By Robert Roach
Director, West in Canada Project
Canada West Foundation
CALGARY, AB, Mar. 22, 2010/ — We all know that the world is a harsh place. Earthquakes, starving children and broken dreams are all too common. Money is tight as we emerge from the global recession, but the needs left unmet are as great as or greater than ever.
As Canadians, we pride ourselves on having a social safety net that helps people get through tough times. We think of Canada as a caring society. And for the most part, we are. But are we doing all that we can and should? Do we care enough?
Over the years I have been witness to things that make our safety net sound like little more than some straw spread over a hard concrete floor.
In dire need of help
Our ability to produce material comfort is unprecedented in history, and yet, how many of us have seen someone living on the street who is clearly mentally ill and in dire need of help? How many of us know a single mom who has had to choose between food for her kids or paying the electric bill? How many Canadians stay awake at night wondering how on earth they are going to afford the prescriptions they need? Too many. Way too many.
I’m no fool. I’m not going to give my house keys to a junkie and say “help yourself to what’s in the fridge while I’m away for the weekend” and expect to come home to a tidy house and a new drug-free friend. Many of the problems that our fellow Canadians face are complex and require a lot more than kindheartedness to address. But this doesn’t mean that we should admit defeat or dismiss the attempts to help as the misguided actions of bleeding hearts.
I know that some people “abuse the system.” We all seem to have a friend who has a friend who knows a guy who has been skiing six months of the year while on the dole for the last 20 years. But I also know that the people sleeping in church basements night after night are not “having a good time” at our expense. They are desperate and, in many cases, their self-confidence has been ground down to zero. When they hear things like “those people are a problem” or “why doesn’t she get a job,” their hearts break all over again.
So what should we do?
Is it a matter of money? You bet it is – at least in part. I like a little extra money in my pocket as much as the next person, but I’d rather have a little less if it means that those in need have a little more.
It’s also a matter of attitude. Isn’t it worth it if a few bad apples abuse the system if this means that those in need get the help they require? We have to stop seeing people in need as “problems” to be “solved.” We need to understand that everyone has a story and that, if not for the grace of God (or just blind chance depending on your theological leanings), we could be in the same tight spot.
We also need to carefully consider our priorities. I for one spend more time thinking about which exotic foreign destination I want to go to than I do about helping others.
Beer and chicken wings
And it’s not going to hurt the economy to help people in need. I can blow $40 on beer and chicken wings or I can give $40 to an organization that hires staff to help people with addictions. I don’t want to see bars go out of business because I am not buying beer and chicken wings (so I will continue to do my part in this area), but you get the idea: spending money on helping others does not need to be a drain on the economy. We can buy computers and hot lunches for low income children or we can buy giant cars to keep up with our neighbours – both stimulate the economy.
The help, moreover, doesn’t have to be an extension of what critics call the welfare state. There is a lot we can do voluntarily on a personal level or via the non-profit sector. A lot of people say that they can spend money smarter than government and I tend to agree. The question is: do you really need that new gadget? Keep in mind that when the Alberta government sent everyone in the province $400 a few years ago, sales of big screen TVs spiked, not charitable donations.
If you are reading this thinking “I’m barely getting by,” fair enough. But I suspect that many of you are like me: you know, deep down, that you can do more. Given the lingering effects of the recession and the specter of government deficits, there’s no time like the present.
Robert Roach is the Director of the Canada West Foundation’s The West in Canada Project. Canada West Foundation is the only think tank dedicated to being the objective, nonpartisan voice for issues of vital concern to Western Canadians.
Channels: The Edmonton Journal, the Calgary Beacon, March 23, the Amherst Daily News, the Truro Daily News, the New Glasgow Evening News, the Prince Rupert Daily News, March 24, the Vancouver Province, March 25, the Pembroke Observer, the Winkler Times, March 27, the Vancouver Sun, the Vegreville Observer, March 31, Portage La Prairie, the Yorkton News Review, April 1, the Battleford News Optimisit, April 7, 2010