Poverty Is Not to Be Tolerated, by Rabbi Steve Gutow, Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs

Commentary: A Jewish Perspective on an Interfaith Campaign

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 in America.’

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 poverty-reduction is 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 America 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.

The 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.

Our 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 responsibility.


Viewpoints in this section solely represent the authors’ opinions and not the opinions of "Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity."