If we can land a man on the moon, we can end poverty. The Jewish community has been grappling with the issue of the impoverished, the other, for thousands of years. We are taught that “There shall be no poor among you” and “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”
Communal service networks have helped knit together organized Jewish communities for generations. Our ancestors, whether escaping Russian pogroms or surviving Nazi death camps, came to the United States in conditions of abject poverty, carrying our legacies with them. Social service efforts have helped hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our own.
If any community has the history to help launch a “moon landing” to defeat poverty, it is ours. We can’t do it alone, nor should we, but we can convene our neighbors, our friends, our hearts and our intentions to do something unprecedented. We can bring together the minds and the expertise to craft a comprehensive plan to end poverty as has never been done before. We can harness the minds, the will and the resources that resulted in “one giant leap for mankind,” thereby marshaling the tools needed to affect the lives of the poor in the most far-reaching and profound way imaginable.
We must call a summit. The United States Poverty Summit would devote attention and resources unseen since Neil Armstrong made an entire country believe in itself when he stepped on the moon. Approaching the issue of poverty from a variety of disciplines, led by an array of experts, the summit will launch a national dialogue that can lead to a comprehensive plan to attack this suffering in all the many ways that are needed.
There is no single path into or out of poverty. Assembling experts from different fields who can talk to one another, interact with one another and make symbiotic their disparate approaches, is the way forward. The tools are there, the programs exist and the people with the knowledge are available.
We, as a community, can supply the key, otherwise missing, ingredient: the will. We can help cast aside gridlock. There is too much at stake, too many lives on the edge, to avoid the opportunity that can lead, together, to a historic societal change.
What shape would a weeklong poverty summit take? On Day One, an agenda will be set. Days Two and Three will be spent in intensive group discussions, led by designated experts, with invited representatives from each represented community. On Day Four, each group will draft its own 10-point plan that can be implemented to alleviate the trauma of poverty from its perspective, and then, on Day Five, all of the groups will reconvene for a general convocation at which all of the plans will be reviewed and integrated. The result will be a week to define the concrete steps that will change the lives of the poor in a way never before attempted.
A number of key components need to be amassed. With apologies to all those inadvertently omitted, the summit has to begin with a community ready to lead and a designated leader to help bring so many diverse experts together. We are that community.
For a generation, former Sen. and Vice President Joe Biden has been the conscience of our government’s policies affecting the most vulnerable. He authored the Violence Against Women Act, he championed numerous access-to-justice initiatives for the poor, and he oversaw the launch and growth of the national IMPACT Project, an unprecedented national pro bono program that has brought heightened legal services to the poor in 11 cities around the country. His experience, his insight, his moderation and his ability to reach across party lines make him the moderator, leader and voice of this effort.
The legal community
Acknowledging that lawyers are the unsung heroes in the battle against poverty, understanding that only the justice system can address the immediate needs of those most vulnerable, a number of key attorneys must be at the poverty summit. Expert attorneys in civil rights, poverty law, government funding, homelessness prevention and the pro bono delivery of legal services need to be part of the summit.
The advocacy community
Understanding that without forceful and skilled advocates, no plan would be complete, several key voices need to lead one of the most crucial discussions. Leaders in children’s rights, authors addressing race and poverty, homeless community advocates, senior protection organizations, those involved in advancing the cause of affordable housing, and experts in making the welfare system work efficiently all need to be invited.
The economics of poverty
Leading economists and academics have devoted their considerable scholarship to the economics of poverty. Tax experts, those who have worked around the world on issues of extreme poverty, and political leaders who have devoted significant thought and legislative efforts to combating poverty can be assembled to attend and advise. Professors, governors and lawmakers will bring a perspective and expertise needed to move forward with proficiency and influence.
Politicians and the political system
Not many elected officials have dared to discuss poverty and make it a critical part of our national discourse. The late Robert Kennedy, who served as a U.S. senator and attorney general, was the prototype but, sadly, few have claimed his mantle. Others, however, at various levels of government actively have tried to bring the issue into our political dialogue. Particular mayors, city attorneys, state legislators, governors, senators and Cabinet members have initiated legislation, used their bully pulpits, encouraged anti-poverty development, and should be a key part of this discussion.
In various communities around the country, there are advocates who have devoted their lives to being immediate with those whose situations have forced them into life on the streets. These advocates take to the streets, literally, to know and understand the people who are living in this kind of poverty. They and others have launched on-the-ground projects that are feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing and training the job-seekers. Invited to join these dedicated leaders will be representatives from the most effective on-the-ground organizations in the country, those who actively are engaged in innovative anti-poverty programming.
Addressing the intersection of race and poverty has been assessed directly by a number of authors, to one degree or another. Their examinations and experiences will add to the summit discussion. They have addressed the impact that increased incarceration followed by difficult parole policies have on the cycle of poverty. They work with former convicts who find re-entry to be increasingly difficult as they are denied jobs, housing and voting rights. Others have written about the need for our communities to create more ways for the poor to earn decent wages. Still others have lived among the poor and written about the precarious poverty precipice over which families fall when they lose their homes.
Well-funded private foundations, led by influential nonprofit and business pacesetters, have provided billions of dollars in grant-funding, goods and services to combat the trauma of poverty. A national network of community foundations is impacting low-income neighborhoods and programming on a daily basis. Bringing together private foundations, with collective resources and missions meant to make an impact, will be a part of this particular group.
The business community
Individual philanthropists from the business community offer important leadership. Representatives from the banking, real estate, investment and entertainment industries bring a perspective, as well as resources and gravitas, needed to overcome the ways that established systems sometimes work against the interests of the poor. Bringing a business sensibility, an industrious approach to uplifting the needy, and crafting a strategy for private industry to pursue will be a critical part of the plan to be drafted.
Throughout the history of the United States, communities of faith have been the primary line of defense for the poor. The Jewish Federations of North America bring together a vast network of Jewish communal organizations that have been serving the poor on a nonsectarian basis for more than a century. Other religious groups have done similarly admirable work. They all need to be at this table and they all need to bring their constituencies with them. They collectively would bring to the summit a wide swath of experience and a deep pool of experts and volunteers.
More than 42 million people in the U.S. live in households that are food insecure. (That figure is from the 2016 report from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) Organizations across the country are working and advocating for effective anti-hunger measures.
Poverty is awash in generational cycles. Education is the single most important weapon in breaking through a historical, cyclical morass of lost hope. Secretaries of education, on the state and federal Cabinet levels, can lead this part of the discussion. Innovative educators from universities, public grade schools, support organizations and private funders would bring great experience and wisdom to the discussion. Leaders of teachers unions, private school professionals and carefully chosen elected school board representatives need to round out the list of participants.
There are many other groups whose participation and experience would be valuable additions to the summit. Union leaders, job-creation organizations, local governments, housing departments, builders, welfare advocates, mental health professionals, environmentalists who focus on the degradation of our low-income communities, medical personnel and community health organizations would be important contributors. The bottom line is that we have an occasion to address the overriding issue of our generation.
As leaders of a Jewish community that for generations has argued about, debated and taken action to help the impoverished among us, we have the will to address issues of poverty as never before. With the right people in the room, one week of uninterrupted focus is all we ask. It could change our nation forever.
David A. Lash is the managing counsel of pro bono and public interest services at O’Melveny & Myers LLP. To join him in this effort, email PovertyCon@jewishjournal.com.