Religious Leaders Encourage Poverty Protections for Unemployed Americans

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition (IDAC) gathered on Capitol Hill Thursday to speak out in support of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits program. The program, an important lifeline for Americans unable to work due to illness or injury, has been under attack from critics. The two groups gathered to dispel myths about the program being widely abused and wasteful and pushed to ensure that SSDI would not fall victim to "fiscal cliff" negotiations.

The briefing featured presentations from two former SSDI recipients who were able to return to full-time employment after suffering tragic accidents that rendered them unable to work. The first, Donna Eshghi, a full-time nurse from Wichita, Kansas, contracted Hepatitis C after an unexpected needle-prick at work. A single mother, she was able to use SSDI benefits to support her family until she was able to return to work. Deborah Krotenberg, an attorney from Atlanta, used SSDI benefits to keep herself afloat until she was able to return to work full-time after she was paralyzed in a serious car accident.

Kathy Ruffing, Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,discussed her recent report: Social Security Disability Insurance is Vital to Workers With Severe Impairments.  Additionally, Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, closed the event with an interfaith prayer.

As a nation, we need to be committed to ensuring that when Americans become unable to work due to illness or accident, there is a safety net," said Rabbi Steve Gutow, President and CEO of JCPA. "SSDI is literally a lifeline for millions of Americans. People who collect disability insurance have paid into the system and therefore it is critical that the benefits they have earned are available in their time of need.

Some key facts about SSDI:

  1. According to the most recent government statistics in October of 2012, there were 8.8 million Americans collecting SSDI.
  2. There are record numbers of SSDI recipients now because Baby Boomers are getting older and are more prone to illness or injury. There are also a record number of women in the workforce. Steve Goss, Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration, recently testified about these trends before the United States Congress.
  3. By cutting funding to the SSDI program, states and local communities will feel the brunt of the burden.
  4. Denying or delaying benefits to disabled Americans leads to additional human suffering. They might have to file for bankruptcy or apply for welfare; some may end up in home foreclosure or be unable to get medical treatment without their SSDI benefits.
  5. It's not easy to qualify for SSDI benefits.  The qualifying standards have been raised and there are many diseases which no longer solely qualify claimants for benefits, like alcoholism, diabetes, drug abuse, and obesity.

Recently released data from the Department of Agriculture and the 2011 Census show that while 46.2 million Americans lived in poverty in 2011, safety net programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) have been effective in preventing many families and individuals from falling into deeper economic peril, said the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

We continue to be saddened by just how many have been living in poverty but are encouraged by the success of programs like SNAP and unemployment insurance at keeping many out of more dire straits," said JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow. "Even as the poverty numbers remained high in 2011, studies of the data have shown that if you accounted for SNAP dollars, it would show 3.9 million fewer people in poverty, including 1.7 million children. Without unemployment insurance, 2.3 million more people would be in poverty. That means millions saved from the harder decisions like giving up meals or leaving their homes.

According to the 2011 Data, 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty last year, roughly equal to the number of households with food insecurity.

Said JCPA Chair Larry Gold: Times of high poverty, as we have experienced over the last few years, are exactly when our anti-poverty programs are expected to respond the most. The effectiveness of that response is evident in this data. It is perverse then to propose, as many have, to cut programs designed to meet the needs of those looking for work or unable to afford food even as poverty remains high.

Through the JCPA's Confronting Poverty campaign, we have mobilized the Jewish communities across the country to recognize and defend the value of programs like SNAP and unemployment insurance against severe budgetary cuts. It is impossible to look at this data and think we would be better off had we abandoned those in need and failed to support programs that provide critical assistance when it is needed most.

To mobilize the Jewish community in support of the SNAP program and elevate a strong Jewish voice in response to the crisis of hunger in the United States, the JCPA helped lead the 2012 Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge together with MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Uri L'Tzedek, American Conference of Cantors, and the Cantors Assembly.  

Rabbis and cantors in communities across the country representing all four major denominations committed to living for one week on a food budget of $31.50, the average allotment for individuals on SNAP as part of the 2012 Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge.

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