Confronting and Combatting Poverty in the United States

67th General Assembly
November 2003
Minneapolis, Minnesota


"Our teachers have said: If all the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other, poverty would outweigh them all" (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 31:12). Our prophets have taught: God commands us to "share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into your house" (Isaiah 58:7). And according to Maimonides, the highest degree of charity is to aid a person in need by "offering him a gift or a loan, by entering into partnership with him, or by providing work for him so that he may become self-supporting, without having to ask people for anything. In regard to this, it is written: 'You shall maintain him; whether stranger or sojourner, he shall live beside you' (Leviticus 25:35); that is to say, maintain him so that he may not fall and be in need of help" (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Gifts to the Poor" 10:7).

If our prophets and sages lived today, surely they would be crying out against a nation that allows children to go hungry and families to sleep on the streets. Surely they would cry out against a society that neglects healing the sick, clothing the naked, and feeding the poor as national priorities. We, too, cry out.

The Union for Reform Judaism has long advocated for children, the poor, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and the "stranger among us." In 1965, we affirmed that the amelioration of poverty is a societal obligation not of charity but of justice. We have also called for social welfare entitlement programs (1965) and income maintenance programs wholly or largely financed by the federal government to meet the basic needs of those who are unable to work and those working with inadequate income (1971). In 1981, we opposed policies "that place an unfair burden on the unemployed, the poor, the near-poor, minorities, and the elderly and children." In 1995, we affirmed our economic commitment to America's poor and called upon the United States government to maintain its responsibility to ensure an adequate, federally guaranteed safety net to protect our nation's most vulnerable populations. We also opposed the use of block grants to the states when such grants were used to end entitlement programs or as a means to decrease the obligations of the federal and state governments to the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the disabled. In 2001, we resolved to oppose any tax policies, including rate cuts, that restrict the government's ability to address urgent needs both in the United States and abroad and oppose any tax policies, including rate cuts, that unfairly and inequitably bestow their benefits on the wealthy in our society.

Today, sadly, we must once again reaffirm our commitment to the eradication of poverty. We are deeply troubled by poverty throughout our communities in North America and, indeed, around the world; however, we are particularly concerned about emerging U.S. policy that affects those most vulnerable. The slumping economy, the costs of war and homeland security, and a lack of attention on the national stage make these trying times for low-income families. In the richest country in the world, one in six children lives in poverty and 33 million people are hungry or at risk of hunger. Requests for emergency food assistance and shelter increased an average of 19% during 2002, and 38% of the requests by homeless families went unmet in cities across the United States. In 2001, 32.9 million people in the United States lived below the federal poverty line, while the estimated cost of maintaining a safe and decent standard of living, including food, housing, health care, transportation, child care, and taxes, was almost twice the federal poverty threshold. Almost 30% of working families with one to three children under age twelve did not earn enough to afford these basic necessities. A record 41.2 million people in the United States did not have health insurance in 2001, and health care premiums are increasing dramatically-at about 11% a year, five times the current rate of inflation. As economic stagnation continues, along with the consequent likelihood of greater unemployment, the number of people at risk is likely to grow.

Unfortunately, many proposals from the Administration and Congress would make matters worse and further erode our national commitment to promoting and protecting the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens. Policy proposals and legislation already enacted this year will drastically shrink federal revenues while shifting responsibility for national antipoverty programs to cash-strapped states. Others would make participating in essential antipoverty programs more difficult for low-income families or shift the burden for program implementation to faith-based charities. Such measures are an abdication by the federal government of its responsibility for meeting the needs of poor Americans.

The tax-cut plan passed by Congress in May 2003, along with additional tax-cut proposals currently being discussed, will drastically reduce federal revenues and do little to help poor Americans. The single proposal that might have helped poor Americans, a refundable tax credit for the 12 million children who live in families with income from $10,500 to $26,625, was deleted during last-minute negotiations. The stated cost of the legislation is $350 billion over ten years, but this cost is based on a number of artificial "sunsets," which would phase out tax cuts over the next few years. Some members of Congress have already pledged to extend these sunset provisions. If all tax cuts set to expire were to be extended until 2013, the cost of the tax plan would be $1.1 trillion, plunging our government into ever-larger deficits that will likely inhibit federal investment in both existing and new programs intended to help people move out of poverty.

