By Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz | April 4, 2012 

The 18th century rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz observed that “some people act as if they are exempt from giving to 100 people seeking assistance in the event that one might be a fraud.” His comment is incredibly relevant today, as our Minnesota Legislature deliberates on a group of bills circulating under the misleading label of “Welfare Reform 2.0.”

These bills have the shared effect of erecting barriers that will prevent needy Minnesotans from accessing the vital safety net programs that help to spare them from the worst indignities of poverty. These bills propose subjecting applicants to criminal-background checks and drug testing, limiting how long people can receive help and increasing the length of time a new resident must wait to be eligible for benefits. Individually and collectively, these “reforms” add significantly to the cost of providing benefits in the name of “catching” those whom some consider unworthy of assistance.

Bills promote a false image of recipients

Masquerading behind a claim of good government, these bills promote the idea that most of those seeking assistance are able-bodied moochers looking to live on the dole, or worse. This is far from reality! Take, for example, SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps and known in our state as the Minnesota Food Support program). Despite exaggerated stories suggesting otherwise, the USDA reports that SNAP has less than a 1 percent rate of fraud. What’s more, in 2010, most SNAP participants (55 percent) were children or elderly; and many SNAP participants (41 percent) had jobs that did not pay enough to avoid poverty.

Like many others in our state’s faith community, the Jewish community has made fighting hunger a community-wide priority. Synagogues in Minnesota, and across the country, partner with MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger – to support food shelves, food banks and hunger advocacy organizations. We understand that these organizations, created to provide emergency relief, cannot alone solve the problem of hunger. We urge our government to accept its share of the responsibility to maintain a strong safety net that defends society against the worst ravages of hunger and ensuring appropriate access to it. Our legislators need to know that “Welfare Reform 2.0” is the antithesis of what we should be doing.

If we truly want good government, we should urge our legislators to heed the “Cost/Benefit Hunger Impact Study” (Sept., 2010) conducted by the Food Industry Center of the University of Minnesota, underwritten by the Target Corporation. This study demonstrates that hunger leads to higher health-care costs and poorer educational outcomes and, as a result, imposes substantial monetary costs on all Minnesotans – to the tune of between $1.26 billion and $1.62 billion per year.

 
 

The study also provides evidence that every dollar the State of Minnesota invests in food programs returns $41.55 in economic stimulus and savings. We should be urging our legislators to find ways to ease access to these valuable programs, rather than expending their energy creating impediments that demean all those unfortunate enough to find themselves in need.

Writing more than 200 years ago, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz urged the respectful treatment of people already suffering the indignity of poverty. The University of Minnesota provides us with empirical evidence showing that lowering barriers to access is actually better for our economy. Let us impress these lessons of head and heart on those who govern on our behalf.

Harold J. Kravitz is senior rabbi at Adath Jeshurun Congregation, Minnetonka. He serves on the executive committee of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.