Loaves and Fishes

We attend a small Catholic church where the pastor is one of those rare people who can hold your attention during the homily because he has given serious thought to the subject matter and its relationship to the Gospels and the teachings of the Church. Not all priests have that gift and particularly not the one who substituted for our pastor who was away on vacation.

The Gospel this week was from John (John 6:1-14). It was the telling of the story of how Jesus fed the multitudes with but two fish and five loaves of bread and that, at the end, the crowds filled twelve baskets with the leftovers:

“Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

“When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

“Philip answered him, ‘It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!’”

“Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, ‘Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?’

“Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

“When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

“After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’”

It was but one of the miracles performed by Jesus and recorded faithfully by the four Gospel writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

This priest began his homily by noting that there is hunger in America, that children are starving and that adults are without food. He noted that America produces more food than it consumes and that America produces so much food that we export much of it to other nations. With those two simple statements he then concluded that hunger in America is “political.’ (I am never quite sure what someone means when they refer to a complex problem as “political” but its use is usually limited to dullards and those on the left who cannot be bothered with facts, data and logic.)

The priest then enlarged on his concept of “political” by suggesting that the anonymous and ominous “they” have decided that certain people are not entitled to food. He then went on to suggest that the miracle of the “loaves and fishes” was really just a recognition by the multitudes of the joy of sharing and that the “miracle of the loaves and fishes” was nothing more than supplies that the multitudes had brought with them albeit now shared amongst them. Thus a miracle by Jesus is reduced to an early experiment in socialism and redistribution of wealth. He thus concluded that hunger in America exists because we just don’t share enough – his vernacular for paying more taxes for purpose of redistribution.

The causes of hunger in America vary from victim to victim. While there are probably not as many causes as there are victims suffice it to say that none of those causes stem from an anonymous and ominous “they” targeting groups of people that will be denied food. And it does not stem from a lack of sharing or generosity on the part of the American people. The American people have spent nearly $22 Trillion over the last fifty years on the War on Poverty (much of it on food and shelter) without making the slightest dent in the ratio of those living in poverty or those going hungry. There are ninety-two federal programs designed to benefit the poor including seventeen different food-aid programs. There are easily that many state programs and more than both of them combined are available from religious and charitable foundations and programs. There are so many government programs that they are stumbling over each other.

The stubborn problems of poverty and hunger continue not from a lack of trying, not from a lack of spending, and not from a lack of caring. The problems continue for other reasons, including bureaucratic incompetence.

JR Edwards in the Journal of Libertarian Studies in 2007 in an article entitled “The Costs of Public Income Redistribution and Private Charity” noted:

“[Government] income redistribution agencies are estimated to absorb about two-thirds of each dollar budgeted to them in overhead costs, and in some cases as much as three-quarters of each dollar. Using government data, Robert L. Woodson (1989, p. 63) calculated that, on average, 70 cents of each dollar budgeted for government assistance goes not to the poor, but to the members of the welfare bureaucracy and others serving the poor. Michael Tanner (1996, p. 136 n. 18) cites regional studies supporting this 70/30 split.

“In contrast, administrative and other operating costs in private charities absorb, on average, only one-third or less of each dollar donated, leaving the other two-thirds (or more) to be delivered to recipients. Charity Navigator, www.charitynavigator.org the newest of several private sector organizations that rate charities by various criteria and supply that information to the public on their web sites, found that, as of 2004, 70 percent of charities they rated spent at least 75 percent of their budgets on the programs and services they exist to provide, and 90 percent spent at least 65 percent. The median administrative expense among all charities in their sample was only 10.3 percent.”

This study would suggest that a program that gave a dollar for dollar tax credit to private charities and churches for poverty programs would actually double the amount of funds made available to the victims of poverty. Like most federal programs, government welfare programs enrich the public employees much more than the intended beneficiaries – a fact not lost on the public employees unions and their support for the lords of the welfare state – the Democrats in charge.

The varied causes of poverty and hunger include mental, physical and age impairments, family obligations (caring for the young and old), lack of education, lack of job availability (not so much currently), lack of motivation (welfare is easier than work), drug and alcohol abuse, and stubbornness. Look, I don’t know what the solution is and neither do you. There is not a universal cause and, therefore, there is not a universal cure despite the liberal/progressive insistence that spending more is the solution. What we do know is that what we have done for the past fifty years has not reduced poverty or hunger in America – at best it has held the problem in check and at worst has simply rewarded public employees unions and their members with lifetime employment from which the Democrats-in-charge can extract political contributions at taxpayer expense.

But there is tangible evidence about some improvements that can be made.

1. Welfare recipients fit into two broad classes – those who suffer impairments (physical, mental and age related) and those who suffer remedial barriers – drugs, alcohol, lack of motivation, and lack of education, With regard to the former we should recognize our societal obligation to care for them and focus our attention on an efficient means of delivery. The goal should be to mirror the private sector welfare providers by reducing administrative costs to not more than twenty percent of the total budget. Outsourcing to the private sector can be a part of that solution.

2. With regard to the latter group the focus should be on removing the barriers – alcohol and drug treatment, post-treatment addiction counseling, and educational alternatives – we need to stop telling everyone that they need a college degree and start supporting training in all sorts of critical needs jobs – electricians, plumbers, welders, mechanics, software programmers, sales forces, and on and on. (A college education provides a wider view of the world but often provides little assistance in pursuit of highly compensated careers – when you were handed your college degree in humanities did you aspire to be a lumber broker, a real estate agent, or a software programmer? A brief stint in anyone of these highly lucrative careers would remind you that your college degree provided virtually no assistance in transacting the career requirement.)

3. While some would like to point to a higher incident of poverty and hunger in certain racial or ethnic groups as a means to denigrate those groups, there is probably a higher corollary of poverty and hunger based upon how deeply the welfare advocates have embedded themselves into certain socio-economic groups. When you are seeing second, third and fourth generations accepting the welfare state as a way of life, you know you have failed. The focus of welfare professionals should be on moving recipients from welfare to work, not on perpetuating poverty as a means to ensure the welfare worker’s employment security or their union’s raison d’être.

4. And finally there needs to be tough love. At a point in time when we have done our best to remove barriers, provide opportunities and eliminate incentives for indolence, continued self-destructive behavior should be allowed to take its inevitable course. If you insist on using drugs and alcohol to excess you will die. If you insist on refusing to work when you are capable, you will starve. If you insist on refusing to use available shelter you will die from exposure.

Despite the “don’t worry, be happy” beliefs of the liberal/progressives, life is hard and it is even harder if you will not help yourself. And the inane views of those looking for a simple solution are not helpful – even if he is a priest. They serve only to promote class envy, divisiveness and intolerance.