Spotlight Exclusives

Poverty Is Not to Be Tolerated, by Rabbi Steve Gutow, Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs

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We are facing a tremendous outrage in America and our moral and religiousfibers are being tested. There are, as I write, 37 million Americans who liveat or below the poverty level; 36 million at or near hunger, many of them youngpeople; and 46 million without health insurance. The religious communities ofthis country have not been silent but they have not been shouting either. Whenpeople look for food in trashcans and cannot find any; when the elderly cannotafford the rental payments on homes that few of us would wish to live in; when parents mustchoose between paying for a doctor۪s visit for a sick child and putting food onthe table; Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, it does notmatter, all must rise up and say that this is not acceptablein America.۪

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA),co-chairing with CatholicCharities and partnering over 20 national faith-basedorganizations, has undertaken a campaign to organize faithcommunities to eradicate poverty in this wealthy nation.From September 10-16, Muslims, Christians, Jews and other interfaith partnersin nearly 100 communities in 36 states across the country will participate inan initiative entitled, “Fighting Poverty with Faith: A Week of Action.” Duringthis week, people of faith will ask local, state and national elected officialsand candidates what they plan to do in their first 100 days in office toaddress poverty in America.

The JCPA۪s engagement is based on Chapter15 of Deuteronomy, which offers a rather conundrum-like mandate onthe eternal war against poverty. In an enigmatic turn of phrase, the Torah teaches firstthat there is no justification or moral acceptance of poverty. Verse 4 statesunambiguously as a command directly from God: “There shall be no needy amongyou.” Then, the Torah suddenly says in verse 11 of chapter 15 in whatseems like a reversal of the whole enterprise, the poor will nevercease to be in the land”. The verseseems to be asking that we do something that it knows cannot be done, that wedo our part to alleviate that which cannot be fully alleviated.

While the verses initially appear contradictory, after closerexamination, they reflect a path for each of us. There must not be poverty butthere always will be. We never get to relax. The Jewish tradition insists that weopen our homes to the poor; that we give gifts to those who are hungry; that weleave gleanings in our fields; that we offer a percentage of our crop or ourincome to those who are poor.

All the faith organizations thathave endorsed “Fighting Poverty with Faith” can find similar demands in theirscriptures to care for the poor and vulnerable and to work to ensure that thereare no needy in our midst. We are thus united by a belief that ifpoverty-reduction istruly to be a priority, it must be confronted with a clear plan and set ofgoals early on in the new administration. Religious communities across thecountry have historically provided direct services such as food, shelter,counseling and job training to the needy among us. However, we also recognizethat without national poverty-reduction goals powered by a citizen movement, wecannot strive towards G-d۪s mandate.

The battle to end poverty requires work in the publicsquare and partnerships with government and civil society. In a universe inwhich millions of people suffer, individual acts of generosity are critical,but will ultimately not even scratch the surface of the problem. Poor people inAmericarequire government resources and legislation if the Biblical command is goingto have any chance of being fulfilled. To do our part we must jump into thepublic debate and demand Food Stamps and welfare not be diminished. We mustinsist that we champion economic policies that promote a shared prosperity andhealthcare policies that ensure every family has access to a family doctor; wecannot rationally imagine that we are responding to the Deuteronomy۪s commandif we do not have the energy and the wisdom enter the political process and do whatwe can to make a difference.

Theweek of action September 10-16 is just the beginning. “Fighting Poverty withFaith” is a launching pad for a broader effort to create faith coalitionsacross the country, which will be ready to respond rapidly to legislativedevelopments in a new administration and hold elected officials accountable tothe goals they articulated during the week of action.

For example, in Nashville,several faith organizations are partneringwith governmental and nonprofit agencies to conduct a community-wide PovertySymposium, which will result in action teams being formed to develop acommunity commitment to poverty reduction.

In San Francisco, an interfaith coalition isliving on the average food stamp benefit for one week to draw attention to theimpact of rising food costs on low-income families۪ budgets and to call forcongressional action in the form of a second stimulus package.

In St. Louis,an interfaith candidate forum on poverty will be held where constituents willquestion gubernatorial hopefuls about their plans to reduce poverty in Missouri, and in Rhode Island, a new interfaith anti-poverty coalition willbe launched to combat cuts made to human services in the state budget. 

Across the country, candidatepledges are being collected, letters to elected officials are being written,cans of food are being donated, and interfaith anti-poverty coalitions arebeing born as a result of the week of action, and in anticipation of the longfight ahead to ensure that there be no needy among us.

Ourefforts are powered by the knowledge that poverty in Americais solvable if we have political leadership powered by acitizen movement. Poverty is not an issue for any one political party; it is amoral issue and if we are serious about addressing poverty in this country, weneed all candidates to be clear about setting poverty-reduction goals. We mustalso show them that we are both mobilized to hold them accountable to thosegoals and committed to helping them achieve them.

“There Shall Be No Needy Among You.” The command is clear and sois the world۪s reality. The Bible understands that reality just as determinedlyas it rejects our right to live in acceptance of it. There can be no poverty inthe world and yet there always will be. The verses in Deuteronomy make itclear. Our duty is to respond and respond and respond and the JCPA and itspartners in the faith community are doing their best to fulfill ourresponsibility.

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