An engineering professor at the University of British Columbia has set a project for his first-year students. He wants them to come up with a design that will prevent people from falling into used clothing donation boxes. Too many of our poor and homeless population are dying to get a warm coat.
According to a January 2 CTV news story , he wants to retrofit the existing bins because removing the 6,000 bins in BC would cost millions. Then there’d be a problem of storing them somewhere, which would just add to the cost. The money would be much better spent on poverty relief.
But the clothing bins themselves were intended as a form of poverty relief. Sort of. They are also a handy way to recycle old clothes that don’t fit you any more. Or have gone out of style. Or you’ve worn once too often. What else can you do with that dress you bought for your cousin’s wedding, then wore it again to the company Christmas dance and never again since?
You’re not the kind of environmentally irresponsible person who’d just throw it into a landfill somewhere, are you? No way. You’d give it to charity by dropping it in a used clothing bin. Then it would find its way into a thrift shop where it could be sold at a reasonable price to a poor woman who couldn’t dream of buying it new. She’ll look stunning wearing it for supper at the soup kitchen. The poverty relief cycle keeps spinning round.
The trouble comes when I decide to jump the queue and get an Aran sweater before it arrives at Value Village. It’s an easy enough task to reach into the bin and pull out one that fits. What could go wrong? Nine times out of ten, nothing. Then suddenly I reach in a bit further and oops, I get stuck and someone has to call 911, and the firefighters have to rush over to pull me out, except I die before they get there and, for me at least, the poverty relief cycle grinds to a halt.
It seems to be happening a lot lately, from Toronto to Vancouver and Cambridge to Calgary. The manufacturers of the bins are looking at ways to reduce the hazards associated with collecting and distributing old clothes. That’s good. A safe donation bin beats a dangerous one every time.
Stopping people from dying in these donation bins is not an engineering problem. You don’t need a stronger spring hinge on the chute or a fail-safe mechanism that snaps shut when a nine-kilo weight leans against the access door. You can’t engineer solutions to social problems.
If I was a student at that UBC engineering school, I’d let the teacher know a solution has already been designed. It’s called a guaranteed annual income (GAI) program. It involves sharing a nation’s wealth so that everyone has the financial resources to pay for rent, food, clothing, and other necessities of life.
If you ever have the nerve to suggest such a thing, you’ll be told it can’t be done. Too expensive. Where will the money come from? The answer is deceptively simple: implement a maximum annual income. Tax all income above a set figure at 70 per cent. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the more progressive young American politicians, sets the level at ten million. I’d peg it at five. That should be enough for any family to live beyond my means.
Finland just had a two year experiment with a GAI and many other countries are getting on board. There are a few different versions of to look at, but they are incredibly difficult to implement. This is because the people with the power to make one happen don’t need it. They already have a very comfortable basic income.
We should find a way to get it done. Overcome the obstacles put up by the wealthy people who don’t need one for themselves and don’t want one for those who do need one.
The best way to prevent people dying in clothing bins is to give them the money to buy new coats for themselves.