Our war on poverty

Rabbi urges Rhode Islanders to become advocacy soldiers
Rabbi urges Rhode Islanders to become advocacy soldiers

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Andrew Klein of Temple Habonim in Barrington, began his powerful Rosh Hashanah sermon by quoting from President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s State of the Union Address to the 88th Congress, January 8, 1964: “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.  I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.  It will not be a short or an easy struggle, but we shall not rest until that war is won.  The richest nation on earth can afford to win it.  We cannot afford to lose it.”

Under LBJ’s strong leadership, the 88th Congress did manage to pass many of the Great Society Reforms – including the Equal Opportunity Act, Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps (now known as SNAP), as well as civil rights legislation.

Nevertheless, as Rabbi Klein made clear, despite these legislative achievements, we are still a long way from winning our war on poverty – either in our nation at large or here in Rhode Island.  Klein supplied us with an abundance of such discouraging statistics as these: In 2012 “the top 20 percent of Americans earned more than half of all income in the country.  In contrast, the bottom 20 percent of Americans lived on only 2.3 percent of all income.”

Focusing on our own state, 150,000 Rhode Islanders today are living in poverty – 15 percent of our population, 1 out of 7 people.  Even worse, 47,000 of the poverty-stricken in Rhode Island are children – 22 percent, 1 out of 5, the worst child poverty rate in the six New England states!

A recent article in The Providence Journal – headlined “Gap between richest 1%, rest of Americans widest since 1920s” – underscores the depressing increase of income inequality in our country.  The Associated Press reporter, Paul Wiseman, writes, “In 2012 the income of the top 1 percent rose nearly 20 percent compared with a 1 percent increase for the remaining 99 percent.”

In his sermon, Rabbi Klein insisted that as Rhode Islanders, as Jews, we can and we must work to improve the lot of the least fortunate among us.  We need to rededicate ourselves to becoming active soldiers in our nation’s and our state’s war on poverty.  Klein suggested that we should begin “by voicing our outrage to our elected officials.  We can demand legislation that will protect those who are living in poverty.”

He adds, “Laws matter.  Legislation is our way of saying that we care about something as a society.  Changing laws changes people’s lives.”

Our tasks are straight-forward.  We need to back the 2013 Advocacy Platform put forth by The Rhode Island Coalition to Fight Poverty with Faith:  “Every Rhode Islander shall have:  A decent, safe and affordable home; Adequate food and nutrition; Equal access to affordable and quality health care; Equal and quality education for all children; Decent work with adequate income.”

Rabbi Klein pointed out that the coordinated activities leading to the successful passage of a marriage equality act here in Rhode Island could well serve as a template for efforts to move our legislators to address the problem of poverty.  Marriage equality is now law in Rhode Island because “[w]e got support from political advocacy organizations and figured out how to work smarter.  We learned how to approach state senators and convince them to support this basic civil rights legislation.”

What has worked to bring about marriage equality can also work to bring about legislative support for the neediest in our midst.  However, we can succeed in our efforts only if we are willing to put our collective shoulders to the wheel – intensive fundraising, phone banks, face-to-face lobbying with our legislators, letter writing campaigns, whatever it takes.

About 2600 years ago, the Biblical prophet Isaiah, whose words we heard in our synagogues this past Yom Kippur, declared his war on poverty:

“It is (your sacred duty) to share your bread with the hungry, / And to take the wretched poor into your home, / When you see the naked, to cloth him …” (58.7)

As LBJ said back in January, 1964, when he launched his war on poverty, “It will not be a short or an easy struggle.”  As Rhode Island and Massachusetts Jews infused with the spirit of Isaiah, who believe that those of us who have more need to share with those who have less, let us reaffirm our determination to reduce – and, perhaps, one day to eliminate – the plague of poverty in our land of plenty.

James B. Rosenberg (rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org) is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, the Re-form synagogue in Barrington.