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Op-Ed: Of Natural and Man-Made Disasters: Hurricanes and Poverty
Sheila’s eyes brimmed with tears as she watched two yellow Penske trucks roll through the grassy weeds leading to the church’s door. “I thought you meant two flat-bed trucks,” she said, incredulous at the volume of supplies delivered by the Jews to her tiny church...

By Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Director, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism

Sheila’s eyes brimmed with tears as she watched two yellow Penske trucks roll through the grassy weeds leading to the church’s door. “I thought you meant two flat-bed trucks,” she said, incredulous at the volume of supplies delivered by the Jews to her tiny church, struggling to meet the needs of hundreds of hurricane evacuees and their host families in her impoverished rural community at the outskirts of Columbia, Mississippi.

Her father-in-law, the pastor, had died a few years earlier; his grave was prominent in the back of the church. The new pastor had left several months ago and no one had heard from him since. Along with Mary, her aging mother-in-law, Sheila tries to keep the church alive to serve the spiritual, and now the nutritional, needs of their flock. Overwhelmed by the mounds of soup, cereal, diapers and toiletries that completely filled the tiny social hall, Sheila promised to share her new-found wealth with other churches in the area facing similar struggles.

One day later, Sheila called the Jacobs’ Ladder phone and sheepishly asked, “Did you mean it when you said you might be able to come by again? Everything you brought is already gone.”

Such is the abject poverty of the region, increasingly burdened by unemployed evacuees swelling their ranks. On “family day” at the Jacobs’ Ladder project run by the Union for Reform Judaism and its Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS, hundreds of poor local families flock to the ‘warehouse run by the Jews’ for desperately needed food and supplies. We saw no relief centers in the area, but partnered with many volunteer groups running similar distribution centers to assist the churches and shelters caring for thousands of displaced evacuees.

I wonder which is worse – that the government seems completely absent from this afflicted region, unable to extend its relief efforts this far, or that this community was so profoundly neglected prior to the crisis. And I wonder what will become of these families after the crisis ends. Will the new construction, the jobs, and the government contracts also pass them by? Will they continue to be left behind and ignored as the nation turns its attention and resources to the lights of Bourbon Street?

In the past few years, the combined effect of unrelenting budget cuts and reckless fiscal policy has caused the number of poor Americans to jump to 37 million people. The number of Americans without health insurance has increased by six million over the past five years, bringing the total number of uninsured to 46 million. All this took place during a period of economic "recovery."

Despite this abysmal profile of America, Congress this month has pledged to cut spending by $35 billion, slashing programs that ameliorate the grueling impact of poverty. Likely “hits” include $10 billion from Medicaid, which provides health coverage to 53 million low-income children, parents, seniors, and people with disabilities; $13 billion from programs including student loans and child nutrition; and $1 billion from child care and unemployment insurance. Additional tax cuts promised by Congress and the Administration would require further decimation of these critical programs for vulnerable populations.
“Stay the course” is not sound advice on a sinking ship. If we remain on our current path and allow these cuts to go forward as part of the current budget reconciliation package, we will have learned nothing from the recent natural and man-made crisis.

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, we must make a renewed, national commitment to addressing poverty in our communities. Once the evacuees are resettled, we must not return to business as usual. Rather, we must lift up the poor along with the newly homeless, raising all to a higher level and narrowing the despicable gap between the rich and poor. This has been a wake-up call. Though people of faith may lead the way, our government leaders must hear our call and step up. We, the people, demand it.

Originally published in The American Jewish World, October 14, 2005



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