Just moments after we hit the "submit" button on the last post noting the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s busy week, another e-mail from the group landed in the inbox. This one detailed a letter to Congress frrom RAC director and counsel Rabbi David Saperstein, urging passage of the economic stimulus package while asking for a couple "improvments." The missive suggest an increase in the "pool of affordable housing," specifically calling for investments in the National Housing Trust Fund and the provision of housing vouchers "to help stabilize the lives of individuals who will be unable to maintain jobs without an affordable place to call home." The RAC also requests that pervasively sectarian entities receiving taxpayer dollars from the Compassion Capital Fund for faith-based and community organizations be required to set up affiliated 501c3 organizations, which it says would obviate government regulation and monitoring of houses of worship. Here’s the full letter:
Dear Member of Congress:
On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes over 1,800 Reform Rabbis, I urge you to support the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. At this time of significant economic challenges, this legislation includes a multitude of provisions designed to return our nation to financial health. Our support for the bill stems particularly from its strong emphasis on investing in our most vulnerable communities.
From the time of the prophets, we have adhered to the dictate, “There shall be no needy among you.” (Deut. 15:4) Judaism teaches that poverty is destructive of human dignity and that helping people in need is a matter of fundamental principle, not an act of charity. By the time of the Talmud, 2,000 years ago, it was clear that the public sector must play a central role in shaping structural changes aimed at securing the well being both of the poor and the broader society
We believe, therefore, that the ultimate test of any government action to help the economy is how it aids the most vulnerable: the poor, children, the elderly, and the ill. Supporting these Americans by providing for basic needs through nutrition, housing, and health care programs, and by investing in “green infrastructure,” will strengthen communities across our country, create millions of jobs and provide an economic boost where it is most likely to be used immediately and efficiently.
We want to call your attention to the following specific provisions:
Nutrition Programs – Feeding the hungry has been, and remains, a priority for religious communities across the nation. Our work in this area demonstrates to us that it is only with the partnership of increased government investments in nutrition programs that the growing needs of the many facing food insecurity can be effectively met. Funding for nutrition programs has been shown to be the most effective economic stimulus; Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy.com estimates that for every $1 invested in food stamps, $1.73 will be injected back into the economy. Similarly, an analysis provided by the Economic Policy Institute to the Coalition on Human Needs shows that about 185,000 jobs would be saved or created by a 20% increase in food stamp benefits. We call on Congress to support the expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as well as the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) as represented in the recovery plan in the House to provide at least $20 billion and $150 million, respectively. The final bill should include an expansion of the Afterschool Supper Program nationwide, to ensure students receive healthy meals and educational programming in the evenings as parents work more hours to weather this crisis.
Green Jobs and Infrastructure – With unemployment rates the highest in over 15 years, now is the time to invest in renewable energy and ambitious efficiency and conservation programs for homes and schools. Funding the transition to a cleaner, more efficient energy future will exponentially expand our green workforce and speed our move to a greener energy America. Green infrastructure projects such as weatherizing low-income homes and public buildings and modernizing our nation’s electric grid will stimulate the economy by creating millions of jobs, as well as yielding tremendous long-term savings. We call on Congress to invest in America’s energy future by fully funding both the green jobs allocation of the Workforce Investment Act and the Weatherization Assistance Program. Together, these provisions will enable under-served communities to access high quality green jobs that protect our economy and our environment.
Health Care – The tragic shortcomings of our nation’s health care system – a system that unconscionably left nearly 46 million Americans without health insurance for all of 2007 – are exacerbated by the ongoing recession. Rising unemployment is undercutting our employer-based insurance system and more families this year are likely to be without health insurance. States are under pressure to meet the growing need, and budget shortfalls have left 43 states considering cuts to health care programs vital to these struggling families. We call on Congress to support an increase in the federal medical assistance percentage rate, allotting more than what is currently proposed to at least $100 billion, and to create a temporary Medicaid eligibility category and to extend COBRA coverage for those who have recently become unemployed.
Unemployment Insurance – The number of unemployed persons has reached 11.1 million and the unemployment rate has risen to 7.2%. The time of the average job search is lengthening, leaving many willing workers without a job and facing expiring unemployment insurance benefits. We call on Congress to extend unemployment insurance through the end of the year and to adopt unemployment insurance modernization to help states expand coverage to low-wage, part-time, long-term unemployed workers and other vulnerable populations.
Child Tax Credit – Expanding eligibility for the refundable Child Tax Credit and increasing the credit amount will place needed income in the hands of low-income families who are likely, in turn, to spend it quickly. If the threshold were set at the first dollar of earnings, increased income would be provided to 13.3 million more children than under the current $8,500 minimum. We call on Congress to lower the threshold of the Child Tax Credit to start with the first dollar of earnings, as provided in the House version of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
While we urge your support for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as is always the case with complex legislation there are also several areas in which we would like to see improvements. Specifically:
Compassion Capital Fund – Support in the stimulus bill for the Compassion Capital Fund raises significant concerns about the dangers of taxpayer dollars being transferred directly to pervasively sectarian entities, such as houses of worship, parochial schools or other religious groups without safeguards that they will not use this money for programs with explicitly religious activities such as worship, religious education or proselytization. Rather, Congress should require these entities to set up affiliated 501C3s, thereby obviating government regulation and monitoring of houses of worship. The government should not be in the position of allowing public funds to support social services that are deeply entangled with religious activities.
Housing – While the proposed legislation includes funding for investment to rehabilitate public housing and homelessness prevention programs, it is critical that we also increase the pool of affordable housing. Nearly 61% of local and state homeless coalitions report a rise in homelessness since the home foreclosure crisis began in 2007. Congress must invest in the National Housing Trust Fund and provide housing vouchers to help stabilize the lives of individuals who will be unable to maintain jobs without an affordable place to call home.
The book of Deuteronomy teaches us, “If there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient” (Deut. 15:7-11). The number of Americans in need is expanding, and so must our compassion, creativity, and collective will to help them through this trying time. We stand ready to work with you to achieve these goals.
Rabbi David Saperstein