The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
Sponsored by the Biennial Resolutions Committee
This Biennial convenes in Washington, D.C., at a crossroads in American history. There is a great debate today on what priority to give to our concern for those suffering from, or most vulnerable to, economic distress, including the poor, the elderly, the weak, the ill, the child and the immigrant. At the core of this debate are questions of the proper role of government, of the public sector, in addressing these urgent concerns and providing services to these members of our society, and of using communal resources, including taxation, to underwrite the costs of social safety net programs.
The United States confronts two urgent problems now: the immediate dilemma of increasing poverty, unemployment and income inequality and the more long-term dilemma of massive deficits that threaten to undermine our economic growth and fiscal strength. The challenge is how to address both of these problems in responsible and effective ways. There are those who argue that acting now to reduce unemployment and poverty is critical, even if it maintains or adds to U.S. deficits in the short term; others say that without prioritizing deficit reduction, we will weaken the economy overall and constrain our ability to address any future problems of poverty and unemployment.
In the Jewish tradition, there is no more urgent moral command than the demand for economic justice as a founding principle of society – to protect and uplift the poor and the weak, to reach out to the stranger and to build a community that strives for a time when “there shall be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4). Accordingly, the institutions of Reform Judaism have, since their inception, demanded a broad range of reforms to end child labor, to safeguard the rights of workers, to ensure Social Security for older Americans, to ensure health care for all and to promote economic and social justice. Each of these positions has been rooted in the values of the Jewish tradition and in our understanding of the essential role government plays in building and maintaining a nation that is not only financially prosperous but morally grounded in meeting its responsibilities for the well-being and security of its entire populace. Our view has always been based on the foundational concept that the government is us; it is the way we, as the American people, do what we cannot do as private citizens or through voluntary associations – a government truly of, by and for the people.
We need only look to our Jewish history to see a model of what government can and should do. Through much of Jewish history, first the Jewish commonwealth and then the self-governing communities, served as the public sector entities vested with the authority to impose regulations and collect funds necessary to carry out its functions.
Although personal tzedakah was central to the Jewish response to helping the poor, the public sector also played an indispensable role. By early Talmudic times, the establishment of at least four communal funds, plus the establishment of communal schools for all boys, rich and poor alike, were required in every sizeable community. These funds included the food distribution program, a clothing fund, a burial fund and a communal money fund (Baba Batra 8a). By the Middle Ages onward, these funds had grown into a significant array of social welfare institutions run by, or paid for by, the community. They differed in various communities but ranged from communal food kitchens, to public inns for poor travelers, to public health programs, to funds used for rescuing and resettling captives. (see e.g. Mark Zborowski, Elizabeth Herzog, Life is with People, AA Neuman, Jews in Spain, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, The Way of the Upright: A Jewish View of Economic Justice, Chapter 4.) Since members of the Jewish community were compelled to support these institutions (there were taxation systems in addition to tzedakah, which itself was enforceable by the bet din) (Mishneh Torah, Mattenot Aniyyim 7:10; Solomon ben Adret, Responsa Rashba 3:38) they are analogous in our own time to the modern institutions of government and not to today’s voluntary private charities. Indeed, most economic relations, including landlord-tenant, worker-employer, purchaser-seller and use of the physical environment, were appropriate subjects for communal regulation and not just a matter of private contract law. The caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) attitude of ancient Rome was foreign to the Jewish ethical system. In the Jewish tradition, then, caring for the poor was simultaneously an individual and a communal requirement; a concern for both the private and the public sectors; a matter of voluntary action and communal compelled action.
It should be noted that several crucial components of the tradition align with contemporary conservative political values: the focus on individual responsibility of the poor to act in ways to mitigate their poverty, the strong role of personal charity and the emphasis on local control of communal welfare programs. Further, insofar as setting levels of Jewish tzedakah and taxes: while urging people to pay commensurate to their means so long as they did not endanger their own economic well-being, in its 10% guideline, it is closer to flat tax systems proposed by some today rather than the progressive system that has been the norm in American life. Similarly, economic regulations often were limited when they interfered with an efficient economy e.g. the bypass of the 7 year cancellation of debts through the prosbul (Gittin 36a) and the limitation, imposed by the rule of ona’ah restricting many sales and transaction to 1/6 profit or loss of the fair market value (Baba Metziah 56b).
Although the social welfare community developed by the Jewish rabbinic authorities and described above is not necessarily the only way to further the values of our tradition, the pattern that emerged in Jewish history provides a powerful ethical standard against which the programs of today’s society can be compared and judged in the context of 30 years of nearly constant efforts in the U.S. to reduce significantly the government’s role in ensuring social justice.
