Getting the story at AIPAC: The forgotten 56 million
So much of life depends on who you bump into. I bumped into a lot of people at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, a gathering of 18,000 highly caffeinated Jews in Washington, D.C., where the sport of choice is the handing out of business cards within 15 seconds of meeting someone, and the subjects of choice are politics, Israel and, this year, Donald Trump.
So, after two days of intense schmoozing about these hot issues, I was glad to bump into an old acquaintance, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who had a whole other issue on her mind. I bumped into her while meeting with local PR impresario Steve Rabinowitz in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel, one of several hotels near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Verizon Center, the two giant venues where the main activities took place.
I knew Mizrahi from her days as head of The Israel Project, and I knew she had started a nonprofit venture, RespectAbility, to help people who have disabilities. So, just like that, my AIPAC journey took an unexpected turn, and I ended up spending a good hour immersed in something hardly anyone is talking about during this election season: People with disabilities, and, more specifically, the millions of working-age Americans with disabilities who would love nothing more than to find work and become productive citizens.
Mizrahi is saddened that while the media have been so focused on Trump mania, and the candidates so focused on the usual hot-ticket items such as the economy, national security and immigration, the issue closest to her heart has been virtually forgotten.
“We’re spending so much time obsessing over Donald Trump,” she told me, “but we’re forgetting about things that can really improve people’s lives. The issue of dealing with people with disabilities and helping millions of them find work should be part of every stump speech.”
Considering the scope of the problem, it’s disappointing that it isn’t.
Mizrahi quoted data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that shows 1 in 5 Americans — that’s 56 million Americans — has some form of disability. Of those, about 22 million are working age (18 to 64), but only 34 percent are employed, some only part time and many others earning sub-par wages.
“Every year,” she said, “300,000 young people with disabilities enter the workforce, and most of them end up living on their parents’ couch and living on $14,000 a year in federal benefits. If we can do a better job of integrating them into the workforce, we won’t just save their dignity, we’ll save a lot of tax money.”
To put the issue on the national radar, RespectAbility has asked all of the presidential candidates to complete a questionnaire to help people with disabilities know where candidates stand on the issues.
To give you a sense of the thoroughness of the questionnaire, here’s the first of 16 question areas:
“Do you have a clear and transparent process for making decisions on disability issues? For example, how do you know/learn about disability issues and make decisions on the many policies that impact the one in five of Americans who have a disability? Have you studied the issues? Do you have a disability or a family member with a disability? Have you done meetings with disability leaders or citizens with disabilities? Do you have a disability advisor and/or advisory committee?”
So far, of the presidential candidates still in the running, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have completed the questionnaire, while John Kasich (who Mizrahi lauded for his work in this area as governor of Ohio) filled out parts of it, and the campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have yet to submit their answers (details are on therespectabilityreport.com).
For Mizrahi, what’s even more important than their responses to the questionnaire is whether candidates make the issue part of their stump speeches, something no candidate has done. “That’s the true test of how seriously they take the issue,” she said.
It’s also a test of a candidate’s heart: Will you care for people in need even if they don’t carry a lot of political clout? Will you care for an issue that rarely makes it to the front pages or the evening news? And if you’re in the media business, will you feature an issue that will get significantly lower ratings than the latest Trump explosion?
That’s the advantage of going to conferences. All too often, it’s not the stuff happening on the main stage that moves the heart. It’s the stuff on the side, the issues you bump into when you meet someone with fire in her heart.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.