In the context of over a decade of significant economic setbacks, including the Great Recession (December 2007-June 2009), there are too many Americans struggling against poverty. While we have seen some positive changes in the economy – such as lower unemployment – the Economic Policy Institute estimates that it will take at least until 2016 before the economy looks like how it did before the recession.
Support systems for the economically vulnerable
45.3 million people currently live in poverty in the United States and do not have a clear path out. American households are struggling more now than ever before. According to 2013 data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), over 49 million Americans lived in a household that faced difficulty affording enough food in 2013. 15.8 million children struggled with food insecurity issues in 2013. Additionally, 50% of U.S children will receive SNAP benefits to help them fight against hunger at some point before they reach the age of 20. A report from the US Conference of Mayors found that in 2014, 71 percent of cities surveyed saw an increase in requests for emergency assistance. However, there were not enough resources available to accommodate everyone– 82 percent of the cities surveyed reported that food pantries and emergency kitchens had to cut the amount of food distributed during every visit, and 77 percent said that food assistance providers reduced the number of monthly visits allowed.
Housing and homelessness
Homelessness is also a challenge with the U.S Conference of Mayors study, showing a 3% increase in the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness., The number of children experiencing homelessness has also reached a record high, with 2.5 million children in the United States going to sleep without a home each night. On any given night there are approximately 250,000 people on the streets and 3.5 million people experience homelessness over the course of a year. Many who are homeless work in full or part time jobs: a tumultuous economy makes it even more challenging for Americans to have a home to call their own. Even if they are employed, it is challenging for many American workers to earn enough money to have their own home.
Wages and labor rights
Part of the challenge in fighting hunger and homelessness is the insufficient federal minimum wage. As housing prices continue to rise and incomes do not increase, the gap between the minimum wage and housing costs continues to grow. Across the United States, full-time minimum wage workers cannot afford to pay the fair market cost of rent. The average minimum wage worker in the United States must work 2.6 full-time jobs on average to avoid paying more than 30% of their income on rent. Additionally the average worker would have to make $18.92 an hour to be able to afford renting a two-bedroom apartment, more than the current federal minimum wage. Despite increased need for assistance as housing costs have risen over the past decade, funding for federal programs that provide housing assistance for low-income people is constantly under attack.
In no states can a minimum wage worker afford a two-bedroom apartment working a 40 hour week. Raising the minimum wage would also help improve the economy, by increasing productivity, reducing turnover, saving on recruiting/training costs, reducing absenteeism, and lifting 2 million Americans out of poverty.
Workers have fundamental rights to have fair, safe, and healthy workplace environments; our Jewish tradition teaches that “you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer” and we need to make sure to live by that example (Deuteronomy 24:14).
Jewish values and policy approaches
Jewish tradition details for us one of the world’s earliest social welfare systems. We are taught to leave the corners of our fields and the gleanings of our harvest to the poor (Leviticus 19:9), and to open our hands and lend to people whatever it is they need (Deuteronomy 7-11). We learn that helping fellow human beings in need, tzedakah, is not simply a matter of charity, but of responsibility, righteousness, and justice. The Bible does not merely command us to give to the poor, but to advocate on their behalf. We are told in Proverbs 31:9, to “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.”
There are avenues available to help those in need. We can advocate to support child nutrition programs, fund housing for low income families, raise the minimum wage, and to support paid sick days for working families. Our government can help make a difference in creating and supporting programs that can truly help the American people. Contact Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Melanie Fineman and explore the RAC's economic justice issue page to learn more about what you can do to combat economic inequality and fight for economic justice.