43 Million Reasons for Congress to Get Serious

Poor kids will not be able to learn as well or as easily as they could if they were not feeling the pangs of hunger and stress and illness that come with poverty. Poverty is not a partisan issue, but a moral one.
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The country has turned upside down. Rather than deal with our problems, we have settled into the bi-annual free-for-all "Attack Mercilessly Those You Oppose" -- the elections. For those unable to find a job, have lost their homes, or know families terrified of the coming winter's choice between heating their home or putting food on the table, the issues seem to be of a different order. Some people in our country are suffering and this game of name-calling is hardly responding to their plight. This message has come home to us in spades by the poverty data released by the Census Bureau in September. In 2009, 1 in 7 Americans, over 43 million people, 3 million more than in 2008, lived in poverty. This percentage is the highest rate in the 51 years that these estimates have been released. The real tragedy is the pain felt by our children. Child poverty alone increased from 19% in 2008 to almost 21% in 2009.

No community has been spared. The costs fall on all of us, even those not experiencing actual poverty. Children who grow up with parents out of work carry emotional scars for years, often falling short of their peers in health, education, and earnings. Poor kids will not be able to learn as well or as easily as they could if they were not feeling the pangs of hunger and stress and illness that come with poverty. Moreover, dropouts and underperforming kids today will further hurt our economy in the future. One study has shown that the long term costs of poverty levels this high equal a reduction in national output by 4% a year. Investments in human needs programs today can stave off lingering damage and save us money in the end. There is much we need to do.

In the 1990s, programs like SCHIP (the State Child Health Insurance Program) and the Child Tax Credit helped to reduce child poverty by 25%. Today we are reducing the programs which have meant so much in the past. Rather than stepping up to the plate and providing for those in need, we are using cuts in SNAP (food stamps), the very safety net that those in poverty depend on, to pay for other federal priorities. Continuing to cut SNAP and other human needs programs to pay for new legislation, as is being considered, cannot be an option for us. Already, the funding for child nutrition programs like school lunches and breakfasts is based on an expired bill. Instead of continuing to rely on dated legislation that does not cover the costs of children's food needs, Congress should pass a robust Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill that would give the 2 million new children in poverty access to healthy meals throughout the year. Safety nets like LIHEAP (the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program) and prescription drug assistance can not only keep families from slipping further into poverty, but can save lives. With a continued focus on job creation, the Obama Administration and Congress will not just catch those who fall, but help more back to their feet. Investment in green jobs and emerging fields is a start, but many will also need more education or be retrained for new skills. In a time when Congress is being pushed towards more fiscal austerity, these legislative options will be unpopular, but in the end, the costs of these programs today are far less than the costs of unemployment, crime, dropouts, and lost productivity tomorrow.

That is why, to focus the attention of Congress and the administration on this issue, the JCPA along with Catholic Charities and the National Council of Churches has formed a diverse, national coalition of over 45 interfaith groups for our 3rd annual Fighting Poverty with Faith mobilization. United by our shared values, Fighting Poverty with Faith kicked off this week with a commitment to speaking out on poverty, educating the public and our leaders, and cutting poverty in half by 2020. There is much that you can do to get involved locally. As the election nears , attend candidate forums and press your elected officials and candidates to go on the record with their plans and commitment to fighting poverty. Join our e-postcard campaign to President Obama urging him to publicly reiterate his commitment at his 2011 State of the Union to cutting poverty in half in America by 2020 In Detroit, Jewish and Muslim groups are holding free health screenings for those with no insurance while in New York City, students at Columbia, NYU, and Yeshiva Universities are holding a joint clothing drive, food line, and "share your story booth" for the homeless. In Omaha, the National Council of Churches has been working to educate congregations on what can be done. The list goes on and it must. When fighting poverty, no effort is too small, no contribution too insignificant. All of our religions say that poverty is not a morally acceptable choice for a society.

Poverty is not a partisan issue, but a moral one. To see poverty and do nothing is to contribute to its tragic impact on our civilization. All of us in Fighting Poverty with Faith have been moved by the pain of our neighbors, and we are now mobilizing to spread that awareness. The solutions are out there. Halving poverty in ten years is not a dream. We have the tools, but we need the will. We have seen poverty and we have felt poverty and we now have the census data showing just how many have been left behind. Join us at fightingpovertywithfaith.com and help us to do the job that our consciences insist that we do. Sitting around and watching this scourge grow is not an option.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is the President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. For more information and updates, visit jewishpublicaffairs.org and follow @theJCPA on Twitter.

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