We are facing a tremendous outrage in America and our moral and religious
fibers are being tested. There are, as I write, 37 million Americans who live
at or below the poverty level; 36 million at or near hunger, many of them young
people; and 46 million without health insurance. The religious communities of
this country have not been silent but they have not been shouting either. When
people look for food in trashcans and cannot find any; when the elderly cannot
afford the rental payments on homes that few of us would wish to live in; when parents must
choose between paying for a doctor’s visit for a sick child and putting food on
the table; Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, it does not
matter, all must rise up and say that ‘this is not acceptable
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), co-chairing with Catholic
Charities and partnering over 20 national faith-based
organizations, has undertaken a campaign to organize faith
communities to eradicate poverty in this wealthy nation.
From September 10-16, Muslims, Christians, Jews and other interfaith partners
in nearly 100 communities in 36 states across the country will participate in
an initiative entitled, “Fighting Poverty with Faith: A Week of Action.” During
this week, people of faith will ask local, state and national elected officials
and candidates what they plan to do in their first 100 days in office to
address poverty in America.
The JCPA’s engagement is based on Chapter
15 of Deuteronomy, which offers a rather conundrum-like mandate on
the eternal war against poverty. In an enigmatic turn of phrase, the Torah teaches first
that there is no justification or moral acceptance of poverty. Verse 4 states
unambiguously as a command directly from God: “There shall be no needy among
you.” Then, the Torah suddenly says in verse 11 of chapter 15 in what
seems like a reversal of the whole enterprise, “the poor will never
cease to be in the land”. The verse
seems to be asking that we do something that it knows cannot be done, that we
do our part to alleviate that which cannot be fully alleviated.
While the verses initially appear contradictory, after closer
examination, they reflect a path for each of us. There must not be poverty but
there always will be. We never get to relax. The Jewish tradition insists that we
open our homes to the poor; that we give gifts to those who are hungry; that we
leave gleanings in our fields; that we offer a percentage of our crop or our
income to those who are poor.
All the faith organizations that
have endorsed “Fighting Poverty with Faith” can find similar demands in their
scriptures to care for the poor and vulnerable and to work to ensure that there
are no needy in our midst. We are thus united by a belief that if
truly to be a priority, it must be confronted with a clear plan and set of
goals early on in the new administration. Religious communities across the
country have historically provided direct services such as food, shelter,
counseling and job training to the needy among us. However, we also recognize
that without national poverty-reduction goals powered by a citizen movement, we
cannot strive towards G-d’s mandate.
The battle to end poverty requires work in the public
square and partnerships with government and civil society. In a universe in
which millions of people suffer, individual acts of generosity are critical,
but will ultimately not even scratch the surface of the problem. Poor people in
require government resources and legislation if the Biblical command is going
to have any chance of being fulfilled. To do our part we must jump into the
public debate and demand Food Stamps and welfare not be diminished. We must
insist that we champion economic policies that promote a shared prosperity and
healthcare policies that ensure every family has access to a family doctor; we
cannot rationally imagine that we are responding to the Deuteronomy’s command
if we do not have the energy and the wisdom enter the political process and do what
we can to make a difference.
week of action September 10-16 is just the beginning. “Fighting Poverty with
Faith” is a launching pad for a broader effort to create faith coalitions
across the country, which will be ready to respond rapidly to legislative
developments in a new administration and hold elected officials accountable to
the goals they articulated during the week of action.
For example, in Nashville,
several faith organizations are partnering
with governmental and nonprofit agencies to conduct a community-wide Poverty
Symposium, which will result in action teams being formed to develop a
community commitment to poverty reduction.
In San Francisco, an interfaith coalition is
living on the average food stamp benefit for one week to draw attention to the
impact of rising food costs on low-income families’ budgets and to call for
congressional action in the form of a second stimulus package.
In St. Louis,
an interfaith candidate forum on poverty will be held where constituents will
question gubernatorial hopefuls about their plans to reduce poverty in Missouri, and in Rhode
Island, a new interfaith anti-poverty coalition will
be launched to combat cuts made to human services in the state budget.
Across the country, candidate
pledges are being collected, letters to elected officials are being written,
cans of food are being donated, and interfaith anti-poverty coalitions are
being born as a result of the week of action, and in anticipation of the long
fight ahead to ensure that there be no needy among us.
efforts are powered by the knowledge that poverty in America is solvable if we have political leadership powered by a
citizen movement. Poverty is not an issue for any one political party; it is a
moral issue and if we are serious about addressing poverty in this country, we
need all candidates to be clear about setting poverty-reduction goals. We must
also show them that we are both mobilized to hold them accountable to those
goals and committed to helping them achieve them.
“There Shall Be No Needy Among You.” The command is clear and so
is the world’s reality. The Bible understands that reality just as determinedly
as it rejects our right to live in acceptance of it. There can be no poverty in
the world and yet there always will be. The verses in Deuteronomy make it
clear. Our duty is to respond and respond and respond and the JCPA and its
partners in the faith community are doing their best to fulfill our
Viewpoints in this section solely represent the authors’ opinions and not the opinions of "Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity."