Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr is reported to have said, now famously:

“I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

Taxes aren’t the only way to pay for civilization, of course: community groups, charities, and churches also contribute. But I consider myself a fairly prudent consumer, and I want my money to be used well.

Even excellent charities are inefficient. Take food banks. We have a distribution system that goes from farms to warehouses to grocery stores. Food banks then set up more warehouses and pick-up sites to get sustenance out to those in need, often food that’s already gone down the first chain. It’s far more efficient to give people the means to use the retail distribution network than to create and have them use an alternate system.

What do fast food worker strikes and a DC living wage ordinance have in common with Hunger Action Month? Unfortunately, not enough. A wave of one-day strikes against fast food restaurants is rolling across the country. On August 29, thousands of workers in more than 50 cities protested their low wages, demanding a raise to $15/hour. In Washington, Mayor Vincent Gray has on his desk the Large Retailer Accountability Act that would raise minimum wage for employees of new Walmart stores to $12.50/hour, up from current average of $8.81 nationally. Walmart has threatened to halt construction on three new stores in the nation’s capital if he signs the bill.

Every anti-hunger advocate will tell you that hunger is a symptom of poverty, and poverty is shaped by unemployment, underemployment, and low wages.

Given that, one would expect that anti-hunger groups would be publicly supporting the fast food workers as well as lobbying Mayor Gray to sign the living wage bill. Increasing the wages of workers in the service and retail industries would put a dramatic dent in the food insecurity rates in the U.S.

Unfortunately, almost no anti-hunger group has stepped forward on either issue. The two notable exceptions are Hunger Action Network of NY State, which has called for an increase to the minimum wage for tipped workers to $10/hour, and Bread for the World, whose President has called for an economic bill of rights.

Food insecurity – when people do not have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life at all time – is a problem for 7.7% of Canadian households. A new report by the Conference Board of Canada recommends that school-based meal programs need to be available in all Canadian schools to counteract this problem. A Globe and Mail article agrees that children should be well-nourished to ensure optimal performance, and explains that more effort is needed to better organize the already existing patchwork of food programs.

School programs can provide tremendous relief for some families, and ease the pangs of hunger that affect a child’s ability to learn in school. But they are not enough. Children’s hunger is a symptom of food insecurity and wider social and economic inequality. We can’t just treat the symptom but need to address the cause of the problem through comprehensive policy changes to reduce income inequality and promote healthier living conditions for all children and their parents.

Dealing with poverty takes up so much mental energy that the poor have less brain power for making decisions and taking steps to overcome their financial difficulties, a study suggests.

The research, published Thursday in the journal Science, concludes that a person’s cognitive abilities can be diminished by such nagging concerns as hanging on to a place to live and having enough money to feed their families.

As a result, there is less “mental bandwidth” left over for education, training, time management and other steps that could help break the cycle of poverty, the researchers contend.

“Previous accounts of poverty have blamed the poor for their personal failings, or an environment that is not conducive to success,” said Jiaying Zhao of the University of British Columbia, who led the study, conducted while she was a graduate student at Princeton University.

“We’re arguing that being poor can impair cognitive functioning, which hinders individuals’ ability to make good decisions and can cause further poverty,” she said.

“People already feel stigmatized and inadequate by having to turn to social assistance. If they then cannot manage on the parsimonious benefits they receive, one can only imagine their feelings of sheer helplessness at having to turn to the food banks.”

So says Graham riches on page 126 of Food Banks and the Welfare Crisis …

By getting caught up in the difficult business of acquiring food and “food” for distribution, we are too damned tired to pursue the necessary action for political change that must happen in order to change the system that’s causing the problem in the first place. From a politician’s point of view, volunteerism is perfect; bad policy can be pursued and no one will yell at him about it.

Doesn’t make it right, though.

Since March, the Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage, a group made up of community organizations across Ontario, has come together to raise the minimum wage to a standard rate of 10 per cent above the poverty line. In 2013 this would be $14 an hour. This important policy issue has aroused passionate public debate and unleashed people’s inner economist.

Arguments against raising the minimum wage have become largely predictable, ranging from fear of job loss, price increases for goods and services, to large-scale economic devastation — all arguments stemming from an austerity or scarcity mindset.

Corporations have been at the forefront of this fear mongering, trying to convince us that, of course, they have the best interests of people at heart.

Charity is failing as a sector largely because it is measured by its ability to become obsolete. I am not referring to any charity or nonprofit in particular, or to charity as the gifting of money/goods/services, but to the mainstream vision of charity as it relates to addressing significant disadvantages within a population. The end game of these charities should be to work towards a point where the populations they serve are no longer disadvantaged. So why is it that so few, if any, charities close down because they “succeeded”?