WASHINGTON July 29, 1996- I stand here today, on behalf of the Reform Jewish movement. It is not surprising that a broad coalition of religious groups -- Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, and others -- have raised their voices together in opposition to this welfare legislation. In the Book of Proverbs, we are commanded to "Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy." If there is one central principle of economic justice that dominates the 3000 years of Jewish thought and communal practice, it is this: the moral test of any society is what its economic and social policies do for the most vulnerable of God's children, and above all, the children of God's children. This legislation fails that test. A nation that neglects its children, that allows children to go hungry, homeless, uneducated and unprotected, is a nation that short-changes its future. Unconscionably, the welfare legislation now before Congress would condemn an additional 1.1 million children to suffering and deprivation. We therefore call on Congress to defeat this legislation and the President to veto it if it should pass.
We, all of us here this morning, have gathered to ask a simple question: how can Congress and the President possibly reconcile their support for legislative proposals, which leave more children, more disabled people, more legal immigrants in hunger and poverty, with the clear Biblical mandate to care for the most needy of God's children?
- To the proponents of this legislation, we ask: How can you reconcile at least $28 billion in cuts in vital nutrition programs with the Biblical commandment that we "share our bread with the hungry?"
- To the proponents of this legislation, we ask: How can you reconcile devastating cuts in assistance to legal immigrants with God's commandment to protect the stranger in our midst?
- To the proponents of this legislation, we ask: How can you reconcile the denial of assistance to a child born to a mother on welfare -- a provision thankfully stricken from the Senate bill -- with the Biblical obligation to care for the poor and vulnerable children of our communities?
As we stand here, Congressional conferees are deciding between $28 billion and $31 billion in cuts in the Food Stamps program -- the single most important and effective program to feed the hungry in our country. Is this a "real" choice of how best to provide adequate nutrition to the impoverished of our nation? As we stand here, Congressional conferees are deciding between $25 billion and $30 billion in cuts to vital assistance programs for immigrants -- 95% of which would come from aid to legal immigrants. Is this a "real" choice of how to assist those who have come to our nation legally in search of a better future for themselves and their children? The only choice our elected leaders really have is between two so-called welfare reform bills, both of which would devastate the social safety net that helps protect the most vulnerable members of our society. Neither bill is intended to achieve true reform; rather, both represent the ongoing efforts of many in the 104th Congress to balance the federal budget on the backs of those least able to bear the burden.
Breaking the chains of poverty cannot morally be accomplished by taking the most basic needs from the stranger and the hungry and the child. This legislation is certainly not what our religious charities and synagogues and churches -- with decades of experience doing extraordinary work assisting the poor -- consider welfare "reform." No -- these institutions will be crippled by such far-reaching cuts. Already, overloaded and under-funded, they cannot be expected to fill the vacuum created by these massive cutbacks in government services.
In the Book of Exodus, God tells us that the cries of the poor are heard: "I will pay heed for I am compassionate." As we are made in God's image, so we too must have compassion -- compassion for the children, the elderly, the immigrant -- whose cries echo in our midst. Together, we must work towards the day when welfare "reforms" ensure a guarantee of child care, job training, health care, and nutrition assistance to help move people out of poverty and into long-term self-sufficiency. Only then will the cries of the poor be silenced; only then will we be free of our moral obligation to share God's wealth with those of God's children who are less fortunate than we.
--Statement of Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, on Behalf of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis
National Press Club, July 29, 1996
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis representing 1.5 million Reform Jews and 1,800 Reform rabbis in 850 congregations throughout North America.