What does $1,000 get you?

Last week in Toronto, city council spent a great deal of time listening to the difficult stories of people arguing for the value of social services and against higher user fees and service cuts.

One of the funding streams on the chopping block is school nutrition programs. Readers of this blog will know that there is no universal school nutrition program in Canada—families in need rely on a patchwork of offerings.  In a twisted version of the “last in first out” layoff logic, schools that have most recently added these modest snack and breakfast (occasionally lunch) programs to their schedule will be the first to lose them.

After what was no doubt one particularly heart-rending deputation from a school nutrition program coordinator, the mayor’s brother, councillor Doug Ford, handed the woman a cheque for $1,000 for her school.

She was apparently speechless.

I’m not interested in casting aspersions on Ford’s motives. It was a generous, spontaneous gesture.

But what about the 14,000 other children whose programs are getting chopped unceremoniously? Where’s their money? (According to The Toronto Star, the bill would be $380,000.) Is Ford going to cough up for every school that has a story to tell?

My issue is not with the gesture but with the attitude behind it. Ford and his ilk seem to think that government’s job is to clear the snow and repair the roads rather than “meddle” with the health and welfare of children and people struggling on low incomes. Private charity, they say in word and deed, is the place to turn for the latter.

And yet Ford’s own actions reveal starkly the inadequacy and arbitrariness of relying on the vagaries of private donors.  A handful of kids have a snack while thousands of others go hungry (literally in many cases, according to the deputants.)

Of course, people love these stories. Witness the warm fuzzy feelings so many have about the good Samaritans who have been paying off layaway gifts at discount retailers this holiday season. It makes us feel good about the world, especially at this time of year when we’re all looking/hoping for reasons to believe in the better side of humanity.

And while I’d never want to deny how important this is on a psychological level, shouldn’t we be looking upstream on this? Demanding our democratically elected governments—whose job it is to ensure our society functions in all our interests, not just those who benefit from tax cuts—care for those who need help in careful, nonarbitrary and adequate ways?

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