Heretical Propositions: Toward Democratic Philanthropy (Part Two)

(CONTINUED…  If you missed Part One in this series, you can find it here.)

It is well documented that those countries where the Income Gap between the wealthiest and poorest citizens tend to have a higher degree of crime, incarceration, mental illness, and health problems. Both the United States and Canada have wide gaps between the wealthy and the poor and both have higher incidents of social, economic, and health problems than other nations with smaller more realistic gaps

The growing chasm between rich and poor contributes to isolation, insensitivity, and intolerance. Systems and public institutions are designed and operated by those with power and the large majority of those in charge have higher incomes. Frequently the policies and systems they put into place appear to benefit those with means far more than those without.

quote4In the Province of Alberta and in its capital city, Edmonton, where I live, the economy is quite strong. Many large scale capital development projects are underway. I heard Edmonton alone has about $20 billion in major development lined up over the next several years. That’s $20,000,000,000! At the same time there is a two to three year wait for Edmonton’s public housing. Much, if not most, of that $20 billion in development won’t benefit the poor, the homeless, or the mentally ill and I have a feeling that the hundreds of thousands living pay cheque to pay cheque in Edmonton won’t either.

Despite the various indicators economists and business leaders use to gauge economic progress, our economies locally, provincially, and nationally are not working for the majority of citizens. Celebrations about how many jobs have been created are ipso facto celebrations of reductions in good paying, full time jobs and increases in part-time, low paying jobs (and too often insecure jobs).  Trust me. Those working those jobs are not popping champagne bottles to sip while they dine on macaroni and cheese.

Those that celebrate when the unemployment rate goes down seem to forget or ignore that the unemployment rates for the disabled, single mothers, Aboriginal people, and newcomers are well into double digits. None of those people in those categories are throwing a party when the overall unemployment rate dips a bit. And God help those who become unemployed because current trends suggest that the government won’t.

“At the same time that EI premiums have risen and surpluses in the EI fund have occurred in each year for the past 30 years, EI benefits have become much harder to get for people out of work. How benefits are determined has become increasingly complex and for the last 20 years it has become increasing difficult to receive benefits. Today, far less than half of those who apply receive benefits. ‘Only 38% of unemployed Canadians received EI benefits (i.e. 523,700 beneficiaries out of 1,374,700 unemployed workers)” in March 2013.’”[i]

Not only are the majority of unemployed Canadians not receiving EI benefits, the program itself has been taking in significantly more revenues than it has shared with workers. In fact, it has operated with a surplus each and every year since the mid-1990s. If that doesn’t make you scratch your head vigorously, then perhaps this will. EI premiums are actually a type of regressive tax. Workers will max out on the premiums they are required to pay at around the $47,000 mark. The premium they pay to EI is just over $4,200. That’s a 9% tax on that amount of income for a decreasing chance of receiving benefits.

There was a time not too long ago when the poverty rate and the unemployment rate had a symbiotic relationship. If the latter decreased, the poverty rate decreased and vice versa. Not anymore. That’s because of the steady loss of good paying jobs and the aggressive drive to cut wages to boost the bottom line. This addiction to low wages is one reason why recently we have had such controversy around temporary foreign workers replacing Canadian workers at lower wages.

quote5Everywhere we look, we see the incredible challenges faced by people of low and modest income.  Renters across the country experience a trend in rental increases and food costs that have grown at a far steeper rate than wages. While I understand the complexities of setting a minimum wage that helps workers while not unduly weighing down the economy, I also see how a single mom making minimum wage would have to work one whole day to pay for her bus pass; if she has two school age kids, then it’s about 2 ½ days. As I have reported elsewhere on my blog, the Canadian Payroll Association (CPA) estimates, based on research it does, that 47% of Canadians are living pay cheque to pay cheque. This should cause us to expand our thinking about poverty behind antiquated measures like LICO or even “Double LICO.” The CPA’s findings indicate that there are millions of Canadians who, while not yet living in poverty, are on the edge of losing everything.

This growing economic vulnerability of nearly half the population is not being taken seriously by governments, the private sector, funders, not to mention the population as a whole. While a small percentage of Canadians might point to record profits, large scale capital developments, housing starts, and other long standing economic indicators as cause for confidence in the future of our economy, other indicators such as those mentioned above and the continued and increasing marginalization of the poor, the mentally ill, the disabled, newcomers, and Aboriginal people beg the question, “Whose economy are we talking about?”

Despite my occasional dip in heretical (and sarcastic) waters, I have to say that I do believe in the fundamental goodness of people, no matter what sector they frequent, what job they hold, or how much money they have or don’t have. How to be a good person in a complex world where often there are competing interests, varying perspectives and ideologies, and often seemingly disparate values is, to sound trite, challenging.

In every sector, every organization and every government, there are good people trying to go good things, and it is important to remember that.  While I dislike remarks by private sector pundits who claim non-profit executives like me are inefficient or providing subpar management of their organizations, I need him them and their colleagues as much as I believe they need me and folks like me. Together, we make up community and what is wrong in our communities is something we share, feel, and want to do something about.

Political parties may not see eye to eye and while I do grow weary of the incessant back and forth attacks that tend to be the norm, I also know, as you do, that many of our political leaders (perhaps most?) are interested in the public good and making positive changes in policies and programs; they just disagree on how to get that done.

The challenge – indeed our challenge – is about not being satisfied with our disagreements or content with letting our differences just co-exist. All of us know, don’t we, that governments, business, educational institutions, our health organizations, funders, and non-profit organizations can and should do better? But not do better in our respective sectors. We need to do better together.

I suggest our history has been to focus more on sectorial improvements than on making changes together that improve the lives of people and communities. Yes, of course, we don’t work in isolation, but to what extent do our various sectors truly aim for our collective aspirations for the community as a whole?

Our tendencies to view life in segments fosters positional stances and often we take those stances without all of the information we need and consequently make decisions that will impact many if not everyone. One of the questions we face is to what extent do we believe that the decisions and actions we all take should consider and be influenced by those outside of the specific context or sector we are working within?


I am going to write about the differences between the private sector and the voluntary sector and how general comments by private sector folks that appear to indicate all would be much better if non-profits operated like businesses do.

[i] From the Progressive Economics Forum, retrieved from “” August 16, 2014.


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