We also see that our tradition’s economic justice concerns were directed not only toward those in actual poverty but also toward those who, without some assistance, would be at risk of falling into poverty – akin to today’s beleaguered middle class. Rashi’s commentary on Leviticus 25:35 states, “If your fellow becomes impoverished and his hand (assets) becomes shaky among you, you must support him.” Rashi says: “Do not allow him to decline and fall, it will be difficult to restore him but strengthen him from the time of his weakness.” So too the words of Deuteronomy 15:7, 8: “If however there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that God the Eternal is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” The rabbis remind us that “sufficient for whatever he needs” implies you are commanded to maintain him at the level he is at, using communal resources to neither make him rich nor allow him to fall into poverty (BT Ketubot 67b).
A 2009 CCAR Responsum (5769.3) further illuminates these points when answering the question:
“How does our legal tradition balance (the) conflicting influences” of two general lines of policy: fiscal restraint and “a renewed commitment to the poor?” The responsum states:
“We acknowledge that our texts do not explicitly require governments to adopt any one particular economic policy. We simply hold that significant reductions in social welfare spending are inherently suspect in the view of a tradition that teaches that tzedakah - assistance provided directly to the poor to feed them, clothe them, house them, and help them to find gainful employment - is a mitzvah, a positive religious and ethical duty. This suggests to us that, in general, the political efforts of our Jewish institutions should be directed toward supporting programs of social welfare spending rather than toward eliminating them. We recognize, of course, the value of fiscal restraint; our tradition, too, bids us to be careful not to spend tzedakah funds unwisely and unnecessarily. Yet to the extent that we conclude that a reduction in assistance to the poor will harm them rather than help them, our tradition, which obligates the community to practice tzedakah, would urge us to seek a change in that policy.
The same CCAR Responsum states:
The sources cited thus far speak of tzedakah as an obligation incumbent upon the individual. Yet our texts make it clear that the mitzvah to aid the poor is too important to leave to individual decision. The responsibility for raising and disbursing tzedakah resources rests upon the community, which must maintain the social and political institutions necessary for this purpose.
PAST URJ RESOLUTIONS
These traditional Jewish values, laws and models resonate in 75 years of Union for Reform Judaism resolutions on economic justice:
In our 1981 Resolution on “The Budget and Social Welfare,” we made clear the standard that we expect from our government: “The purpose of society and government is to…ensure the security and rights of the disadvantaged and the weak.”
In our 1995 Resolution on “Our Economic Commitment to America’s Poor,” we again expressed our support for government intervention on behalf of the poor including public housing, health care, and income maintenance assistance programs that have strengthened those struggling with the burdens of poverty. As we said then, and reiterate now, “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.”
In our 2001 Resolution on “General Principles of Responsible U.S. Tax Policy,” we spoke on tax issues directly before us again today by stating clearly that we “oppose any tax policies, including rate cuts, that restrict the government's ability to address urgent needs both in the United States and abroad.” In the same resolution, we recognized the imperative of deficit reduction, while nonetheless prioritizing the need to maintain the social safety net, stating clearly that we “support deficit reduction and efforts toward a balanced budget generally, as long as such efforts do not undermine addressing needs within our communities or compromise the security or economic well-being of our nation.”
In our 2003 Resolution on Combating and Confronting Poverty in the United States, we reaffirmed “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…”
And in addressing our unemployment crisis today, we are guided by the call in our 1965 Resolution on “The Eradication and Amelioration of Poverty” in which we declared our support for government implementing “measures which would assure every man willing and able to work at a wage which makes possible a decent standard of living, and if he should be involuntarily unemployed, of adequate income during this period of unemployment.”
CURRENT ECONOMIC CRISIS AND SOCIAL SAFETY NET CHALLENGES
All of these resolutions apply today as our profound economic travail and political dysfunction pose great moral challenges: 46.2 million Americans living in poverty in 2010, the largest number on record; 22% of all children living in poverty, the highest in nearly two decades; the numbers of the extremely poor (those living below half the official poverty line) reaching the catastrophic level of 20 million Americans for the first time since the Great Depression; the existence of the largest gap ever between the rich and all other Americans; the numbers without health care coverage rising yearly; and the middle class thrust into economic turmoil struggling with unemployment that remains 9% nationally,  and over 7 million housing foreclosures since the crisis began.
At the same time, the safety nets established and administered at the federal, state and local levels are under severe threat from those who propose to solve our fiscal problems in ways that disproportionately burden the poor and the weak, the very ones suffering most.
