This is the day we never fully realized would come. The London Food Bank holds a press conference kicking off our annual Thanksgiving food drive but also we commemorate our 25th anniversary as an organization. Who knew? A quarter of a century ago we were just trying to stem the tide of hunger that had predominated during the recession of the early-80s. Food banks were a phenomenon – started by citizens in a response to institutional and capitalist failure and adjustment. We opted for storefront properties or rustic warehouses meant to temporarily house us until the recession had run its course. The belief was that the institutions would pick up the slack once again when the economy improved. It never happened.
In fact, everything continued to get worse. Government bailed; corporations restructured. Small and medium-sized businesses – the real generators of employment – were red-taped to death. With the economic booms that followed, citizens slowly lost touch with their ill-fated kin. When polled as to whether they thought ridding Canada of serious poverty was important, Canadians replied in the 80% range – a number that went into the 90s when asked about child poverty. And then they just went on spending and electing governments that refused to deal with the growing inequities within our society. Citizens said they were concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor and that governments should do something about it, but at the same time demanded a constant lowering of income taxes that eventually shrunk the government revenues enough that effectively dealing with the problem became impossible.
But our lack of attention will cost us. This week the National Council on Welfare reminded us that if we had just spent $12.6 billion to fight poverty programs we wouldn’t have to face the present reality that is costing us double that amount each year dealing with the symptoms rather than the cure. These numbers in the areas of healthcare, education, criminal justice and social services are about to balloon and yet still we develop no plan to deal with the challenge.
We have yet to put together a national plan for dealing with what has clearly become a national and not just regional problem. We have no national housing strategy, or child poverty strategy, or a poverty reduction strategy. Some provinces like Ontario have put certain measures in place, but without a partner at the federal level it just can’t work. During my time in Parliament both the Senate and the House produced two major reports on poverty but the feds just filed them. We are about to pay for that lack of attention. Read the National Council of Welfare report to see what we are up against. Hardly anyone disputes the figures, but there is no shortage of opinions as to what should be done.
What exactly are we doing? Wasting billions of dollars each year on poor programming isn’t so smart in a day of diminishing returns. And then just yesterday we discover that the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy estimates that the cost of climate change will be roughly $5 billion per year in 2020 and will increase to between $21 billion and $43 billion annually by 2050. Where is this money going to come from, especially since we are struggling through the largest deficit in Canadian history? Through productive growth? How can that happen when totaling both the poverty and environmental bills could add up to $75 billion a year within 40 years?
Is this what Kishore Mahbubani, from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy meant when he said, “No leaders dare to tell the truth to the people. All their pronouncements rest on the mythical assumption that ‘recovery’ is around the corner … There will be no painless solution … No politician dares utter the word ‘sacrifice.’ Painful truths cannot be told?” Now, before we start unloading on politicians again for not taking leadership, let’s just remember that we elected them and we likely wouldn’t have done so if they told us we would have to start getting by with less and that progressive taxes would have to be levied. Politicians are only saying what we want to hear – the real truth is frightening in the telling and likely to create voter backlash in the hearing. For the Liberal Party to find real meaning again, this is the reality they should be confronting us with. But why would they when we would punish any party that dared to do what we demand they do – prepare us for the future.
Today my wife and I have our pictures on the front page of the London Free Press in a style that looks like mug shots before we head to prison. The paper is asking the public and its leaders if Jane and I actually did the right thing 25 years ago incorporating the food bank. We asked the paper to do so because we are trying to generate a discussion about the kind of Canada we want. This is hugely uncomfortable for us. Then again, so is the reality that we now help 3200 families each month when it was roughly 300 families 25 years ago. It’s a shame we have reached the point as a society where food banks are put on trial for responding to a massive need created by a lack of citizen and political action. But that’s where we are and it hurts today. Just saying.