JCRC Poverty Forum: Urgent Action Needed


At long last, poverty is on the front burner. Last week’s Forum on Poverty, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis’ Community Against Poverty (CAP) Initiative, shone a vital light on the topic.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

The keynote address by Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University and one of the nation’s leading experts on poverty and its consequences, was followed by a panel discussion of legislators and non-profit service providers, as well as media representatives, including the St. Louis Jewish Light.

Rank’s speech and the intense discussion afterward underscored the urgency of substantial action to alleviate the costly and destructive consequences of poverty in our communities. The repercussions of poverty are visible at every level, locally, statewide, and nationally. More than 175 people attended the forum, including professionals serving needy segments of the community, numerous current legislators and several candidates for public office.

We are disappointed that two principal invitees to the program, the current candidates for governor of Missouri — Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat, and Republican U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulsof — missed the event because of schedule conflicts. Both men would have been well served to attend, as no issue is more seriously in need of urgent attention than dealing with the consequences of poverty, and taking steps to reduce or eliminate it.

Rank’s remarks, based on his years of research and two highly regarded books about poverty and its communal costs, were sobering. According to Rank, “poverty is really an issue about ‘us’ rather than about ‘them,’ ” and many of our assumptions that poverty results from the poor being “lazy” or unwilling to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” are false. His research confirms that “the vast majority of Americans can expect to encounter at least one year of living below the poverty line.” At least 75 percent of the U.S. population will spend some time living in or close to poverty between the ages of 20 and 75, he said, adding that about two-thirds of Americans will rely on a social-support program, such as food stamps, for economic help, at some point during their working years.

The Jewish Food Pantry and similar programs in this area currently face challenges that bear out Rank’s statistics. Many social service agencies are experiencing shortages due to major increases in demand for food by a growing number of people — from all neighborhoods in the St. Louis area. The current economic and financial “meltdown” in America has already had a devastating effect on major segments of the population. Once-affluent families are now facing joblessness, increased costs of gasoline, housing foreclosures and the drying up of credit.

Despite the current efforts to “bail out” major financial institutions, which economists insist are necessary, the rise in the number of newly impoverished people is outpacing the ability of social service agencies to meet these growing demands. Phyllis Markus, Chair of the CAP Initiative of the JCRC, distributed a letter to be sent to the candidates for Governor of Missouri and to candidates for the Missouri General Assembly. “It is not okay for 742,000 Missourians to live in poverty!” states the letter.

“You have been asking for our vote,” the CAP letter says to candidates. “We are now asking you to commit to plans and actions that will significantly reduce the number of poor in Missouri. Confronting poverty in Missouri is both an economic and a moral imperative.”

While we do not endorse specific candidates for office, we do believe that the choice by the candidates for governor to miss the CAP Forum was, in a word, wrong. Their absence highlights the low placement that poverty takes on their lists of priorities. The incentive may be small for either candidate to elevate poverty to the top echelon of issues, but basic respect and decency mandate major focus and attention to this issue. We urge our readers to adapt the letter to their candidates for office, so the issue of eliminating poverty will take its rightful place among the top issues.

What better time than right NOW to take this urgent action? Our sacred texts, especially during these High Holidays, mandate that we clothe the naked, feed the hungry and take care of the poor in our Jewish and general communities. We have the opportunity to make a difference, to increase our support of the Jewish Food Pantry, the Jewish Federation and United Way campaigns, and take every step available to end poverty once and for all.