New JSPAN Economic Justice Policy Statement

Hebrew scripture tells us that the early Jews created one of the world’s first systems of social welfare.  We left part of our harvest to the poor (Leviticus 19:9), and in Talmudic times established tax-financed programs for the ill, needy and young.  Modern Jews stayed true to the tradition by leading the fight for workers’ rights, and not only marching but risking and sacrificing their lives in the battles for civil rights and economic justice. 

Today, the need to right economic wrongs is no less imperative.  More than 43 million Americans live in poverty.  Nearly 44 percent of them are mired in what our government calls “deep poverty” – meaning they are 50 percent below the poverty line. (1)

While recent unemployment numbers are down and poverty rates are down marginally (2), for most Americans the economy has yet to recover from the recession of 2007-09.  The U.S. Census Bureau reports that from 2000 to 2013, median household income for whites declined by 5.6 percent; for African Americans 13.8 percent; and for Hispanics 8.7 percent.

For those of us in the Greater Philadelphia area, the numbers are particularly troubling:

Of the 10 largest cities in the United States, Philadelphia has the highest rate of deep poverty – persons with incomes below half of the federal poverty line.  Philadelphia’s deep poverty rate of 12.9 percent represents approximately 200,000 persons.  In the southeast PA, South Jersey and Delaware counties, another 160,000 persons live in deep poverty.   Along with their counterparts in Philadelphia they are likely to find their situation to be a long-term often inescapable experience of homelessness, poor diets, poor performance in schools, drug addiction, social dysfunction and violence. (3)

A December 2014 study by the Pew Research Center (4) found that in 2013 the median wealth of America’s upper-income families ($639,400) was nearly seven times higher than that of middle-income families ($96,500) – the widest gap in the 30 years that the Federal Reserve has collected these data.  Upper-income families have a median net worth nearly 70 times higher than lower-income families, also the widest in 30 years.  Pew also found that only upper-income families have made wealth gains in these recent decades.

Another 2014 survey by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (5) found that full-time minimum wage workers cannot afford a one-bedroom unit except in a handful of counties in Oregon and Washington State, and that minimum wage workers in Pennsylvania would have to work 96 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom unit.

From 1979 to 2012, according to the Institute for Policy Studies (6), American families with the highest five percent of real income enjoyed a 74.9 percent increase.  Families with the lowest 20 percent saw a decrease of 12.1 percent.  This contrasts with the years 1947 to 1979, when all income groups saw gains and the lowest income group saw the highest percentage gains.

We face no shortage of responsibilities and challenges as Jews and as Americans.  Creating peaceful communities and a peaceful world, fixing our environment, providing our current and next generations with an adequate education, defending civil and religious rights in a democratic society – all of these and others are important challenges by themselves.  But unless our society and our government recognize economic justice as a basic human right, and unless we recognize that investments to move people out of poverty help everyone, we will not achieve the healthy, democratic nation that we want to enjoy for ourselves, our children and their children.

JSPAN supports policies that:

  • Reduce income disparity, including adoption of a living wage;
  • Eliminate the gender pay gap and other gender discrepancies in the workplace;
  • Invest in job creation and job training, including the rebuilding of infrastructure;
  • Eliminate hunger, homelessness, and substandard housing;
  • Provide quality, affordable health care for all;
  • Protect Social Security; and
  • Adequately fund public education.

 

(1) Religious Action Center, Status of Economic Justice in the U.S., http://www.rac.org/status-economic-justice-us

(2) Who Counts?  A Census Report that Calls for Economic Justice in the Year to Come, Religious Action Center, Sept. 17, 2014, http://blogs.rj.org/rac/2014/09/17

(3) Of big cities, Phila. Worst for people in deep poverty, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 30, 2015

(4) Pew Research Center, Dec. 17, 2014, America’s wealth gap between middle-income and upper-income families is widest of record, www.pewresearch.or/fact-tank/2014/12/17

(5) Affording Rent on Minimum Wage, www.usatoday.com/story/newss/nation-now/2014/03/24/minimumwage

(6) Income Inequality, Institute for Policy Studies, http://inequality.org/income-inequality