We Can Do Better Than That

By Alex Roth-Kahn and Jeffrey A. Schoenfeld

(An installment in the series Spotlight on Poverty, a partnership between JFN and eJewish Philanthropy.)

Fifty-four years ago, President Lyndon Johnson first uttered the now famous phrase “the war on poverty” in his State of the Union address. When he spoke in 1964, a staggering 19% of Americans were considered poor, equaling 36 million Americans at the time. Today, the poverty rate may have dropped to 12.7%, but with our much larger population, that translates to more than 40 million Americans living in poverty.

The more local statistics are no less startling. One in five New York-area Jewish households is poor. One in 10 are near poor. Moreover, 45% of all children in Jewish households live in poor or near-poor households.

We can do better than that.

In the decades since 1964, we’ve made leaps forward in science, medicine, technology, and more. We need to harness these advances to attempt new strategies and introduce systemic change.

Since our creation in 1917, UJA-Federation has looked to lift individuals and families out of poverty and put them on a path to self-sufficiency. Now, as we’ve entered our second century, we’re reenergized to tackle this challenge, recognizing that a web of issue keep people poor – and so we need to tackle them all.

To understanding the current landscape, we’ve been on a listening journey to hear from people who are disrupting the poverty space and working on the frontlines of today’s “war on poverty.” The first learning – we can’t go at this alone.

To bring as many people to the table as possible, earlier this summer, we hosted more than 200 poverty visionaries and thought-leaders for a daylong conference. We heard from Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, who opened our eyes to the enormity of the housing crisis and the role of eviction in the poverty cycle. Barbara Turk, New York City’s Director of Food Policy spoke about how to scale innovative ideas and best practices across the hundreds of food pantries throughout our city. Other speakers addressed workforce development and how new technology can be harnessed to address homelessness and hunger.

Since the conference, we’ve been focused on three key areas that will guide our work going forward, and that we encourage others to consider as well:

  • An effective response will not come from any one sector alone: Diverse stakeholders – nonprofits, interfaith groups, philanthropists, and advocacy groups – need to work in collaboration. Our interaction with government must go beyond advocacy to policy formation. In the closing remarks at the conference, Counsel to the Governor Alphonso David said “If programs are the strategy, greater policy is the lever we can pull to amplify the effectiveness.” We must form coalitions of funders, planners, and policy makers to ensure that our programs and policies are bolstering one another, and that public and private resources are better aligned.
  • Moving the needle requires an appetite for innovation and a certain degree of risk: Like in so many industries, some of the most successful responses to poverty were started by individuals who had both a great idea and the courage to pursue it. For instance, as a student at UCLA, Rachel Sumekh created a mechanism for students to donate their unused meal plan dollars to peers who were skipping meals because they couldn’t afford them. She then scaled this idea into a national initiative called Swipe out Hunger, which has had enormous impact. In New York, we believe that UJA’s new Digital Choice Food Pantry System created in partnership with the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, will be equally as effective in helping alleviate food insecurity. This cloud-based software is using an innovative point system and touch-screen technology to allow low-income individuals to select the food their families want and need. (You can learn more about the Digital Choice system and our full anti-poverty initiative by watching the video below.)
  • Giving people dignity and hope is as important as giving them material support: In his opening remarks, Matthew Desmond reminded us that “poverty reduces people born for better things.” When people are expending all of their energy trying to survive, they cannot even begin to envision a better future for themselves. The inverse is true as well – when we can help people discern a path toward economic stability provided through a dignified path, we offer them the ability to dream once again. When we think about measuring the success of anti-poverty efforts, in addition to quantitative data such as income and job retention, we also need to factor in the change we have made in a person’s ability to hope.

Poverty is an age old problem, yet we need to get more creative about how we respond. The human service sector needs to partner with government, tech developers, and entrepreneurs – and together, in trying to find efficiency and scale, we must hold onto the dignity of each and every client.

Alex Roth-Kahn is Managing Director, UJA-Federation of NY’s Caring Department and Jeffrey A. Schoenfeld is President, UJA-Federation of NY.