On the Backs of Those Who Most Need Our Help

I spent today at the Capitol with over 200 other members of faith communities from across the state to participate in Interfaith Advocacy Day, sponsored by the Faith Action Network. It was a day of learning, of inspiration and action. Connected to the work we did today is this piece I wrote for the Jewish Soundwa capitol (formerly the JTNews, and thanks to them for the headline), published in this week’s issue:

Here is a scenario: a synagogue is faced with a tight budget. Examining its options, the board of the congregation decides not to do any additional fundraising, but instead decides to just cut programs.

Doesn’t sound too realistic? As a congregational rabbi myself, I understand that there is a limit to cutting programs-how far does one cut back? Do we get rid of our youth education program? Deny well- deserved pay for our staff? Instead, prudent spending cuts need to be coupled with examining new avenues of fundraising: do we raise the expected annual commitment? Have a special event? Maybe a special High Holiday appeal?

This is the situation our state is facing. Bound by law on much of its spending, our state is facing a tight budget. So there are two choices: cut services, or raise revenues. And with many of the services on the chopping block social services to help the most in need in our state, it becomes imperative that we look at new areas to raise revenue in order to secure the social services that are so desperately needed.

But the need for more revenue rather than balancing the budget on the backs of those most in need is only one major issue of economic justice facing our state. Our state taxation system is extremely regressive-it puts more of the burden of those who can least afford it. In other words, the poorest in our state are paying a higher percentage of their earnings in taxes than the richest in our state.

How regressive? Out of 50 states, Washington ranks 50th.

According to the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy, an independent think tank that studies federal, state and local tax issues, Washington State has the most regressive tax structure in the United States. According to its most recent report (which can be found on its website http://www.itep.org), the poorest citizens of our state are taxed at a rate of 16.8%, while the richest-the top 1% of wage earners-pay only 2.4% in taxes.

[Again, to the synagogue analogy, it’s like expecting your poorest congregants to pay more in dues than your richest congregants.]

And if we combine the two issues, we see that failing to raise revenue while cutting social services will mean a double hit on our poorest: they will be paying the most in taxes while services meant to support them are being cut.

I often find it interesting that a state that seems to be progressive when it comes to social issues-the voters of the state of Washington passed by ballot marriage equality, gun control and marijuana legalization (the first two with the official support of the organized Jewish community)-continues to be so regressive when it comes to economic policy.

As our legislature is meeting here in Olympia, they will need to wrestle with this dilemma. Already our Governor has introduced various revenue packages for consideration. And there are other issues of economic justice in front of our lawmakers. A raise in the minimum wage is another, for example, that should be seriously considered.

I’m not an economist or a policy analyst, so I will hesitate to weigh in on the pros and cons of various solutions; I don’t know what the right answers are. But I am a rabbi, and I can say that budgets are moral documents, they reflect a community’s priorities and values. And to continue to maintain such a regressive tax system, and cutting social services without raising new revenue, is immoral.

We as Jews need to be concerned with economic justice, it is rooted in our text and tradition. This coming Shabbat is parashat Terumah, in Exodus. Having escaped from Egyptian slavery, the Israelites-through the gift of Torah-are to build a new society for themselves. One aspect is the ritual and ethical laws we explored in last week’s Torah reading. Another aspect is the communal institutions that will serve as a centerpiece to the community.

In this week’s portion, in Exodus 25:8, God tells Moses “let them make me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” The portion continues, describing in detail the plans and materials that will be used to construct the tabernacle and its furnishings. And those materials come from the people. All the people.

The economic issues facing our state are our issues, not only as citizens, but as Jews. We all must contribute to the development of our community. That is what our tradition teaches. And it also teaches that we do so justly and fairly.

Thanks for continuing the conversation!

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