Legislative proposals designed to reduce "fraud and error" and increase state flexibility may well also have a devastating impact on the poor. The Administration has proposed requiring increased documentation to prevent ineligible students from receiving free and reduced-price school lunches and to prevent low-income families from claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in error. Yet research has demonstrated that requiring complex and hard-to-locate documentation from families with erratic work histories and limited English skills drives away more eligible than ineligible people. The School Lunch Program was created in 1946 as a "measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation's children," and it fed 27.2 million children during the 2001-2002 school year. The EITC, our nation's most successful antipoverty program, lifted 3.9 million people out of poverty in 2001.

Other pending proposals focus on funding entitlement programs by means of capped block grants and shifting responsibility for the administration of federal programs to the states. The Administration has also proposed a radical change in Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), converting them from programs that guarantee basic health care to all eligible individuals to programs with limited federal funding and no guarantee of service. In 2001, Medicaid provided health and long-term care coverage to nearly 44 million low-income Americans, and SCHIP provided coverage to 3.5 million children in families that did not qualify for Medicaid but still could not afford health insurance. A similar approach for devolving responsibility from the federal government to the states is being used with regard to Head Start, which has improved the lives of more than 20 million vulnerable preschoolers, and the Section 8 Housing Voucher program, which helps 1.6 million low-income families pay rent each month. None of those proposed changes provides meaningful protections for the people these programs are designed to serve.

The notion that the states can take up the slack is illusory. States are currently facing a $70 billion budget shortfall, their worst fiscal crisis since World War II. Many states have already cut programs, including child care assistance and Medicaid, that help poor Americans. The tax cut passed in May 2003 will further erode state revenue and could cost states $3 billion over the next two state fiscal years. The ten-year cost to states could be $16 billion or more if the new provisions do not "sunset" and if states do not "decouple" their tax codes from the new federal laws. When the federal government passes tax cuts that reduce revenues and then shirks its responsibilities to the poor by devolving programs to cash-strapped states, it is effectively denying the poor the benefit of those programs.

Nor is privatization of social services through the President's Faith-Based Initiative or related proposals an answer. Our Reform Jewish community has always been in the forefront of efforts to alleviate the anguish of poverty. Much of the social action programming done by our congregations-Habitat for Humanity builds, soup kitchens, Mitzvah Days, partnerships with shelters and local social service agencies-stems from an ongoing commitment to alleviating the challenges of poverty. But we must do more. We must help our congregations to educate members about the causes and consequences of poverty, generate programs to address the needs of local communities, and participate in advocacy at all levels of government to support programs designed to help the poor and lift those in need out of poverty. Examples from across the country include congregations that have fundamentally affected their own neighborhoods by "adopting" entire communities, developing work opportunities and job-training programs for adults, providing educational support to local schools, and starting community development funds. However, none of that can replace a sustained federal effort to eradicate poverty. Congregations and other faith-based or community groups can and do supplement the safety net and efforts to help the poor become self-sufficient, but they do not have the resources to replace the federal government as the primary agent for fulfilling our society's obligations to the poor.

THEREFORE, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

  1. Reaffirm our commitment to helping North America's poor and work toward the eradication of poverty in North America;
  2. Reaffirm our opposition to tax cuts and spending priorities that do not allow our national, state, and local governments to address adequately important national priorities, including the eradication of poverty, or to maintain existing social programs that benefit poor people;
  3. Oppose changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Nutrition programs, Medicaid, the State Children's Health Insurance Program, Head Start, and the Section 8 Housing Voucher program that would harm eligible families or individuals who are poor or shift federal responsibility for these programs to the states;
  4. Support a reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program and the Workforce Investment Act, designed to give families and individuals the skills they need to move out of poverty and into self-sufficiency;
  5. Call on congregations to assess how best to meet the economic needs of their local communities and their congregants who may in be need and to engage in advocacy and action at the local, state, and national levels, designed to address the causes of poverty and spur change;
  6. Encourage congregations to create and fund or seek funding for projects that promote economic self-sufficiency; and
  7. Call on the Commission on Social Action to prepare and disseminate resources to assist congregations in implementing this resolution, including creating a network for sharing ideas, information, and best practices in congregations across North America.