Our Economic Commitment to America's Poor


Judaism teaches us that poverty is destructive of human dignity and that helping people in need is a matter of fundamental principle, not an act of charity. From the time of the prophets, we have acted upon principle and adhered to the dictate, "There shall be no needy among you." (Deut. 15:4) Maimonides taught that the highest degree of tzedakah is to enable a person to earn his or her own livelihood.

In the rulings of our sacred texts, and in the implementation of those rulings during the 1,500 years of the self-governing Jewish community, the government or the public sector played a central role in achieving social justice. By Talmudic times, every community was mandated to have schools for rich and poor alike, as well as money, food, dowry, and burial funds to complement private tzedakah. By the Middle Ages, these protections had grown into a broad range of societal programs encompassing, as well, protections for the sick, the elderly, the immigrant, and the stranger.

The Bible explicitly granted protection to the ger -- the so-called stranger, i.e. the non-Jew who chose to live in the Jewish community, abiding by its non-ritual laws but not converting to Judaism (whose legal status was precisely that of the legal immigrant in America today). In the Talmudic mandate of "mipnai darkhei shalom" (for the sake of the paths of peace), the tradition required that non-Jewish minorities in our communities be granted the social welfare benefits that our tradition granted to Jews. The notion of equal treatment by the society for all those in need gave powerful acknowledgement that societies were called by God to be just and that Jewish security was bound up with stability in the societies in which we dwelled; and stability required justice. "The sword enters the world because of justice delayed and justice denied," Pirke Avot warns us.

These values and these concerns resonate with those of the United States that led to the development, since 1933, of a federally guaranteed safety net for the needy. With all their limitations, these social programs have lifted the crushing burdens of hunger, poverty, illness, and illiteracy from the shoulders of scores of millions of Americans.

Over this period, the UAHC has acted upon our ideals by advocating for ch ildren, the poor, the disenfranchised, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and the "stranger among us." We affirmed that the amelioration of poverty for the old, the young, and the sick is a societal obligation not of charity but of justice (1965); we called for full employment programs (1965); for social welfare entitlements (Board of Trustees, 1965) for public housing (Board,1965); for day care, family planning, health and legal services (1971); and for income maintenance assistance programs "wholly or largely financed by the federal government with clear standards of nationwide application to assure equitable treatment and uniform administ ration" to meet the basic needs of: all those who were unable to work b ecause of age and disability; those unable to find work; and those working with an inadequate income. (1971).

In 1973, we urged the Congress to reorder budgetary priorities to improve and enlarge social programs that move the poor forward, and ensure that "social progress will not be lost in the name of economic policies which discriminate against those who are impoverished." And finally in the face of the cuts implemented by President Reagan in 1981, the UAHC opposed cuts in education, job training, food subsidies, preventive medical care, housing assistance to the elderly and disabled, Medicaid, and the Women and Infant Children program; opposed policies that "place an unfair burden on the unemployed, the poor, the near-poor, minorities, and the elderly and children;" and concluded: "It is a pernicious idea that somehow the poor, or public assistance to the poor, is the cause of our economic problems and that solutions at their expense are permissible."

Once again, political circumstances require that we affirm this mandate. The Congress is proposing a variety of legislative measures that, if enacted, would combine to further exacerbate the dire situations daily faced by so many of America's most vulnerable. This new agenda not only proposes large cutbacks in programs that serve the poor, but also would radically change the entire system through which these programs are funded and provided. The effect of these changes would be to abandon the concepts of a guaranteed safety net for these vulnerable segments of our society. The proposed changes and our responses to them involve several interconnecting issues: reforming the welfare system; transferring programs for the poor from entitlements to block grants; balancing the federal budget at the expense of programs that serve the poor; and rewarding work through the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Currently 20 percent of the budget relates to programs for those in need. Forty percent of the proposed cuts would come from those programs. We re cognize the importance of prudent fiscal reforms and welfare reform, but these reforms should not be made on the backs of the most needy.

In the past several weeks, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, and the Congress of National Black Churches all have passed resolutions opposing the welfare and budget proposals emanating from Congress as being too severe in the burdens they impose on the poor.

THEREFORE, in consonance with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations positions adopted in the past, and because of the moral consequences of the proposed changes in the economic structures of our nation, the UAHC resolves to:

  1. Call 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, and calls on the Congress not to pass and the President not to sign legislation that fails to meet this test;
  2. Oppose legislation that would end entitlement status for programs that protect those in need, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Food Stamps, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Medicaid;
  3. Oppose the use of block grants to the states when such grants are 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;
  4. Advocate welfare reform that strengthens families, protects human di gnity, provides job training and opportunities, encourages and rewards work, and builds public/private partnerships to overcome poverty;
  5. Oppose reductions in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), in order to maintain support for those working their way out of poverty;
  6. Support deficit reduction and efforts toward a balanced budget generally, but oppose deficit reductions or tax cuts at the expense of programs that serve the needs of our most uvlnerable populations;
  7. Call upon members of our congregations to work in their states and local communities for policies and programs that meet the needs of these vulnerable populations; and
  8. Call upon our congregations to plan now for expansion of their social service projects to help those left in need as a result of withdrawal of government support.