The Poor Are With Us, But Are We With the Poor?

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published February 20, 2008, issue of February 22, 2008.
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Different interpretations abound, but unexplained, there could hardly be a greater contrast than that between two sentences, one from the New Testament (Matthew 26:11), “The poor you will always have with you,” the other from Deuteronomy (15:4), “There will not be any poor among you.”

Odds are that most people would accept the first of these as a sensible observation, the second as a reasonable goal. After all, our nation waged a war on poverty during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, and in the popular perception, we lost that war — the last concerted effort to do more than ameliorate the consequences of poverty, to attack the problem at its core.

Never mind that some of the programs created during the whirlwind of activity that Johnson hoped would, together with the new civil rights laws, be the hallmark of his tenure, continue to this day — Headstart, for one — and have made an immense difference in the lives of millions of our fellow citizens. These days, days of foreclosures and imminent recession, the persistence of poverty is inescapable.

Talk about our failure to invest adequately in America’s infrastructure: Is there a more important ingredient of that infrastructure than our human capital, our people — their health, their educational opportunity, their sense of dignity?

So to say “there will not be any poor among you” seems to be of a piece with saying “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, neither shall they learn war anymore,” this as world arms manufacturing and sales go up each year and as both the study of war and its practice expand beyond belief. Even as a goal, let alone as a prediction, the ending of poverty seems a futile pursuit. And if that is so for the United States, how much more so it is true of the world.

There was a time in American history when Jews were, and were widely perceived to be, devoted to the eradication of poverty. From the time of Sam Gompers (the first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor, which grew from 50,000 members at its founding in 1886 to more than 3 million by the time Gompers died in 1924) and Sidney Hillman (president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America from 1914 to 1946), and then David Dubinsky (president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union from 1932 to 1966), Jews helped shape the American labor movement. In the legal profession, among progressive economists and social scientists, among volunteers in the civil rights movement and in the anti-Vietnam war movement, they played key roles.

Lately, it has become fashionable to regard those as “the good old days,” to suggest that at long last our prosperity has caught up with us, that we have abandoned our historic concern and tradition, that we have finally become not merely rich but also comfortable. And some of us have. But the growing evidence strongly suggests that the obituary for the Jewish passion for justice is wildly premature; it appears that Jewish activism is on the rise, not on the decline.

The list of local Jewish organizations that have moved boldly on such issues as healthcare and workers’ rights is long and growing longer. So, too, the list of Jewish foundations that have chosen to focus their philanthropy on poverty.

Nationally, American Jewish World Service, the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, Jewish Funds for Justice and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and others, too, are visible and vital advocates and organizers. Their vitality can be measured by their aggregate budget — for just these four, more than $40 million last year — or by their activities.

This week, as the JCPA annual convention meets in Atlanta, this 64-year-old umbrella organization, which includes 14 national and 125 local agencies, warrants special attention — not principally because of its meeting, but because of its new and ongoing initiative, “There Shall Be No Needy Among You.” There are those in the community who think it is no business of Jews, as Jews, to engage in the kind of advocacy and action that JCPA endorses and urges upon its member organizations.

That evidently has not deterred JCPA. Specifically, it has already issued, both on its own and in coalition with other faith-based communities, a stinging critique of President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2009 budget, arguing persuasively that the federal budget is not only about fiscal policies but about moral priorities and that the president’s proposal is, viewed as a moral document, sub-prime.

Resolutions and statements, no matter how elaborate or eloquent, are only pledges; they are not programs. What distinguishes the JCPA effort is its approach to getting “buy-in” from local communities.

Instead of the typical top-down dissemination of recommendations, JCPA has created what it calls “issue clusters,” including working groups on hunger and food insecurity, affordable housing, health care, education and public health. Local communities (typically coordinated by their own Jewish Community Relations Council) can choose to focus their work on any or all of these, and can turn to JCPA for both substantive and programmatic help. This comes as close to a national grassroots effort as we’ve seen in some time, and is a significant refutation of the idea that America’s Jews are drop-outs in the ongoing struggle for social justice.

Maybe the poor will nonetheless always be with us. Maybe those who translate Deuteronomy 15:4 to read, “there should be no poor among you” — that is, as a challenge — rather than as the predictive “there will be no poor among you” have it right. Either way, the struggle persists. It is, in the end, a struggle for human dignity — the dignity of the poor, but our own dignity and that of our tradition as well.

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