Statement by Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, at Religious Leaders Press Conference Condemning U.S. Budget Slashing That Hurts the Poor
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, joined religious leaders on Capitol Hill to ask Congress to resist calls for budget cuts noting, "This morally flawed budget reconciliation package would amount to a higher deficit, crippled social programs, and a tax burden shifting ever further to the poor and middle class."
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Capitol Hill, November 3, 2005 - There is something extraordinary happening in America right now. For the first time in a generation, working families and the poor are returning to the forefront of our national dialogue. In a recent poll from New America Media, Americans listed poverty as their number one concern, even outpacing concerns over Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans remember the dire poverty and profound sense of abandonment faced by many during Hurricane Katrina—poverty that existed before the storm and has not disappeared now that the cameras have gone away—and they want to learn from the tragedy. There is a widespread desire among people of all political and religious backgrounds to engage in sincere efforts to uplift the needy and empower them to change their lives. We should have come here today, religious leaders and policymakers together, to discuss solutions to the scandal of 37 million Americans in poverty in the midst of the wealthiest nation in human history. Instead, we as leaders of the faith community find ourselves in the unwanted position of having to challenge Congress on its failure to deal with this scandal.
Congress has not just failed to deal with poverty anew following Hurricane Katrina; they have been actively targeting the poor and the middle class in the two months since. Katrina has plunged hundreds of thousands into deeper poverty, so that at exactly the time we need to be increasing funding for Food Stamps and Medicaid, programs that proved so helpful to so many of the Hurricane victims, Congress is planning devastating cuts to these vital services.
As we speak, leaders in the House and Senate are planning to cut between $39 and $50 billion from social programs; programs like Student Loans, Medicaid, Food Stamps and Child Support. As reported in newspapers today, from Food Stamps alone the House plans to slash $844 million, cutting off 300,000 Americans from this effective and compassionate program.
Congress ought to remember, the Bible urges us to “Deal thy bread to the hungry,” not “Steal thy bread from the hungry.”
The budget reconciliation package, with its $50 billion dollars in program cuts and its $70 billion dollar tax-cut giveaway, is morally unjustifiable, particularly when one takes into account the $36 billion in additional tax cuts not included in reconciliation.
Some in Congress cite fiscal responsibility as the motivation behind the cuts, and we are sympathetic to the need for sane fiscal policy. But this budget reconciliation is not a solution. Some say that a rising tide lifts all boats. But when you don’t have a boat, a rising tide at best passes you by—or at worst sweeps you away to destruction.
Any claims to fiscal prudence on the part of budget reconciliation’s proponents are undermined by the massive tax cuts proposed alongside the spending reductions. Instead of saving money, the current approach will add another $168 billion to our deficit over the next five years.
And the greater shame is this: budget reconciliation’s spending cuts take aim at those who can least afford them. Rather than cutting pork or trimming tax cuts, Congress has decided to fund still more tax cuts by cutting $14.3 billion in Student Loans. For the sake of more tax cuts, students can expect to pay as much as $5,800 more for college. For the sake of more tax cuts, 300,000 of America’s most needy will be left without food stamps. For the sake of more tax cuts we will fail in our obligation to bring hurricane victims lasting relief, like the Grassley-Baucus Health Care Relief Act. For the sake of more tax cuts, $10 billion will be slashed from Medicaid. For the sake of more tax cuts we ensure the deficit remains high and the burden of paying the debt created by our selfishness is passed to our children and children’s children.
To those that would ask hurricane victims and the disadvantaged to foot the bill for tax cuts, the Iraq war, and the Gulf Coast’s reconstruction, we cite Proverbs’ stern warning: “Do not steal from the weak because he is weak and do not oppress the poor in the gate.”
We in America’s religious communities are listening to the voices of our congregants, and what we have heard is disappointment and bafflement at the actions of elected representatives. Our congregants, who continue to give generously of their time, their money, and their concern, do not see this concern reflected in the priorities of Congress. Members of Reform Jewish Congregations have donated more than $3 million to benefit the victims of natural disaster at home, and 3 million pounds of goods to be distributed to Katrina’s victims. Together, the members of our churches and synagogues donated hundreds of millions of dollars. America’s generosity is astounding, but it is only half the story. There must be a better partnership between the public and private sector if we are to address effectively the poverty that plagues millions. Towards that end, our congregants have also recently written over one thousand letters protesting budget reconciliation’s tax cuts and spending reductions.
We urge Members of Congress to listen to the voices of all Americans. We urge them to listen to those left behind by the natural disasters of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, as well as those left behind by the unnatural disaster of systemic poverty. We urge them to listen to the voiceless; to take seriously the Biblical imperative to “Speak out for those who cannot speak … for the rights of the destitute.” We urge Members of Congress to hear the voices of the faithful throughout the nation, people who believe that morality and social justice have roles to play in budgetary disputes. And we urge them to listen to their constituents, who believe overwhelmingly that poverty is one of our nation’s most urgent problems and that it deserves to be treated as such.
This morally flawed budget reconciliation package would amount to a higher deficit, crippled social programs, and a tax burden shifting ever further to the poor and middle class. This is not what Americans are asking for, and it does not represent the values of our religious traditions.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism , whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews , and the Central Conference of American Rabbis , whose membership includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis.