Plenty for all – by Michael Shapcott
Spirited Reflection — Sunday, August 3, 2014
Michael Shapcott is a long-time social justice advocate and a student in the Masters of Theological Studies program at Trinity College, University of Toronto.
Imagine that: Thousands upon thousands of women, men and children share five loaves and two fishes, and all their stomachs are filled. It’s a miracle – actually, the only miracle reported in all four of the Gospels (except for the resurrection, which is in a category all its own).
That’s how most people approach the story of the loaves and fishes in Matthew 14:13-21: Jesus is a mighty miracle-worker, a divine magician, who turns a bit of food into a mighty feast for a multitude.
It’s a wonderful image, but it threatens to obscure an essential truth: Even in a deserted place, the story of the loaves and the fishes reminds us that there is always the possibility of abundance.
There can be plenty for all.
The disciples in the Matthew narrative of the loaves and fishes worried that there were too many people and not enough food, so they suggested everyone be sent off to fend for themselves.
The notion that we’re on our own has been a familiar refrain in recent years. But it wasn’t always the dominant view.
The rise in the 1950s to the 1980 of national programs – housing, health care, income transfers – managed to lift the poorest out of poverty. These programs grew from a sense of collective compassion (the same sense that moved Jesus when he saw the hungry thousands). We also understood that Canada was a rich country with plenty for all.
That sensible set of social programs had a strong impact: Poverty in Canada was cut by a remarkable 40% from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, according to Growing Unequal, a 2008 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
For one brief moment in the mid-1990s, Canada surpassed its OECD colleagues with the lowest poverty rate.
Then the drumbeat of scarcity and austerity began. Canada, we were told, was like that deserted place in Matthew. We were about to hit a fiscal brick wall, and we were told that its everyone for themselves.
By the mid-1990s, the federal government was pushing the panic button. Big cuts were made to income benefits, affordable housing, health care, education and other social initiatives. Those spending cuts started to generate big surpluses for government, which pushed that money into tax cuts.
Canada didn’t suddenly become a poor nation in the mid-1990s. One conventional measure of national wealth – Gross Domestic Product – has risen steadily over the last five decades.
Those 1995 cuts in critical social spending took away resources from lower-income Canadians; and those tax cuts slipped that money in the bank accounts of richer Canadians.
The 2008 OECD report documents the entirely predictable results: In just one decade (from 1995 to 2005), Canada reversed our downward trend in poverty over the previous 30 years with a 33% rise in poverty in just ten years.
Not everyone was a loser. The OCED research concluded: “The rich in Canada are particularly rich compared to their counterparts in other countries.”
It’s almost as if, when the baskets of loaves and fishes were being passed around Canada starting in 1995, the rich were told to dig in with both hands, while the baskets skipped past low, moderate and middle-income Canadians entirely.
In Canada, more than 800,000 hungry people turn to food banks every month. We don’t have a shortage of food. Our stores are full of food.
The problem is not scarcity, but distribution. Lower-income Canadians can’t get the food they need, while richer Canadians celebrate their growing wealth.
Jesus told us that there was plenty for all as the loaves and fishes were distributed. We need to take up that same call in 2014.
Growing inequality and poverty have skewed the resources in Canada to one end of the income spectrum. Practical social programs shift us back to a more equitable – and properly nourished – country.
Don’t panic, Jesus tells us in the story of the loaves and the fishes. There is plenty for all, there is lots of food and everyone will be able to eat their fill.