Economic angst deepens; where are the Jews?
09/16/2010 - 15:01
James Besser

 I'm not sure there's anything more demoralizing than watching Congress and the Obama administration sputter away about an economy that seems to heading south once again.

The past few week's newspapers have overflowed with economic news, ranging from bad to really terrible; economic pundits like the New York Times' Paul Krugman tell a terrible story of economic ineptitude at every level and speak ominously about much worse to come.

Today's Washington Post reports on new census data indicating that the poverty rate is now “the highest number in the half-century that the government has kept such statistics.”

Those numbers represent “nothing short of a national disaster,” said National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) president Nancy Ratzan.

There's talk high unemployment may be with us for a decade; smart economists are making comparisons with Japan's “lost decade”; the Fed has used all the tools in its kit, to no avail.

And what our our leaders doing about it?

Well, the only things the Republicans have to offer are the same ideology-driven policies that may have gotten us into trouble to begin with - lowering taxes at a time of war, cutting regulation, letting all those bankers who screwed up big time with our money in the last meltdown do it again, free from government interference.

And the Democrats? I'm sorry, I can't figure out if they have any policies at all.

Democratic members of Congress seem concerned primarily with deflecting attacks by Republican challengers. Just listen to them on the issue of tax cuts and try to figure out where they stand.

President Obama, who came to office promising a new kind of leadership, mostly just seems confused. Now he's offering a non-stimulus stimulus, and it's hard to find serious economists who think it's going to make much of a difference.

Off on the sidelines are the angry Tea Partiers, some of whom are demanding an end to Social Security and maybe a return to the gold standard. Great idea: in this age of a worldwide economy, let's go back to the policies of the 1800s. That'll fix things.

Isn't this a crisis that demands something more than the crazy partisanship and rigid ideologies that seem to be all we can get from Congress?

Isn't it time for some real presidential leadership, not this finger-to-the-wind , halfway stuff we're getting from President Obama?

Isn't it time for leaders of all political persuasions to sit down and seriously discuss the complex challenges we face and work together to find solutions and pretend that they have an ideological magic bullet that will fix everything fast and pain free?

Oh wait, this is 21st century Washington, where partisanship and ideology are the only things that matter. I forgot.

What does this have to do with the Jews?

Well, we're Americans, after all, with a huge stake in our nation's future, which is looking a lot less rosy these days.

Jewish poverty is real and, according to most accounts, growing as the community gets hit by the double whammy of a growing elder population and economic woes that have hit sectors where Jews are likely to work.

And we have a big communal infrastructure that serves our needy – an infrastructure that depends heavily on government programs that will be in dire jeopardy if our economic troubles deepen.

Also, we care about U.S. support for Israel, which will inevitably be affected if the nation plunges back into recession.

And, judging by the long list of Jewish groups that strongly disagree with Glenn Beck that “social justice” is a synonym for communism, we still care about the nation's poor, who have been particularly hard hit by the recession-without-end.

Which leads me back to my perennial question: why, with all that's at stake for our nation and our community, and with their traditional focus on social justice, do most Jewish groups stay clear of the great economic issues of the day?

Sure, they're against poverty and want action to stop it, but don't you dare ask most what they think of issues such as tax policy.

It's not a “Jewish issue,” some say. I beg your pardon? What other issue has such vast potential to affect virtually every aspect of Jewish life and every area of Jewish activism as what happens to our economy?

Before you start pounding on the keyboard to accuse me of a partisan hit on the Republicans, let me reiterate: neither party has done anything resembling a good job on the economy.

I fault congressional Republicans for rigidly sticking to policies that have produced dire results, but I also fault weak, confused Democratic leaders who have failed to articulate alternatives or to break free of their own ideological strait jackets.

And I blame a president who doesn't seem to realize that we're in a situation that calls for new and creative solutions, not retread policies with new packaging.

NCJW's Nancy Ratzan today called on Congress and the President to “do everything in their power to mitigate the effects of this disaster by prioritizing policies to combat unemployment and strengthen the safety net.”

