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Giving to charity is not enough: How to make a difference this holiday season

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Photo: Steve Rhode/flickr

This op-ed by yours truly was published in The Province. The examples are B.C.-specific, but the message is much broader: donating to charity is not enough, we also have to change the status quo that forces so many people to turn to charity in a rich country like Canada.

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It's December, the season for charitable giving. Wherever you turn you see boxes and bins collecting non-perishable food items for the local food bank or toys for the less fortunate children in our communities.

The cashier asks if you want to add a $2 donation to your purchase. You donate like you did last year. But the problem doesn't seem to go away.

Quite the opposite, the problem is getting bigger every year. Food Banks Canada's recent HungerCount 2014 report shows that the number of people helped by charitable food programs is on the rise even though the economy is improving. In British Columbia, close to 100,000 people relied on a food bank to make ends meet in a typical month this year, a 25 per cent increase since before the Great Recession of 2008 and 4 per cent higher than last year.

With an increasing number of people coming to their doors, food banks need our donations more than ever to meet the immediate needs of our neighbours living in poverty. But the help they are able to provide offers only short-term relief. It's not a solution because it doesn't address the root causes of the hunger and need in our communities.

Food banks themselves know this. You'll find a number of recommendations in their annual HungerCount reports, and none of them is for Canadians to donate more to charity.

Instead, food banks advocate for policy changes to deal with the systemic causes of poverty in a prosperous country like ours, things like federal government investment in affordable housing, programs to address food insecurity in the North, and enhancements to provincial welfare.

These are some of the key planks of what a comprehensive poverty reduction plan for B.C. must include. And they require governments to take a leadership role.

Poverty is not a problem that can be solved by soup kitchens, food banks and Christmas toy drives any more than a leaky roof can be fixed by mopping the puddles off the floor. A government-led, comprehensive poverty reduction plan with an accountability mechanism to ensure that anti-poverty initiatives are sustained, evaluated and modified as needed is what's required.

There is broad support for such a plan from community groups, educators, health professionals and other concerned British Columbians who've joined the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition. But in the absence of leadership from our provincial government -- the only one in Canada to have not committed to a poverty reduction plan -- it's easy to become overwhelmed.

If donating to charity or volunteering in a soup kitchen won't solve the underlying problems, what is a concerned British Columbian to do? The same thing we always do when our current strategy isn't working -- shift gears and do a little more.

This holiday season, I challenge you to do one more thing than you did last year. Just one. But make it something that would help change the status quo.

What could this mean for you?

If you donated to the local food bank, volunteered at a soup kitchen, organized a toy drive, please do it again. But don't stop there.

If you've never written a letter to the Premier, write one. Tell the Premier and your MLA why you're bothered by the extent of poverty in our prosperous country and urge her to show leadership in solving this issue. There is broad community support for a comprehensive poverty reduction plan. Even the Legislature's Committee on Finance and Government Services recommended "a comprehensive poverty reduction plan, and review income assistance rates, the minimum wage, and clawback of child support payments" in its 2015 Budget Consultation report.

If you've written letters before, consider meeting with your MLA in person to talk to them about poverty in your community and urge them to take action. Or donate to an organization that advocates for systemic change. Or volunteer for an advocacy organization. There are many great ones to choose from.

Join the Fight for $15, a campaign to raise the minimum wage; add your voice to the Living Wage Campaign asking large employers and governments to voluntarily pay a living wage; or support community efforts to increase welfare rates for those who are unable to work. Join the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition.

There are many ways you can make a difference. This holiday season choose one you feel comfortable with and help change the conversation about poverty.

Photo: Steve Rhode/flickr

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