Economic Justice Policy Center
JSPAN Economic Justice Policy Statement (approved November 2015)
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
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- A person who works a full-time job should not have to live in poverty.
- Fewer than 13 percent of minimum wage workers are under 20 years of age. 85% are of child-bearing age or above.
Deuteronomy 15:11 commands us to open our hand “to the poor and needy kinsman in your land." Though the Torah recognizes that we cannot necessarily eliminate all poverty, we are taught that we must work to alleviate its impact. Making sure the poor are provided for is a responsibility for society as well as for the individual. While we are commanded to give tzedakah and to “provide for the poor according to their needs,” (Katubot 67b), our tradition also teaches us that it is more important to help a person become self-sufficient than it is to give that person a handout. Maimonides taught that enabling people to support themselves is the highest form of charity.
An increase in the federal minimum wage would allow men and women in entry-level jobs to be less reliant on government and private assistance programs and to become more self-sufficient. It would restore buying power to low wage workers, increasing consumer demand and economic growth. In addition, linking the minimum wage to the annual Consumer Price Index would reflect changing economic conditions.
Since passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a minimum wage and required Congressional approval for any change, minimum wage increases have failed to keep pace with the rise in consumer prices. Erosion in the real value of the minimum wage has had a serious impact on the standard of living of the working poor. It has contributed to poverty and a steadily widening income gap. The federal minimum wage currently is $7.25 an hour, and was last increased in 2009. A person who works 40 hours a week for 50 weeks at this rate earns $14,500 per year, well below the 2013 federal poverty threshold of $23,500 for a family of four.
Studies have found that a moderate rise in the minimum wage does not reduce employment opportunities or harm small businesses. Economic conditions, not moderate minimum wage increases, better determine the level of unemployment, these studies have shown. Further, nearly 88 percent of minimum wage workers are adults at least 20 years of age, contrary to assertions by opponents that most minimum wage workers are teens. Nearly 35 percent are at least 40 years old. (1)
The federal government has a primary responsibility to address poverty and encourage conditions that allow families to move from poverty to economic self-sufficiency. This includes the guarantee of a minimum wage sufficient to allow families to support themselves and participate productively in our economy, including workers who depend on tips as part of their compensation. The promise of America, and the goal of a decent family life for all, requires prompt passage of legislation to raise the minimum wage.
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MYTH: Raising the minimum wage would impact very few people.
FACT: An estimated 27.8 million workers would receive an increase in their hourly wage rate if the minimum wage were increased, counting those who earn the minimum wage and those in the so-called “ripple effect” who earn more based on the minimum wage. (1) An increase would disproportionately affect women, 55 percent of affected workers being female and 45 percent being male. (1)
MYTH: An increase in the minimum wage is not an effective way to move people out of poverty.
FACT: Wrong! Nearly 70 percent of affected families have annual family incomes of less than $60,000. Some 23.1 percent have family incomes of less than $20,000 a year. Nearly 70 percent of affected workers live in families in the bottom half of income distribution. Critics of a minimum wage hike often contend that the earned income tax credit is sufficient to assist those in poverty and that raising the minimum wage is superfluous. However, the minimum wage is meant to work in combination with the earned income tax credit and other anti-poverty programs to lift people out of poverty. Alone the earned income credit is insufficient.
MYTH: The majority of people earning minimum wage are teenagers and are not the primary breadwinner in their families.
FACT: Evidence from the 1996-97 minimum wage increase shows that the average minimum wage worker brings home more than half (54 percent) of his or her family's weekly earnings. One third of these workers were parents of children under age 18, including almost a million single parents.
MYTH: Increasing the minimum wage would force small businesses to fire employees.
FACT: A 2000 study by the Economic Policy Institute failed to find any systematic, significant job loss associated with the 1996-97 minimum wage increase. These results are similar to other studies of the 1990-91 federal minimum wage increase, as well as to studies of several state minimum wage increases. New economic models that look specifically at low-wage labor markets help explain why there is little evidence of job loss associated with minimum wage increases. These models recognizes that employers might be able to absorb some of the costs of a wage increase through higher productivity, lower recruiting and training costs, decreased absenteeism, and increased worker morale.
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Jewish laws and traditions require that we help the needy and poor, whoever they are. According to Maimonides, the highest form of helping others is in ways that make them self-sufficient and preserve the recipient's self-esteem and dignity. Over the past decade there have been many changes to the traditional welfare program in the United States. The alleged goals of these changes were to break the welfare cycle and help make people self-sufficient. These are laudable goals, however they must be tempered by safeguards that protect the needy, they must be coupled with appropriate programs and tools, and those who administer such programs must always show respect for the individual who is being helped. JSPAN therefore calls upon all those involved at all levels of government to include the following features in any program dedicated to helping people trapped in poverty become self sufficient.
- Fully fund individualized assessments and related services such as training, job placements, counseling, rehab and other support services
- Make sure that work produces an income where people have dignity
- Assure that people participating in these programs have continued access to subsidized healthcare, food, housing, etc so as not to penalize them for their achievements
- Make certain that children are protected
- Recognize the practical limitations of balancing parenting and work, especially in families with pre-school children
- Assure that these principles are applied universally in each and all of our United States
These goals are not being met. Too many options are allowed to states. Too little money is provided for assessment and training and related activities. States are told to feed the poor or wean them from welfare, but not given the funding to do both. People are forced to lose their health benefits and other related safety nets before they are self-sufficient. Children and those who cannot care for themselves are placed at risk. We must do better as a nation. As Jews, we must strive for more.
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