Shouldn't that call be echoed by many more Jewish groups? And shouldn't they become more active participants in the critical debate over what those policies should be?

view counter

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


Mr. Besser, As someone that has read macro-economic blogs and websites daily for years on end trying to understand this thing we call the economy, I have rarely read a better summary of our present situation. One that can only be described as a systemic failure of epic proportion. I think it is very safe to say the a large majority of our best economists share your views and your frustration. Something is clearly wrong. The USA as we know it cannot endure year after year of 10% (actually, closer to 17%) unemployment. Our future, our kids, they deserve better than this. Yet neither Party seems able to do much more that patronize its unsettled and evermore frustrated bases. Yet I think a lot of us know what we need to do. America needs an extreme makeover-- yesterday-- we're running far behind our global counterparts-- thanks in part to the Bush II lost decade, but also thanks to the Chicago School Neoliberal economic dogma that has proven to be disastrously wrong-- and still supported to this day by Democrats that include most of Mr. Obama's economic team. Mr. Obama's economic policies echo the failed trickle-down Reaganomics that led to a withering of our national infrastructure and declining or stagnant wages for most workers. The data is in, it was what it was. Paradoxically, our economy thrives on consumption. This has led to a vicious cycle in which consumers do not have enough to spend to lift our economy out of a deep and growing hole. Businesses will not, despite what Mr. Obama asserts, invest in increased capacity in a decreasing demand environment. We have never been here before. Let's not kid ourselves. None of us have. We are at a new crossroads as a country and have a choice-- government is our means of investing and growing our way out of this or it is our adversary, blocking the firetruck from getting to the fire. We voted for change. For turning the page. For reclaiming the years we lost under Mr. Bush II. We're getting talk, half-measures, and worst or all LOST OPPORTUNITIES. Whatever comes now I believe comes from us bottom-up. We're going to have to be that change, and as FDR was claimed to have said, we're going to have to-- "make me do it". How this manifests I have no idea-- but we are asking for disruption by accepting this level of political failure-- and from that may come positive change. History is not optimistic on this point. But I sort of am.
Hey - saw this item here, totally relevant. ................................................................ SOURCE JEWISH FEDERATIONS CALL FOR INCREASED SUPPORT OF FEDERATION-MANAGED SAFETY NET PROGRAMS Sept. 16, 2010 WASHINGTON – As the number of people living in poverty hits an all-time high, it is vital that Congress maintains its support of much-needed safety net programs for the nation’s most vulnerable, says The Jewish Federations of North America, which helps manage hundreds of programs across the country to combat poverty. The U.S. Census Bureau today released estimates showing that 43.6 million people, or one in seven Americans, lived in poverty during 2009. Nearly 4 million people fell into poverty in 2009, a 1.1 percent increase over 2008 estimates. The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) raise billions of dollars annually to help millions of Jews and non-Jews around the world. The Jewish Federations, which is comprised of more than 157 Jewish Federations and 400 Network communities across the country, is on the front line of efforts to combat poverty and provide needed services to those who need help the most. The Jewish Federations is one of six national service organizations that manage the Emergency Food and Shelter program (EFSP). EFSP provides supplemental funding to non-profit and public agencies that assist families and individuals who are in economic crises meet their emergency food and shelter needs. Currently, EFSP provides supplemental funds to nearly 12,000 nonprofit and public social services agencies in more than 2,500 cities and counties across the country. “The Jewish Federations of North America is no stranger to efforts to help the nation’s most vulnerable find food and shelter,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of The Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office. According to Daroff, “over the last few years, the number of individuals approaching their local Federation for assistance has sharply increased. This includes not only those who do not know where their next meal or paycheck will come from, but also those seeking help to make ends meet for the first time.” “Programs like the Emergency Food and Shelter Program are an essential part of our efforts to help the nation’s most vulnerable,” said Cheryl Fishbein, chair of The Jewish Federations of North America’s Domestic Affairs Cabinet. “However, in addition to an increased demand for services, these programs also are facing a funding squeeze. We cannot allow a tighter budget to jeopardize the essential aid that we provide," Fishbein added. "The Census Bureau’s report, along with the nation’s unemployment rate, record number of foreclosures and other indicators, is just one more example of why EFSP and other social safety net programs are essential. Congress has routinely shown great support for these programs, and during this difficult economic period, we encourage members to increase their support.”