Shutdown, Sequestered and Days of Awe

Shutdown, Sequestered and Days of Awe

The state of things for people in poverty—made worse by the sequester and shutdown—should cause awe in every member of Congress.


The US Capitol is photographed through a chain fence in Washington, DC, on September 30, 2013 (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Last month, during the “Days of Awe” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I was among the millions of Jews engaged in the act of teshuva—looking inward to see where we are missing the mark in order to then turn outward and right our course.

We seek out those we have wronged and ask their forgiveness, we set our sights on a new direction, and then on Yom Kippur, we fast and read from the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah reminds us that the work during the Days of Awe isn’t for the sake of ritual, or our own individual needs, but to direct a renewed energy toward healing and repairing the world:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free… to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter…. Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear…. If you do away with the pointing finger and malicious talk, if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness…. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.


I’m reminded of these words as we witness the hardships created by sequester, now intensified by a government shutdown: up to 19,000 more kids unable to attend Head Start schools, adding to the 57,000 shut out by sequester. Millions of mothers and children in the Women, Infants and Children program—their health and well-being threatened by any shutdown lasting longer than a week. Service providers for domestic violence victims—already forced to cut staff and programs due to sequester—now face the possibility of closing their doors. Veterans and civilians awaiting decisions on disability benefits will have to wait until the shutdown ends due to insufficient staff at the Social Security administration and a closed Veterans Appeals Board. The minority of families living in poverty who are able to receive meager cash assistance (TANF), now might not receive any cash assistance at all since federal funding has expired.

Those who would increase the vulnerability of the very people who are already the most vulnerable among us could use a little Awe—to look squarely at the struggles of so many, and see what our nation is doing to make those struggles harder.

Awe… that more than one in seven of us lives below the poverty line of $18,300 for a family of three.

Awe… that more than one in five children lives in poverty, including more than 42 percent of African-American children under age 5, and 37 percent of Latino children under age 5.

Awe… that 1 in 15 Americans lives in “deep poverty”—on less than $11,750 for a family of four—nearly 60 percent more than population who lived in deep poverty in 2000.

Awe… that we have made cash assistance so hard to come by, with just 27 of every 100 families in poverty receiving it, down from 68 of every 100 in 1996.

Awe… that more than one in of us—106 million Americans—lives on less than $36,600 for a family of three, struggling to simply obtain the basics: food, housing, healthcare, continuing education—and forget about savings. These Americans are a single serious hardship away from poverty.

Awe… that 50 percent of jobs in the United States pay less than $34,000 a year; and 25 percent pay less than the poverty line for a family of four.

Awe… that the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a poverty wage. For most of the 1960s and ’70s, the minimum wage was sufficient to lift a family of three out of poverty. But now a full-time minimum-wage worker earns around $15,000 annually.

Awe… that the tipped minimum wage has been stuck at $2.13 per hour since 1991. As a result, the people who serve us our food are nearly twice as likely as the general population to need food stamps.

Awe… that over 49 million people—about 14.5 percent of all households—are food insecure. That means that they don’t have enough money to meet their basic food needs, and don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. It includes one in five children.

Awe… that in these homes you will find parents skipping meals; children trying to give their food to their parents; parents trying to stretch their dollar by buying cheap, high-calorie foods; and, consequently, children in poor health and struggling to learn.

Awe… that the food stamp (SNAP) benefit that currently averages just $1.50 per person per meal—will decrease to around $1.40 per person per meal in November—a cut that will affect 22 million children.

Awe… that House Republicans want to cut $40 billion over ten years from the SNAP program. That translates to 3.8 million low-income people losing SNAP in 2014, an additional 3 million people per year losing it over the next decade and 210,000 children losing free school meals next year.

Awe… that by early 2014, 140,000 fewer low-income families will receive Section 8 vouchers for rental assistance. This comes at a moment when only one in four eligible households actually receives federal rental assistance; half of the current households with vouchers include seniors or people with disabilities; and the average annual household income for people in the program is just $12,500.

Awe… that children who receive food stamps are less likely to be at risk of being underweight or having developmental delays, than children who are eligible but not receiving food stamps. They also have fewer hospitalizations and emergency room visits; and less need for special education in school. So when Isaiah says that when you feed the hungry, your healing will quickly appear—this is what that healing looks like in children.

Awe… that adults who benefited from food stamps when they were children—compared to their disadvantaged peers who did not—had better health and improved economic outcomes, ranging from education and earnings, to reduced need for the safety net. So despite the rhetoric about food stamps causing dependency, the data shows exactly the opposite. And this is what it looks like when we follow Isaiah’s advice to stop the finger-pointing and malicious talk, and simply examine the facts.

Awe… that children under age 6 in low-income families that received a boost of just $3,000 in annual family income (in earnings or government benefits)—compared to their peers who didn’t—saw improved education performance, and significantly greater earnings and hours worked as adults. And this is what it looks like when we break the yoke, and set the oppressed free, by investing in families.

While many Republicans of faith argue that it’s the responsibility of individuals, neighborhoods and houses of worship to respond to those in need, this misses the scope of the problem. At a recent House hearing on The War on Poverty, Sister Simone Campbell noted that just to cover the food stamp cuts proposed by the House last year—which were smaller than the cuts currently under consideration—“every church, synagogue, mosque, and house of worship in the United States” would have needed to raise $50,000 in additional monies every year, for ten years.

Unless we overcome the venom and vitriol directed at one another and especially at people who are struggling; unless we act out of a common humanity; unless we end the self-righteousness and simply stand with the righteous—we will fail to repair the broken walls, fail to restore streets with dwellings and fail to become that well-watered garden, a spring whose water never fails.

And the people who will pay the greatest price? Doesn’t take a prophet to answer that.

Greg Kaufmann detailed a number of ways to get involved in the fight against poverty in his previous blog post.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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