kind of rationalizing of the existing circumstances that create injustice. When relating to the poor, for instance, it is more convenient to give a handout than to address the deeper causes that keep people poor. The former speaks to generosity and the latter speaks to justice. It’s a tension that can separate the one from the other. Generosity without justice is a band-aid that offers one-time encouragement. Justice without generosity is a long-term solution that fails to heal the hearts of those who can make a difference. Together justice and generosity offer a powerful force that can change the world.”
The basic income guarantee is an important structural change but it is not the only justice response needed to achieve a more equitable society. Affordable housing, transportation, daycare, and post-secondary education contribute to greater equality and important outcomes such as increased social mobility, solidarity and innovation. We all benefit from these progressive developments.
I would sleep much better at night knowing that I am part of a society in which everyone has the means to take care of their basic needs. What a justice response will not give us is gratitude from the people living in poverty, but perhaps we can practice generosity without expectation of any expression of thanks. Instituting a basic income through public spending is no less generous than giving to a food bank. The important difference is that with the stability of a basic income the recipient’s dignity is restored and uncertainty decreased.