"The [U.S.] Food Stamp Program is proud to be distributing the greatest amount of free meals and food stamps ever. Meanwhile, the National Parks Service asks us not to feed the animals. Their stated reason for the policy is because the animals will grow dependent on handouts and will not learn to take care of themselves."
Billy Fleming, contributor to the Miller County Liberal, June 13, 2012
BILLY Fleming's opinion was published by the Miller County Liberal, an American community newspaper in Colquitt, Georgia.
Forwarded to me on Aug. 5 by David Marley, co-founder of the West Vancouver group Interested Tax-Payers Action Committee (ITAC), the blunt implication of Fleming's Ben Franklin-style message is an echo of 18th-century thinking: Take away the alms and the poverty-stricken will learn how to feed themselves.
ITAC has been unrelenting in its defence of public dollars since 2006. I respect the group's raison d'etre, appreciate the work of its members and usually agree with the positions it takes.
That said, if ITAC is of like mind with Marley that Fleming's comment is "a rather astute observation on the adverse impact on society of modern statism," that may be where our respective philosophies part company.
Many of our governmentrun social systems are ineffective and misspend tax dollars, but to suggest removing them will somehow cause everyone to find a job and care for their own needs is a fallacy. Gordon Campbell discovered this after he began his 2001 review of the welfare rolls with a view to kicking out the hundreds of people he claimed were ripping off the system.
After spending almost a year and thousands of tax dollars on the project, the review team admitted they'd found only 40 or so miscreants they could accuse of being welfare cheats. They also said many recipients were so mentally ill they couldn't even understand reviewers' questions.
The Franklin approach tends to blame the victims while ignoring the causes.
Since the 1980s, federal governments of both stripes have agreed Canadian families should spend no more than 30 per cent of their before-tax income on housing - rent or mortgage payment, heat and hydro. For many Lower Mainland families, that is a near-impossible target. Housing costs in Metro Vancouver are the second highest in the country, and a majority of people pay 50 per cent or more of family income to put a roof over their heads.
The North Shore is at the high end of that scale - bad news for low-income seniors and for young families struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder in their own communities or to pay for the housing they already have.
This situation can trigger other problems that erode incomes further, creating a kind of vicious circle. A 2010 report by the Conference Board of Canada put it in a nutshell: "The shortage of affordable housing is having a detrimental effect on Canadians' health which, in turn, reduces their productivity . . . and, indirectly, drives up the cost of health care and welfare."
That negates any argument Fleming might make that encouraging people to "take care of themselves" will relieve taxpayers of an expensive responsibility to assist the most vulnerable in our society.
But the lack of affordable housing is only one aspect of a multi-faceted social problem that has been exacerbated by the recession our governments have been assuring us was barely evident in Canada.
More than 70 per cent of the homeless in Metro Vancouver are said to suffer from some form of mental illness that, undiagnosed and untreated, worsens over time. Others are alcoholics or have turned to prostitution, dealing drugs and other crimes in a futile attempt to support themselves or to forget their miserable conditions.
We also know 25 per cent of B.C. children and their families live in poverty, that people of aboriginal descent are disproportionately represented in those numbers and that poverty leads to malnutrition, threatens a child's ability to learn, graduate from school and/or qualify for a job.
Does Fleming recommend we shrug and say: "The poor are ever with us; let them eat cake"?
Or would we and other North Americans do better to become a kinder, gentler society?
Turning again to the Conference Board, its key messages are these: "Canada earns a "B" and ranks ninth out of 17 peer countries in the society report card; Canada's social performance has remained a "B" over the last two decades; and Canada's "D" grade on the poverty rate for working-age people, and its "C" grades on child poverty, income equality, gender equity and assaults are troubling for a wealthy country."
But Marley's evaluation of our social safety nets is not a simplistic one. He has looked at some of the experience in other jurisdictions and says: "It's instructive to follow what the Conservative Party in the UK is trying to accomplish with its 'Big Society' approach to public policy . . . some very innovative work with respect to community care for the disabled."
Most social programs could benefit from regular value-formoney evaluations.
An open-minded comparison between the international initiatives Marley has discovered and the community achievements I see featured in this paper every week, could shed still more light on the issue.
Maybe our philosophies are not that far apart after all.