Over the decades, the social safety net supported by our Movement has supported the lives of many. For example, in 2010, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) kept 5.4 million people – including 3 million children – out of poverty, while food stamps (now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - SNAP) kept nearly 4 million people out of poverty, including 1.7 million children. Many millions more who remain in poverty have greater access to necessities of life because of these programs.
Even as so many Americans are in need of greater support from local, state and federal governments, the annual U.S. deficit (and overall U.S. debt) is growing, having reached $1.3 trillion in Fiscal Year 2011, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Yet, while restructuring, improved efficiencies and eliminating waste and fraud will need to touch every program -- and cuts made where necessary -- priority must be given to protecting the poor and vulnerable. Thus, in December 2010, the bipartisan “Simpson-Bowles National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform” proposed a plan to achieve $4 trillion in deficit reduction, cumulatively over 10 years, while seeking to “protect the truly disadvantaged” by avoiding deep cuts to programs upon which they rely, with the exception of allowing for some cuts to Medicaid. This approach reaffirms a long-standing bipartisan principle dating back to the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings provisions that deficit reduction should not increase poverty or damage social safety net programs. The July 2011 bipartisan “Gang of 6” group in the Senate produced another deficit reduction blueprint that also firmly adhered to this principle.
The problems of hunger, inadequate health care, the high median age of the Jewish community and job loss have touched many of our congregants and our congregations. The poverty rate in the Jewish community is at least 7% with another 14% “economically vulnerable” (i.e. living with so little overall resources that even a temporary loss of a job, accident or illness will draw them below the line). And with managerial employees hit hard by the recession and the average time it takes those who have lost jobs to find new work now reaching nearly a year (45 weeks), all these problems threaten to overtake communal and religious social service providers.
A similar threat comes from the challenges affecting Medicaid. This public health insurance program currently covers 60 million Americans, including low-income families, people with disabilities and the elderly. Medicaid is the largest source of funding for nursing home and community-based care, including facilities that are affiliated with local Jewish federations. The Jewish population is also the fastest aging population, and seven in 10 people living in a nursing home are Medicaid beneficiaries. According to The Jewish Federations of North America, Medicaid represents 60 percent of all public revenues to Jewish Federations and their partner agencies. Cuts to Medicaid would harm the operation of these facilities, negatively affecting many members of the elderly Jewish community.
Medicare, which provides health insurance for 47 million Americans age 65 and older, also faces challenges. Thirteen percent of the federal budget is spent on the program. Growing enrollment, coverage expansions, cost-sharing and the recent expansion of prescription benefits, will continue to strain resources and spending in the coming years. By 2020, the federal government is projected to spend $1 trillion annually on Medicare costs. At the same time, Americans enrolled in Medicare also face growing out-of-pocket costs in the form of high deductibles, co-pays and premiums. Our obligation to the elderly is clear from our texts and our values and the Jewish community is one of the oldest identifiable groups in the nation with a median age several years higher than the national average. Challenges to quality of life for the elderly disproportionately affect our community.
We also see inequities in our tax system. Between 1997 and 2007, the income of the top 1% of the population rose by 275% while the average income of the poorest fifth of the population increased only by 18% -- just one of many manifestations of the growing gap between the wealthiest Americans and the middle and lower classes. One key reason is the loss of progressivity of our tax system. A Congressional Budget Office Report illustrating this gap on a broad range of measures, released in October 2011, notes that between 1979 and 2007, “the composition of federal revenues shifted away from progressive income taxes to less-progressive payroll taxes…” As a result, “the equalizing effect of federal taxes was smaller.”
The struggles with which we contend in the U.S. are not unique. Canada, Europe, and other parts of the globe face variations on our challenges. The leaders of our URJ congregations in Canada and our World Union for Progressive Judaism congregations globally face pressures similar to those that URJ congregants and congregations face in the U.S. Effective U.S. responses to these challenges can both serve as a model for other nations and, due to the size of the economy, can assist in easing the global crisis.
IMPORTANCE OF FAITH COMMUNITY VOICES
Just as we mobilize to address human needs after floods or earthquakes or other natural disasters, our communities now face a disaster of suffering that is invisible to many of us but a moral test for all of us. Communities of faith have historically played a visible and powerful role by responding in times of crisis. Inter-religious cooperation can help make the invisible sufferers visible to the community. Together, our synagogues, churches, temples and mosques can be even more effective in their efforts to provide services to their communities and advocate for economic justice based on their common religious obligations to speak out for the weak, the vulnerable and the economically distressed.
In our 2003 Resolution on “Confronting and Combating Poverty in the United States,” we expressed sentiments that speak to our current challenges and the urgent need for us to raise our voice, noting that “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.”
Therefore, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:
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