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Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness

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What Are Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness?

America is the wealthiest nation in the world, yet close to 40 million Americans live below the federal poverty line, over 13% of the population. This number is larger than the population of California, America’s most populous state.

In the mid-1960’s, President Lyndon Johnson announced a “war on poverty.” Poverty was defined as having insufficient income to provide the food, shelter and clothing needed to preserve health.

  • In 2011 the threshold poverty income for a family of four was $22,000.
  • Poverty disproportionately affects people of color.
  • While only 10% of whites qualify as “poor”, it applies to 22% of Hispanic Americans and 25% of African-Americans

While income level affects almost every aspect of someone’s life, three of the most consequential issues include: housing, education, and hunger.

Housing

It is becoming ever more difficult for poor Americans to find safe and affordable housing:

  • Roughly 12 million families dedicate more than 50% of their annual income to housing, making it nearly impossible for them to meet their other basic needs such as food and healthcare.
  • New construction of government housing projects has been steadily declining. In 1976, 200,000 new homes were built, while in 2004, that dropped to 6,000. Waiting lists for housing projects are notoriously long, some taking close to 10 years. Increasing numbers of poor individuals and families are forced to use cars, campgrounds, and homeless shelters as their “home”.
  • In 2009, it was estimated that 1.6 million unique people used transitional housing or emergency shelters.

Hunger

It is estimated that approximately 35.5 million people live in “food insecure” households, meaning these families and individuals are unable to afford sufficient food for their homes. Lack of adequate nutritious food can lead to a host of different problems including poor health, obesity, diabetes, malnutrition, inability to focus at work or school, and poor cognitive development.

  • Several federal programs exist to combat hunger in the United States, the most well known being the food stamp program.
  • Food stamps is a program in which families are provided with government subsidies to pay for food at the grocery store. The average income for qualifying families is $673 per month, and the program provides less than $100 per month in food stamps per person.

Education

Education is one of the most powerful tools to combat poverty. Poor educational outcomes, including high dropout rates, illiteracy, and poor math skills, exacerbate the struggle to find work that pays well and provides benefits. In the past several decades, receiving a college education has increasingly become a necessity to secure a good job.

  • On average, a person with an advanced degree earns over $70,000 annually; bachelor’s degree holders earn over $50,000; high school graduates only $27,000; and those without a high school degree earn less than $19,000. Unfortunately, the cost of higher education makes it difficult for poor Americans to improve their socio-economic status.
  • Most schools are funded from local sources such as tax payer dollars. This means that poorer areas have fewer dollars from tax revenues to invest in schools. As a result, there are often huge gaps in government expenditures per pupil between wealthier and poorer areas. The resulting differential in the quality of education can perpetuate the socio-economic divide between the rich and the poor.

Take Action

Service/Avodah (Avodah in Hebrew)

  • Tutor a child whose reading is below grade level.
  • Volunteer at a local soup kitchen to prepare and serve meals for those who are hungry.
  • Connect with a local homeless shelter to see what their needs are and make a donation of clothes, toiletries, books, etc.
  • Consider doing a blanket run to homeless living on the street. Bring blankets, hats, gloves, and some food for distribution.
  • Volunteer at a local food pantry to help with sorting and boxing food for the hungry.

Philanthropy/Tzedakah (Tzedakah in Hebrew)

  • Feeding America is the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization. Through a network of nearly 200 food banks, Feeding America distributes food to 26 million hungry Americans each year, eight million of whom are children.
  • MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger allocates grants to dozens of organizations fighting hunger in the United States and advocates to alleviate the problem of hunger.

Advocacy/Tzedek (Tzedek in Hebrew)

Using the political process can be among the most effective ways to make a big difference in the problem of poverty in America. A single piece of legislation can make a huge difference on an issue because of the resources of the federal, state, and local government. Of course, at any given time, the legislation on an issue will change. The organizations listed in the philanthropy section also have advocacy initiatives. It is best to monitor advocacy campaigns through these types of organizations. Other advocacy organizations are listed below. Remember: good citizens make their voices heard to their elected officials.

  • Children’s Defense Fund champions policies that will lift children out of poverty, protect them from abuse and neglect, ensure their access to quality health care and education and provide them with the moral and spiritual foundation to succeed in life.
  • National Coalition for the Homeless advocates on homelessness, healthcare, housing and economic justice. They provide directories for shelters and other agencies serving the cause of homelessness through the country.
  • RESULTS is a nonprofit, grassroots citizens’ lobby working to create the political win to end hunger and the worst aspects of poverty.

