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Who Counts? A Census Report That Calls for Economic Justice In The Year To Come

Who Counts? A Census Report That Calls for Economic Justice In The Year To Come

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year, we will think about how we have changed from one year to the next: how we have grown, and we can do differently in the year to come. This evaluative work is also done by the federal government through the United States Census (an official count or survey of the population.)

Earlier this week, the U.S. Census Bureau issued its report on Income and Poverty in the United States for the year 2013. This report presents crucial metrics that can be utilized to evaluate the past year’s policies and ultimately improve current ones for the future. This most recent census report showed some signs of positive development. The U.S’ official poverty rate declined from 15.0% in 2012 to 14.5% in 2013, indicating that there has been some reduction in poverty. The poverty rate for children under the age of 18 declined from 21.8% in 2012 to 19.9% in 2013, making 2013 the first time that the child poverty rate has declined since 2000.

While efforts aiming to reduce poverty have had some success, the change is not statistically significant: 45.3 million people currently live in poverty in the United States and do not have a clear path out. Further, in 2013, 43.8% of the poor population was in “deep poverty,” or 50% below the poverty line.

Despite any economic improvements evident in the census, in the context of over a decade of significant economic setbacks, including the Great Recession (December 2007-June 2009), there are still too many Americans in poverty. It is more difficult for Americans to recover from a recent history of poor economic traditions. From 2000 to 2013, the median white, non-Hispanic household income declined by 5.6%, while the median African American household income declined by 13.8% and the median Hispanic income declined by 8.7%. American households are struggling more now than ever before.

The Census demonstrates the importance of the government fostering a safety net of key programs to helping those who are struggling stay afloat. Unemployment insurance (UI) kept 1.2 million people out of poverty in 2013. This finding further shows why Congress needs to extend UI benefits: this April, the Senate voted to extend UI, and it is time for the House of Representatives to bring this bill up for a vote.  Urge your Representatives to take action on UI now!

Additionally, the results demonstrate that the Social Security payments kept 14.7 million Americans ages 65 and older out of poverty in 2013. Without Social Security, the number of elderly people in poverty would have increased by nearly 350%. Individuals who have worked for their entire lives should not fear being in poverty once they have retired and this census result depicts how Social Security programs kept the elderly afloat in 2013.

Our Jewish tradition encourages us to not be complacent in the face of these economic injustices, but to continue to advocate for programs to lift up those in need. Tzedakah is not simply a matter of charity, but of responsibility, righteousness, and justice. We are told in Proverbs 31:9, to "speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy."

This Rosh Hashanah, we cannot simply reflect on the past year and be complacent with any positive information the report on Income and Poverty in the United States for the year 2013 may offer: we must work to ensure that more progress will be made by the next report, by weighing in on legislation, by showing our support for critical programs, and by advocating in our own communities for positive change.

Published: 9/17/2014

Categories: Social Justice