Language Wars

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."  
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." 
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
quoted from here.

If you live in Canada you probably have heard about the semantic spat brewing between Oxfam Canada and The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).
The Canada Revenue Agency has told a well-known charity that it can no longer try to prevent poverty around the world if it wants to keep its charitable status for tax purposes. It can only alleviate poverty — because preventing poverty might benefit people who are not already poor. ...

Agency officials informed Oxfam that "preventing poverty" was not an acceptable goal.
"Relieving poverty is charitable, but preventing it is not," the group was warned.
"Preventing poverty could mean providing for a class of beneficiaries that are not poor."

Curious? You bet. So curious that all over the internet people have been deriding the notion preventing something is not a charitable activity.

Some people have been proposing that the CRA mastery over language is actually a sign of the agency's deference to its political masters.

Some have asked about the CRA definition of poverty.

"What about diseases?" others point out. Preventing malaria benefits people who are rich as well as people who are poor. It may benefit people who have less access to good medical care more than those who do but it does have benefits for everyone regardless of income level.

All charitable enterprises have ripple effects.

When I went to work in a community-based literacy program that uses volunteer tutors, I was surprised at how much more time I spent with tutors than I did with learners. All tutors get 15-hours of training before they start to tutor and then one-to-one support from program staff as they hone their tutoring skills.

I was also surprised at how many letters of reference I was asked to write for tutors. Often they used these letters to get into school - especially teacher's college - or to get better work. No literacy learner ever asked for a letter of reference for school or employment purposes. The fact that literacy volunteers can use their experience on resumes and applications while literacy learners often feel they must hide their participation in a program made me question who the real beneficiaries of community-based literacy are.

People in the not-for-profit sector often point to the ripple effects to encourage funding from public and private sources.

In our field, people can be heard to say, "When people learn to read and write better, they are more productive at work which benefits employers; make fewer mistakes and cost employers and governments less in health claims; access social services, unemployment benefits and health care systems less and cost governments and tax payers less." They do this because they think that arguing for how literacy education benefits people living in poverty and people who are marginalized in the labour market alone will fall on deaf ears. People in our field have been encouraged to highlight a return on investment when approaching potential funders. Of course this has led to a situation where funders demand to see evidence of that return over how the work is benefiting the people accessing the educational resources - but that is another story.

UPDATE: I think this blog post should end here. A careful reader on Twitter pointed out that I may be confusing registered charities with non-profit organizations and sent me a link to the CRA page that explains the difference

All three think tanks discussed below CAN provide tax receipts for donations and that is why I wrote about them as registered charities. The page linked above tells us that registered charities can have different designations: "a charitable organization, a public foundation, or a private foundation." 

It also explains that 
Examples under the four categories of charity generally include:

  • relief of poverty (food banks, soup kitchens, low-cost housing units)
  • advancement of education (colleges, universities, research institutes)
  • advancement of religion (places of worship, missionary organizations)
  • purposes beneficial to the community (animal shelters, libraries, volunteer fire departments) 
It seems that in comparing the think tanks and Oxfam, I have been comparing oranges and apples - or at least oranges and tangerines. Oxfam may fall into the relief of poverty category and the think tanks into the advancement of education category and members of each group probably have to meet different criteria to maintain charitable status under CRA rules. Or some other aspect of the law that I do not understand.

Thanks to @RyanDeschamps - the careful reader who took the time to help me learn more about this. If anyone knows more, please add a comment below or send me a tweet.
What about other organizations with charitable status? How do they benefit people currently living in poverty as defined by CRA? Let us look at a some oft cited think tanks.

What about the C.D. Howe Institute? This is the organization that prepared the report on the Temporary Foreign Workers program we talked about yesterday? Their mission statement reads:
The C. D. Howe Institute is an independent not-for-profit research institute whose mission is to raise living standards by fostering economically sound public policies. 
Curious. No mention of how this impacts the living standards of people currently living in poverty only.

They go on to say:
It is Canada’s trusted source of essential policy intelligence, distinguished by research that is nonpartisan, evidence-based and subject to definitive expert review. It is considered by many to be Canada’s most influential think tank.
Okay then.

What have they done? Here is what they say on the Policy Impact page:
Institute policy intelligence has laid the intellectual ground for such fundamental achievements as:
  • The development of continental free trade;
  • Ending the unsustainable deficits of the 1970s and 1980s;
  • The development of rigorous inflation targets and tactically effective monetary policy;
  • The reform of the Canadian and Quebec pension plans;
  • Lower and more competitive tax rates; and
  • The development of a key new saving vehicle, the Tax Free Saving Account.
I'll leave it to you to evaluate who might be the beneficiaries of these fundamental achievements.

What about The Fraser Institute?
The Fraser Institute measures and studies the impact of markets and government interventions on the welfare of individuals. ... We are involved in research on a wide range of topics, such as the quality of education, health care, and the overall tax burden of Canadians.
On their donation page they state:
Thank you for helping The Fraser Institute in the pursuit of free choice, competitive markets and less government regulation.
Again, I'll leave it to you to evaluate who might be the beneficiaries of these pursuits but I would posit that it is not only people currently living in poverty.

What about equal time for the lefties:
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is an independent, non-partisan research institute concerned with issues of social, economic and environmental justice. Founded in 1980, the CCPA is one of Canada’s leading progressive voices in public policy debates.
And even curiouser...
The Broadbent Institute is an independent, non-partisan organization championing progressive change through the promotion of democracy, equality, and sustainability and the training of a new generation of leaders. We are proud of Canada’s tradition as a diverse, fair, just, and inclusive society. 
But due to their political work, they are not a registered charity - no tax rebate here.

I think we can all can forgive Canadians if they are confused and stunned by the CRA definition of poverty, prevention and charity.


Papers that matter:

ICYMI, you may find the 1977 paper by Sidney Pratt, Naldi Nomez and Patricio Urzua, Literacy: Charitable Enterprise or Political Right still quite relevant.

This paper was available at Copian.

Write to Jason Kenney to ask for it :)

I have posted it here in the meantime.

1 comment:

Ryan Deschamps said...
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