This pre-Pesach column is not about refugees.
That’s not to say that the work of many faith communities, our own included, on behalf of those seeking a better life in the United States is not a good idea. And it’s not to say that the holiday of redemption doesn’t have anything to offer concerning the imperative of welcoming the stranger. As a matter of fact, the Torah — multiple times — ties that general commandment to our experiences in Egypt.
But at a time when people everywhere add their own commitments to social justice to the Seder plate — an orange, an olive, an artichoke, for example — there’s another idea we can all embrace without changing anything about the seder, the Haggadah or normative Pesach practice. We need only look to the words of the Haggadah, in the Aramaic opening passage of Maggid — the central section of the seder’s central text — as a guide: “Let all who are hungry come in and eat; let all who are in need come and join us.”
It’s easy to dismiss the poor and those in need of government support in the form of the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“food stamps”) or Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits as either lazy or otherwise not deserving of handouts. A similar attitude might prevent some of us from giving a few coins to a panhandler on the assumption that he will squander his “earnings” on alcohol or drugs. The true life, however, of the silent majority of those who rely on the social safety net to get by is nowhere close to the preconceived notions generally harbored by many who happen to be relatively well-off.
This dynamic between reality and prejudice was on full display last week at a meeting of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Nutrition, which was considering changes to the national food stamp program. As recorded in The Washington Post — but also on the website of The Federalist — Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas), the subcommittee’s chairman, and Josh Prostas, the vice president of public policy at the Jewish anti-hunger group MAZON, each referred to biblical verses in a discussion on work requirements for food stamp recipients.
Prostas invoked a commandment in Leviticus to leave harvest gleanings for the poor to emphasize the necessity of taking care of the less fortunate. The quote is “a great reflection on the character of God and the compassion of God’s heart and how we ought to reflect that compassion in our lives,” Arrington acknowledged in response.
But then Arrington brought his own bit of Scripture to the party, referring to 2 Thessalonians 3:10, a New Testament passage from the Christian Bible. “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat,’” Arrington said, quoting the verse. “And then he goes on to say, ‘we hear that some among you are idle.’
“I think that every American, Republican or Democrat, wants to help the neediest among us. And I think it’s a reasonable expectation that we have work requirements.”
The Federalist characterizes this last sentence of Arrington’s as merely encapsulating the duty of all who can work to actually do so, implying that nothing could be further from Arrington’s mind than limiting the help that food stamps provide.
The GOP’s recent legislative history on Capitol Hill evidences a different design: a wholesale desire to substantially decrease federal entitlement spending through, among other techniques, tightening work requirements. Republicans tried to limit Medicaid by considering work requirements as part of the recently failed overhaul of the Affordable Care Act, and the same day Prostas offered his testimony, Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) introduced a bill to eliminate the authority of the Secretary of Agriculture to grant waivers from work requirements pertaining to the food stamp program.
According to the Department of Agriculture, which administers federal food subsidies, more than 75 percent of households that include a person able to work was employed in the year before or after receiving food stamps. A full 64 percent of recipients are actually not able to work; they include children, the elderly or the disabled. To presumptively suspect this nation’s food safety net as incentivizing able-bodied adults to not work is not only wrong, it’s unjust.
The fact is, for most people, food support often means the difference between providing proper nutrition for children and skipping a meal, of just getting by or going without a basic human need. Presumptively viewing the poor as human beings in need as opposed to freeloaders is not just a religious demand, it’s a social necessity.
It would be wonderful if religious communities and nonprofits alone could solve this nation’s problem with hunger, but they don’t. That’s why we need government to help fill in the gap. And there’s been a great tradition in this country’s modern history to do just that.
It’s something to keep in mind next week as we sit around the seder table to partake of the Pesach feast. Some of us might not have much more than the meager offerings of the seder plate. Others might not have a stocked pantry or refrigerator to go home to. Hunger is real and dismissing the hungry as little more than scam artists is not only not Jewish; fundamentally, it’s not American.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at email@example.com.