Sukkot and Our Duty to Alleviate Poverty
This Friday marks the end of the celebration of Sukkot. The word Sukkot, of course, means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that we spent the past week eating, singing and even sleeping in. We remember the wandering of the Jews in the desert and celebrate the fall harvest season. As we spent the past week in the sukkah — with its fragile walls and a ceiling made of leaves and branches — we reflected on the fragility of our lives and our possessions and, perhaps, we thought about those who are not as fortunate.
Although our harvest is bountiful indeed, not all Americans share in it: 5.4 million American families live in unsafe or unhealthy housing conditions. That number pales next to the 31 million Americans today who are hungry, or at immediate risk of hunger. Even those who receive government assistance remain in need: 58 percent of employed former welfare recipients have incomes below the poverty line.
Just as the rhythms of our Jewish calendar have us thinking about our many blessings and those who remain mired in poverty, the congressional calendar is now turning to consideration of the most important federal anti-poverty program. Last week, more than half of the members of the Senate signed a letter asking Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to bring welfare reform reauthorization to the floor of the Senate chamber for a vote before the end of the 107th Congress. The bill, titled, the “Work, Opportunity and Responsibility for Kids Act of 2002” (WORK), has bipartisan support. The Senate bill is a strong improvement over the current welfare system and a strong improvement over the welfare reform bill passed by the House of Representatives in May. The House bill would increase the number of hours per week of work required of welfare recipients, while limiting the availability of education and training and other services required to make employment viable and attainable. At the same time, the meager increase in funding for childcare falls way below the $4.5 billion that is needed just to maintain current childcare services, which are provided to only one-seventh of families who are in need.
The WORK bill would maintain the current work week for welfare recipients, increase childcare funding by $5.5 billion, give states the option to restore welfare benefits to legal immigrants, encourage more education and training and make it easier for individuals to receive substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling. While significantly better than the House bill, this bill would leave many millions without child care. Currently, only about 2 million of the 15 million eligible for child-care services actually receive help. The Senate bill would provide child-care assistance for only an estimated 100,000 more low-income children than the current program. No parent should be forced to choose between losing benefits because they are not working and leaving their children alone because the parent has to work.
The Torah and the Jewish tradition teach us that providing for the poor is not a matter of charity but an obligation. “If … there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand…. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).
As Jews and Americans, we should require nothing less from our government today. In a land where one in three children will be poor at some point during their childhood, we can and must do better.
As Sukkot comes to an end, so too does the 107th Congress. The circumstances could not be more urgent. It is crucial that comprehensive welfare legislation pass this year, since budget constraints will make it even more difficult to pass legislation that would positively affect families next year. With the lessons and experience of Sukkot fresh in our minds, let us remember those who do not share in our prosperity. Let us help spread a sukat shalom, a shelter of peace and healing, over those who most need our help. And let us join with them to encourage the Senate to pass just and humane welfare reform during this session.
Rabbi David Saperstein is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rachel Wainer is the legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism focusing on economic justice issues.