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Searching for the Promised Land

| April 6, 2009

Every year at this time, Jews around the world celebrate Passover, which marks the ancient Israelite’s exodus from Egyptian slavery and a period of desert wandering that lasted 40 years.  It seems appropriate, as we continue to descend into a downward economic spiral of historic proportions, that Americans of all faiths and backgrounds consider the long journey ahead as we struggle to find our own financial promised land.

Economists, politicians and pundits of every ideological stripe have devoted countless column inches to the circumstances that took us to the edge of financial ruin and the sacrifices that will be necessary to bring us back.  But these analyses, which cite statistics and quote people at the top of the economic pyramid, barely begin to capture the real, day-to-day suffering of ordinary Americans.  For this perspective, we must turn to those of us who maintain the nation’s social safety net – the thousands of nonprofit organizations working on the front lines of hunger, homelessness and other indications of a growing poverty that threatens our very survival.

In today’s environment, it is not surprising that more of us are coming to rely on the philanthropic sector to meet our basic daily needs.  But the size of the increase is nothing short of astonishing.  The agency I lead, which provides grants to food pantries, soup kitchens and food banks across the country, is hearing every day from these groups that they are living in a state of siege.  Millions of middle class families, those of us who played by the rules and got left holding the bag when the bankers and CEOs skipped town, are literally drowning.  And with disappearing resources and diminishing supplies, our grantees are attempting the impossible:  holding the line on a crisis unlike any we have seen before.

The families they serve are facing, many for the first time, the very real prospect of sending their children to bed hungry.  Little by little, as they queue up in breadlines and face an agonizing choice between paying their medical bills and paying the rent, they are being forced to relinquish their hold on the American Dream.

For these individuals – men and women; seniors, children and everyone in between – a return to prosperity will take more than bank bailouts and auto industry loans.  It will require a reordering of our priorities:  a real, long-term commitment to utilizing our collective resources for the good of the many, not just a privileged few.  It will demand accountability, an understanding that personal responsibility means more than just taking care of ourselves.  And it will take a sustained focus on bipartisan legislation that looks beyond tired, outdated labels and embraces policies and programs that give each of us the tools we need to thrive.

Of course, none of this will be easy.  Like the Jews in the desert all those years ago, we will no doubt stumble our way forward, at times perhaps even exacerbating the very problems we hope to solve.  But the Passover story shows us that salvation is not simply a matter of faith.  With steady leadership and a sense of purpose, progress is possible.  How long it takes will be up to us.

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