This January the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and United Jewish Communities (UJC) announced a partnership on JEWISH POVERTY month.
Hillel taught "Do not separate yourself from the community." – Pirkei Avot 2:5
"It’s a shonda in our community to be poor . . . people don’t want to self-identify." – Joan Strauss, Director of Programs and Training for the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies
As part of JCPA’s national anti-poverty campaign, “There shall be no needy among you,” the JCPA is partnering with United Jewish Communities (UJC) to provide the information and resources to fulfill this call. Read on to find information on advocacy opportunities, a toolkit of suggested activities and other resources to help you strengthen the connection between direct service and advocacy and enhance and coordinate your anti-poverty activism with other communities across the country.
Poverty in the Jewish Community
While Jews are largely viewed as an affluent minority, we in the organized Jewish community know that this is not a complete picture. In reality, American Jews experience poverty and economic vulnerability at similar rates as their non-Jewish counterparts. According to the United Jewish Communities most recent National Jewish Population Survey, approximately 7 percent of the American Jewish community lives below the federal poverty line and over 14 percent live near the poverty line in homes considered to be economically vulnerable. Data reveals that over 700,000 Jews in America fall into these categories, including 190,000 children. However, due to underreporting, it is probable that these numbers underestimate the true nature of the problem
In the New York metropolitan area alone over 348,000 Jewish people live at or below the Federal Poverty Line, a standard of income adequacy well below the level needed to meet basic needs and achieve self-sufficiency in the New York Metropolitan area. If we use a more realistic measure, such as 150 percent of the federal poverty line, as a benchmark, we would find that 20 percent of all Jews, 44 percent of Jewish Russian-speaking households, and 91 percent of elderly Jewish Russian-speaking community live at poverty-level incomes in New York City. (Learn about the Federal Poverty Line and measuring poverty and Jewish poverty in New York).
In the Jewish community, the poor that come to federated agencies are usually the elderly, refugees and immigrants, single parents, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries, mentally or physically disabled individuals, the working poor, or ordinary people hurt by extraordinary circumstances (i.e. people who generally manage financially but are hit by a catastrophe and do not have the means to absorb the hit).
When assisting the Jewish poor, one must also take into consideration the unique costs of being Jewish including: kosher food, bar/bat mitzvah costs, day school, JCC membership and other social norms that can cause families financial stress or make them feel excluded from the community. Other factors are not unique to the Jewish community: the affordable housing crisis, the collapse of sub-prime mortgages, the rising costs of food and energy, and stagnant wages.
The Jewish community has a long tradition of providing social services to help our fellow Jews in need. Federated agencies provide services such as crisis intervention, emergency financial assistance, domestic violence assistance, employment training, homecare, 202 housing units, and kosher meals on wheels. They run kosher food pantries, offer referrals for Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income benefits, and run counseling/mental health services.
Social services provisions are a critical component of ending poverty, but they alone cannot end Jewish poverty in the United States. As Peter Brest, the Chief Operating Officer at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, related, it has been more difficult for New York City food banks to distribute sufficient food due to shrinking TEFAP funds. In fact, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish poverty has lost one-third of its commodity allocation in the past few years.
At a briefing co-sponsored by JCPA and the National Council of La Raza on Capitol Hill, Brest stated that, “Cuts to the TEFAP program coupled with increasing need have meant that our service providers have a shrinking pie and more and more pieces to be given out. Food banks are grossly oversubscribed, stretched to the breaking point. It is unconscionable that in 2007, in the midst of an economic boom, we are facing these issues.”
We must combine our service with effective advocacy and public-private partnerships, calling for a stronger social safety net, promoting decent work and insisting on opportunity for all.
Connecting Poverty to Tu B’Shevat
Because January holds Tu B’Shevat it provides a timely opportunity to explore the mandate of the Jewish people to share the yield of the land with the poor:
“On Tu B’Shvat, we become conscious of what we eat from the orchards that we have planted. We become conscious of those who do not have the means to acquire proper nourishment, and to those who do not have access to the groves and fields that they have planted, which supply their families and their communities with food and sustenance.”
The origin of Tu B'shevat in the Torah was a time for renewal of our commitment to God and to share the yield of the land with the poor. "Every year, you shall set aside a tenth part of the yield, so that you may learn to revere your God forever." (Deuteronomy 14.22-23). During Tu B’Shevat, it is also common for Diaspora Jews to give money to the Jewish National Fund for tree planting in Israel and to collect money for Ma'ot Peirot - tz'daka for those in need.
Finally, Tu B’Shevat is a time for us to speak out against the degradation of the world G-d created. Many Jews relate the holiday to environmental activism, honoring the Birthday of the Trees by advocating against deforestation, global warming, and irresponsible disposal of hazardous wastes. On December’s poverty campaign call, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Director of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network and General Consultant to the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), asked us to expand our activism on traditional environmental issues to include an emphasis on “environmental justice,” defined as:
“The intersection of environmental and economic justice concerns, in which we focus on the impact of environmental degradation on the health and welfare of the poor and powerless, both across national boundaries and within societies.”
This emphasis is highlighted by the connection between the Hebrew words, “adam” (man/person) and “adamah” (land/earth) and the Jewish mandate to care for both.
January will be a key month for policy issues that relate to Jewish poverty. Although Congress will not pass its FY2009 Budget Resolution until mid-April (the earliest), decisions are already being made about funding priorities. NOW is the time to call members of Congress and let them know that funding for programs that disproportionately impact vulnerable Jewish communities is important to us as we head into the FY2009 budget process. The more calls we generate, the more appropriators will understand that our concerns and priorities should be incorporated into the budget resolution and the appropriations bills that follow.
Please call your elected officials and urge them to support legislation that will help reduce Jewish poverty Below are some joint JCPA-UJC policies and programs you can support:
Toolkit of Activities
Below are suggested service and advocacy activities that your community can engage in to participate in January’s theme of Jewish poverty. Many of these ideas take [und]no money[/und] and [und]very little time[/und] to put together.
o Set up a joint federation/CRC budget and appropriations meeting. Schedule a joint federation-JCRC meeting to discuss points of collaboration and an advocacy strategy on shared priorities for the upcoming year!
o Join an anti-poverty cluster: Starting this spring, JCPA will launch its anti-poverty cluster program. JCRCs will have the opportunity to join working groups on hunger and food insecurity, affordable housing, healthcare and education, allowing communities to set joint priorities and goals, share best practices and resources and coordinate advocacy and programming for maximum effect. JCPA will provide educational opportunities and training on the various issue topics, allowing the clusters to engage in sustained activism, while focusing on the issues that most impact their member communities. Each cluster can elect to “adopt an appropriations bill”, receiving the up-to-date information needed to track and advocate for funding for Jewish communal priorities.
o Join JCPA and UJC for a joint call on advocacy around the 2009 federal budget! (more information to follow)