Jewish Perspectives

Acknowledging that there will always be poor people in our midst (Deuteronomy 15:11), Judaism developed one of the earliest and most compassionate systems of caring for poor people: “If a person is hungry, you must feed him. If a person has no clothing, you must clothe him” (Yoreh Deah, 250:1). Judaism seeks to affirm the dignity of the poor, to give them the necessities for living, and commands us to help the poor become self sufficient. This is both an individual and communal obligation.

The prophets of the Bible not only call upon the Jewish people to relieve the suffering of the poor and oppressed in their midst (Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 5:28), but they also explicitly criticize those who accumulate great wealth while others live in poverty (Isaiah 5:8, Micah 2:2).

Poteach et Yadecha: Individual Obligation

While it is tempting to ignore poverty in our society, the Torah warns us not to become arrogant or callous as a result of our own prosperity. “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty...” (Deut. 8:12-14). Keeping in mind that the primary source of income in the biblical period was from agriculture, when Leviticus 19:9 requires that the corners of one’s fields be left unharvested so that the poor could come to glean, we understand the Jewish attitude to sharing one’s wealth. Furthermore, our tradition instructs us to give ma’aser, or 1/10 of our earnings, to charity each year. It is a privilege and a mitzvah to give tzedakah, and even recipients of tzedakah are obliged to contribute.

The Poor in Your Midst: Communal Giving

The Talmud teaches that tzedakah is equal to all other commandments (Baba Bathra 9a). Maimonides, a 12th century Spanish Jewish philosopher, codified many of the biblical and rabbinic passages regarding tzedakah to create a standard of caring for the needy. He required every Jewish community to have a communal charity fund. On a daily basis there were to be collectors of food from households and subsequent distributions to the needy. Permanent residents could be forced to give tzedakah as part of their common obligations. The poor were to be sustained according to their needs (Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor, 9), but they, too, were required to give tzedakah. Wherever Jews lived, they set up communal institutions that would ensure that food, clothing, shelter, health needs and burial would not be denied to anyone because of lack of resources. This tradition has continued into our own day through Jewish federations.

Historically, most of the Jewish community’s efforts to guarantee economic justice have served the community’s own poor. Until the modern period, Jews were fairly isolated from the non-Jewish world. Even though today the Jewish community continues the tradition of “taking care of its own,” it has not done so to the exclusion of aid for the poor in society at large. The Talmud makes clear that the obligation to help the poor is not limited to helping the Jewish poor. The rabbis argue that for the sake of “the ways of peace,” Jews must help poor gentiles, even idolaters, just as they help poor Jews. Non-Jews, too, were allowed to gather the excess harvest from the fields alongside the Jewish poor. We are commanded to help non-Jews in sickness and even in death, just as we help fellow Jews (T.B. Gittin 61a). Still, our tradition instructs that one’s acts of tzedakah are performed first for those in one’s immediate circle and then for those beyond (Sifrei Re’eh, 116).

Tzedakah and Chesed

Because the problem of homelessness pervades American society, we have many opportunities to give every day. “He who gives a small coin to a poor man obtains six blessings, and he who addresses to him words of comfort obtains eleven blessings,” said Rabbi Isaac. We learn here that giving of oneself and recognizing the humanity of the one in need is even more important than giving money (Baba Bathra, 9b).

The Talmud directly implies that the quality of the interpersonal moment between you and a poor person actually outweighs in importance the quantity of aid. According to Maimonides, “Anyone who gives tzedakah in a harsh manner and averting his eyes (from the poor person) completely nullifies the merit of his own deed, even if he gives a thousand gold pieces. He should rather give to him gladly and with a kind face, and he should commiserate with him about his troubles...offering him words of comfort and sympathy” (Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor, 10:4).

When you are walking down the street and someone approaches you for food or money, carry your Jewish values with you. “The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy,” said Rabbi Chaim of Zanz. “Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud” (Davkai Chayim, p. 137). As 20th century scholar Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once said, “The Jew cannot live alone…the password of the Jew is chesed – kindness, compassion – to his fellow Jews and to his fellow man. The Jew is “responsible for society,”’ sharing “in the destiny of his people and concerned with the destiny of mankind.”