Nobody said it better than the Dairy Lane Cafe and the Blue Star Diner in a sunny (literally) little poster announcing that on Canada Day every penny received from sales and tips would be donated to flood relief. The blue banner “We’re All in This Together” epitomized the can-do attitude of Calgarians, indeed all Albertans, who pulled together to assist the victims of the worst flood in Alberta’s history.
Why do people donate?
Economist Lise Versterlund offers two theories of charitable giving: (1) the “public benefit” theory–an altruistic desire to help without wanting anything in return, and (2) the “private benefit” theory which refers to the uniquely personal reasons a person donates such as a need for social recognition or the desire to share one’s good fortune.
Whatever the reason 84% of Albertans made charitable contributions in 2010. And guess what, in times of trouble, people donate even more.
Why do people give more to victims of natural disasters?
Volunteerism and charitable contributions hit all time highs in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Why?
Psychologist Hanna Zageflkast attributes the surge in generosity to the “Just World Belief”. Apparently we have an inherent need to believe that the world is just. If the world is “just” and some people still need charity, then it’s somehow their fault. They’re lazy, they’re alcoholics or drug addicts, they didn’t study hard enough in school, etc.***Yes, this is a simplistic and incomplete explanation because it doesn’t address the root cause of alcoholism, addiction or the inherent inequality of society. Dr Zageflkast doesn’t say she shares the Just World Belief, just that others hold it.
Natural disasters are not part of the “Just World”. They are acts of God (this statement alone could take us off on an interesting tangent). Consequently we attach no blame to a hapless souls caught in the path of an overflowing river. We see them as innocent victims. We perceive them as making more of an effort to help themselves and are prepared to reward them for being proactive.
What happens when the “choice” to donate turns into an “obligation” to fund?
I applaud Premier Redford’s decision to provide relief to all Albertans affected by the flood, but I’m deeply troubled that her promise is unconditional and question her decision not to impose a cap on rebuilding every home damaged or destroyed in the flood.
Here’s why. Disaster sociologist Timothy Haney points out that in the past North American floods destroyed low-income neighbourhoods; middle and high-income neighbourhoods were untouched. Not so in Calgary where affluent neighbourhoods like Elbow Park were flooded along with lower-income neighbourhoods like Bowness and Montgomery.
Mr Haney says that this makes the “dynamics of recovery” markedly different from past floods because “the people most affected will have significant resources at their disposal”.****
I’m sure they do. The tough question is this: Are high-income homeowners prepared to use their own “significant resources” to rebuild their million dollar homes given Ms Redford’s unconditional promise that Albertans’ tax dollars will underwrite the cost of rebuilding?
We’re all in this together…but maybe not to the same degree
The Alberta situation is complicated. There are no provincial regulations in place to prevent new construction in flood risk areas. There is no flood insurance available for people who’ve purchased homes in flood risk areas. The homes in flood risk areas are owned by high, middle and low income homeowners. Given these facts it would be harsh to penalize everyone whose homes have been damaged or lost in the flood. But that doesn’t mean that Alberta taxpayers should fund the reconstruction of a Carrera marble ensuite bathroom in Elbow Park.
In my view Premier Redford’s one-size-fits-all solution works as the foundation for charitable flood relief program, but it’s utterly misguided for a tax based flood relief program.
The government says the reconstruction payments will come from “cash on hand”. This readily available cash was not “on hand” a week ago to maintain, let alone improve, the quality of Alberta’s healthcare and educational services. Presumably it will come from the $3.5 billion contingency fund. In any event it doesn’t matter—it’s all tax dollars.
Given that the $1 to 5 billion reconstruction plan is funded by tax dollars, I as a taxpayer, wish to make the following alternative proposal:
- Reconstruction payments should be capped at the average house price for Calgary, High River, Canmore, or wherever the flood damage occurred. Using the Calgary example, the maximum payout would be $480,000 (the average house price in 2012). Homeowners whose houses were worth more would be expected to make up the balance or downsize their expectations.
- The government should implement, on a going-forward basis, the recommendations in the Groeneveld report which included a ban on disaster recovery payments to homeowners who built new homes in flood risk zones.
- The government should develop a flood insurance scheme similar to the hail insurance program provided pursuant to the Agricultural Financial Services Act so that homeowners who live in flood risk zones will be able to purchase flood insurance as a safeguard against future flood damage.
We’re all in this together is the right motivator for charitable contributions, but when scarce tax resources are being diverted to rebuild the homes of the wealthy it’s every man for himself.
* “Why do People Give?” in Richard Steinberg and Walter W. Powell eds., The Nonprofit Sector, 2nd edition, Yale Press, 2006
**StatsCan Website http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-008-x/2012001/t/11637/tbl04-eng.htm
****Edmonton Journal Online, June 28, 2013