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Food Banks Were Meant to be Temporary. So Why Are They Growing?

11/12/2014 12:19 EST | Updated 01/12/2015 05:59 EST

The recent Hunger Count by Food Banks Canada is now a week old, but with the way things are digressing it might very well be next year's news, and that of the year after, and the year after.

This is one of the reasons why The Economist reversed its judgment of a decade ago and now labels us as, "Uncool Canada (The Moose Loses Its Shades)." Any nation, or its people, that continues to tolerate the proliferation of food banks in a world of financial abundance has clearly lost its appeal to the better angels of our nature. We've all known for some time now that democracy and economics seem to be veering off on different courses. The wealth that so easily flows around the globe isn't settling on middle-class families and the fate of those on the financial margins now appears permanently precarious.

Increasingly a consensus is growing that financial inequality forms one of the great dangers of our modern era. It's tough to believe in the progress that's supposedly being achieved when more and more people are being cast off into a perpetual kind of societal backwater.

The real news in the recent Hunger Count 2014 report is not that 841,191 people came to food banks for help in one month -- a number 25 per cent higher than in 2008. Nor is it the realization that close to 40 per cent of food bank recipients are children. No, the overarching narrative is how the presence of food banks in most communities has come to represent the failure of imagination for a country and its citizens. Thirty-five years ago the consensus was that food banks would be temporary; the fact we weren't able to bring that off in a world of opulence says something about us. Everyone says it's a shame, enough so that there appears to be a clear consensus. If so, then where's the plan?

With over a million Canadians out of work, is it seriously going to help when the federal government has squeezed employment insurance benefits to such a degree that only 37 per cent qualify for such benefits today?

Entire programs have been cut in recent years that once provided access for at risk families and individuals to fight for a better life. The Court Challenges Program, the Law Commission of Canada, the closing of numerous regional offices for the Status of Women Canada - these had a direct impact on the country, not merely for struggling families and women at risk, but for the ability of policymakers to get their heads around the growing problem of poverty and financial insecurity. It's bad enough at present that the federal government refuses to provide a comprehensive list of all those programs that have been severely cut or eliminated altogether.

And while the prevailing politics boasts of some kind of financial recovery, virtually nothing is broached about the 30,000 Canadians that are homeless every single day. The waits times for singles and families for social housing is now measured in years, not months.

The list of such shortfalls goes on and on at the same time that government spokespersons purposefully confuse the situation by claiming their social investment measures are sufficient. This is simply not true, as any municipality, social agency, university research department, or people personally struggling in poverty will urgently attest.

Upon becoming president, Franklin Roosevelt opted to tell the truth to Americans when he said, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." A few months later, his wife, Eleanor, added to her husband's challenge: "It will be better for everybody when it gets better for everybody." To a country struggling through the clutches of poverty, such an open and truthful assessment from those responsible for leading the country introduced the possibility of hope and opportunity to a people that had been hearing nothing but the opposite for decades.

And so it comes down to this: political leadership as we know it has to change. There is no other way to put it. A nation's wealth means little if growing segments of its population can't acquire it. When are we going to start assessing wealth the way our parents and grandparents did, as an investment in fairness instead of a fast track to opulence for some?

The great philosopher Epictetus knew something about poverty, having endured slavery for years before gaining notoriety. He watched a Mediterranean world growing every more divided between the rich and the poor. It wasn't the presence of poverty that concerned him as much as it growth. He put pen to papyrus and finally concluded: "Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants." Canada has forgotten this important distinction and lost its coolness in the process.

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