© 1993 Karen Selick
 Charity by Any Other Name
An edited version of this article first appeared in the March, 1993 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.

 Charity by Any Other Name

Last December, MP Barbara Greene touched off a storm of controversy by saying that food banks create a dependency mentality among users.  Poverty activists and leftist journalists seized upon this as a golden opportunity to bash private charity.  Typically, they demanded that more money be spent on social welfare, so that people "do not have to pass through the indignity of lining up for free food." 

We would love to abolish food banks, they said, but first we have to increase entitlements.  People must know they have a generous welfare cheque coming in, so they can hold their heads up high and not have to beg for handouts.  Charity is demeaning, but entitlements are social justice.  Entitlements give recipients a feeling of equality and respect.

Whom do these people think they're kidding?  Did they all pass through Canada's public educational system within the past 20 years and hence have all capacity for logical thought drummed out of them?

They should check their dictionaries for the meaning of charity.  Charity is the giving of aid or the performing of benevolent actions for the needy with no expectation of material reward.

It makes no difference whether the aid comes in the form of a bag full of groceries or a larger welfare cheque.  Either way, if the criterion for receiving it is need, and there are no strings attached to the gift, it's still charity.  Even enshrining it in the constitution and calling it a right wouldn't change the nature of the deed.

Maybe the reason that people are so easily bamboozled is that mundane, concrete items like groceries easily conjure up some very explicit imagery.  When a food bank user receives his cans and boxes, he knows that some neighbour previously handled those articles and deliberately gave them up, out of pity for him, the recipient.

The process by which welfare benefits find their way into the recipient's pocket is much more abstract.  There's no way of knowing whose tax money this once was, or what that previous owner and his family had to give up in order to pay that tax bill.

Thus those with little inclination to pursue an uncomfortable line of thought (and with encouragement from slick-talking poverty activists) can make themselves believe that government money falls into the treasury like manna from heaven.  It's just there.  It has always been there.  It's nobody's property, it's found money, so why should we be embarrassed to take it?

Looked at from the receiving end, welfare has all the characteristics of charity.  From the giving end, its appearance is even less flattering. 

If taxpayers voted unanimously to pay their present level of taxes and use the money for welfare, this could plausibly be called an act of charity.  But some taxpayers think their taxes are too high.  Some taxpayers would like to see the money spent differently.  These people aren't engaging in charity.  They're simply being plundered by a different group of voters.  Giving away someone else's money hardly qualifies as charity.

If I am mugged in the street and my money is taken, that's theft.  It is no less theft if the mugger gives the money to his aging mother, or buys food for his children.

But suppose I am stopped in the street by a pair of muggers who tell me they are strong believers in democracy.  They insist that we take a vote about who gets the contents of my wallet.  I lose, two to one.  They take my money and depart.  Their action is still theft, even though I was given the opportunity to vote on it.  Their aging mothers and children are still receiving stolen property, not charity, and certainly not their democratic rights.

The principle doesn't change if you substitute a democratically elected government for the democratic thieves in the example.  Large numbers don't make it right for people to do things to each other that are clearly wrong when done in small numbers.  All that happens is that the government becomes a big-time thief.

At one time, it was considered admirable to be too proud to accept charity.  Poverty activists want to convince people of this character that pride needn't stand in the way of accepting public assistance, because public assistance isn't charity.  In the process, these people are converted into unwitting receivers of stolen property.  What a noble transformation! 

A few months ago, I spoke on social issues at a conference and suggested that instead of continuing the efforts to de-stigmatize welfare, we should be trying to re-stigmatize it.  After my speech, a well-groomed, fortyish woman approached me with an interesting story.

She came from a family of eleven children.  Their father had died when the children were all quite young, and their mother had gone on Mother's Allowance.  All eleven had grown up to be independent, prosperous members of the middle class. 

The brothers and sisters often speculated among themselves about the reasons for their success.  They were all very different in personality, and had all taken different paths to their present circumstances.  They could find only one common thread to explain their uniform affluence: they had all been so ashamed of being "the family on welfare" that they had made up their minds to do whatever it took so that they'd never end up on welfare again.


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June 07, 2000