It's unlikely that the U.S. Census Bureau had any clue that it was releasing its latest report on poverty on the eve of Yom Kippur, just as many of us were preparing to begin our fast and hear the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah, preaching the moral imperative to care for the oppressed and the poor.
But the timing couldn't have been more apt. Even as we go hungry for a day, the words of Isaiah can easily fall on deaf ears. How many of us really understand what hunger is?
The latest government figures — combined with recent findings about economic distress and food insecurity in our own community — are sobering.
The poverty rate in America jumped to a 15-year high in 2009, afflicting 43.6 million people, or 14.3 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau. In Philadelphia, the poverty rate remained at about 25 percent.
In our Jewish community — still often mistakenly pegged as a universally wealthy one — poverty still strikes our most vulnerable citizens. Some 46 percent of Jews in the city, where the highest concentration of impoverished Jews live, have a total annual household income below $50,000, according to the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia." That's $10,000 below the income deemed necessary to be self-sufficient for a family of four, according to PathWays PA, a social-service agency.
Another Federation study this year on food insecurity found some 11,300 needy Jews in our region — 7,000 of whom currently receive some food assistance.
The Jewish agencies that service this segment of our community do critical work.
The Mitzvah Food Pantry, the Klein JCC, the Jewish Family and Children's Service and others expend significant resources serving the most disadvantaged in our community, the majority of whom live in Northeast Philadelphia. The Jewish Relief Agency, which harnesses the energy of hundreds of volunteers each month to deliver food packages to a largely Russian and elderly population, this week marked its 10th anniversary.
But much more is needed.
The Federation is considering a number of new initiatives. "It is up to Federation and its partner agencies to find innovative ways" to address the problem that is certain to intensify as the recession persists, and federal and state funding shrinks, said Brian Gralnick, director of Federation's Center for Social Responsibility. One example is a campaign to educate those who may be eligible for, yet unaware of, such public benefits as property-tax rebates and prescription benefits.
A combination of philanthropy, volunteerism and public advocacy can go a long way as we grapple with this stubborn stain on our society. With the words of Isaiah still ringing in our ears, the time is now.