Almost daily there is a news or magazine article or opinion piece about how public spending policies, whether by design or not, result in a further fraying of the social safety net and an increase in the gap — now truly a chasm — between the rich and poor in the United States. Economists and sociologists across the political spectrum express concern that this gap is harmful not just to individuals but also to the United States as a whole.
Jewish sources are replete with teachings that point to the obligation of society to care for the most vulnerable. For centuries, autonomous Jewish communities have taxed and encouraged voluntary giving to assist those in need.
In a recent blog post about the Shmita year, which will begin on Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, wrote:
“The great innovation of the Torah was to institute a set of laws that made debt cancellation an ex ante, rather than ex post facto, societal reality. By banning interest internally, instituting Shmita debt forgiveness, creating a seven-year term for slavery and enacting the yovel (Jubilee) year of returning land to its original owner, the Torah made holy the creation of a society committed to preventing great inequities of wealth.
“These laws privilege the needs and health of the community as a whole over the ability for individuals to amass great wealth, in stark contrast to our economic and political situation today.
“The Torah laws about debt forgiveness also banned interest. Debt without interest payments is far less onerous. We know today that the additional cost of interest on debt significantly increases the propensity towards wealth inequality. Interest — the cost of money — transfers wealth to the rich from the rest of society,” Liebling wrote.
The irony in our failure to close the gap is that we not only waste lives, but in the end waste money. For example, a myriad of studies shows that children who read at grade level by age 8 are more likely to graduate from high school and become successful tax-paying citizens. Those who fail to read well by age 8 are more likely to end up in prison. We need to get out of the cycle of creating prisoners instead of taxpayers — costly perhaps at first, but in the end a way to save both money and lives.
Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and author of The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, wrote recently in The New York Times:
“Inequality and poverty among children are a special moral disgrace. They flout right-wing suggestions that poverty is a result of laziness and poor choices; children can’t choose their parents. In America, nearly one in four children lives in poverty.” He went on to cite some countries that “have made the choice to create more equitable economies: South Korea, where a half-century ago just one in 10 people attained a college degree, today has one of the world’s highest university completion rates.”
Stiglitz added: “I see us entering a world divided not just between the haves and have-nots, but also between those countries that do nothing about it, and those that do. Some countries will be successful in creating shared prosperity — the only kind of prosperity that I believe is truly sustainable. Others will let inequality run amok,” with the rich and poor living separate lives, unfathomable to one another.
We already see this gap in understanding. How many middle-class Americans, for example, are aware that the rates of asthma are higher among the poor than the wealthy? According to a Pennsylvania Department of Health report in 2012, Philadelphia had the highest percentage of lifetime asthma prevalence in the state among school students in 2008-09. It also had the highest poverty rate.
Concerned with the personal and social effects of the widening gap between rich and poor, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College have created a series of programs highlighting the Jewish values that can help us respond to these disparities. Programs will focus on areas such as education, health and the environment, wages and the justice system. The issues are compelling, even if the solutions are not always obvious. But surely we have an obligation to educate ourselves and take steps to change the dire situation of millions of children and adults in the richest country on earth.
Rabbi George Stern is executive director of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, JSPAN. The first programs in the series will take place March 9 and March 16 at Germantown Jewish Centre. Go to: www.jspan.org /news/jewish-perspectives-economic-inequality .