Washington, D.C. – Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Director Rabbi Jonah Pesner spoke today at NETWORK’s Faithful Budget event at the Capitol Visitor Center. Here are Rabbi Pesner’s remarks:
“It’s an honor to be here today with you, along with Maggie Siddiqi from the American Muslim Health Professionals and Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson from the Presbyterian Church USA Office of Public Witness.
“After my father’s sudden death, I was raised by a single, working mother in New York City. Our circumstances were better than many, but we had some challenges. Every day, I rode an elevated train from my mom’s rent controlled apartment to my public high school in the Bronx. Riding that train through the Bronx, I witnessed poverty that I couldn’t believe was unfolding in the United States of America. I discovered how lucky we were to benefit from affordable housing and public schools, how much better off I was than some who were truly suffering.
Rabbi Jonah Pesener: “Poverty may be a reality in our lives today, but we do not have to accept it as a reality of tomorrow. Together, we can strengthen those who struggle and lift up the more than 45 million Americans living in poverty.”
“The lessons I learned from my lived experience have been confirmed by my faith. In the Book of Leviticus, we read, ‘and if your fellow becomes poor and his means fail him with you, then you shall strengthen him, be he a stranger or a settler, he shall live with you’ (Leviticus 25:35). In these words, God is calling to us, reminding us that we are the poor; those who suffer live in our cities and towns; they attend our churches, synagogues, and mosques; they are our neighbors and our kin. God demands it of us: strengthen the one who becomes poor for she is living among us; lift up the one who has fallen because he is us!
“The ancient rabbis expanded upon this notion, telling us: ‘if all the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other, poverty would outweigh them all’ (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 31:12).
“Poverty may be a reality in our lives today, but we do not have to accept it as a reality of tomorrow. Together, we can strengthen those who struggle and lift up the more than 45 million Americans living in poverty.
“We can start by lifting up those who are struggling to find a safe and adorable place to live. Since 2010, federal housing assistance has faced devastating challenges and there have been significant cuts. Homelessness has increased in 17 states and in January 2014 there were 578,424 people living without shelter in the US. This must not be a reality that we can accept.
“We can lift up those who are struggling to obtain the food that they and their families need to survive and to stay healthy. SNAP remains the most efficient and effective program combatting poverty in the US: 92% of SNAP benefits go to households that have incomes below the poverty line. It has among the lowest rates of fraud, waste, and abuse of all government programs. And it works. Last year, SNAP helped over 46 million low-income Americans afford a nutritionally adequate diet.
“Yet despite the program’s proven effectiveness, some members of the House Budget Committee voted to cut SNAP by 125 billion over the next ten years. They have proposed block granting SNAP in a way that would force states to make deep cuts to food assistance programs. And as is too often the case, those cuts would especially impact our most vulnerable populations: low-income workers, seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children. This must not be a reality we accept.
“We can lift up full time workers who cannot make ends meet at the current, inadequate minimum wage. A full time, year round federal minimum wage worker earns just $14,500 per year – over $4,000 below the poverty line for a family of three. An increase in the federal minimum wage would give raises to about 28 million workers, including nearly 5 million working mothers. Yet there have been only 3 minimum wage increases in the last 30 years, and the minimum wage just has not kept up with inflation. This must not be a reality we accept.
“We pray for a different reality, when no one needs these safety nets. When all workers earn not just a minimum wage, but a living wage. When all who are hungry have nutritious foods to eat. And when all who are experiencing homelessness have safe places to call home. But let us remember the adage from across faith traditions:
“Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you.
“Our faith communities act for justice every day; we call on our elected leaders to act as well.
“I might not be here today, blessed to stand among so many committed colleagues, without the strength that I have drawn throughout my life from my Reform Jewish community, without the tenacity of my mother, without the love of my community, and yes, without the benefit of a strong social safety net. The same is likely true for others here as well.
“Let us recommit ourselves to strengthening others as we have been strengthened.
“Let us raise our voices strongly in support of safety net programs that work and let us speak with even greater strength against proposals to diminish those programs. For if we do not, we diminish not only those programs, but ourselves. In the words of Proverbs, ‘one who withholds what is due to the poor affronts the Creator, yet one who cares for the needy honors God’ (Proverbs 14:31).
“Together, faith leaders, elected officials, and all God’s children, let us honor our creator by lifting up the fallen, by giving strength to the weary, by feeding the hungry and the homeless; let us share the responsibility we have to one another, and to our nation by affirming our commitment to a strong social safety net.”