Opinion | Opinion

Op-Ed: Americans must unite in tough times

William Daroff

WASHINGTON (JTA) — In the days President Obama was preparing to deliver his State of the Union address, everyone knew the economy would play a major role. What remains unknown is what will result for millions of vulnerable Americans once the applause dies down and the political maneuvering picks back up.

What will tomorrow be like for the one in five American children who live below the poverty line? How will the 26 million unemployed and underemployed Americans feed their families? And when will our seniors receive the care they deserve but can’t afford on their own?

The answers to these questions depend on the answer to the real mystery in Washington on Tuesday.

Will our officials come together as they’ve done around the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords? Will leaders from all parties work side by side to support our struggling Americans in the same way they said they’d sit side by side at this year’s State of the Union? Or is this new wave of bipartisan civility only temporary — and tomorrow Congress once more will refuse to compromise, forcing hard-working Americans with urgent needs to stay on wait lists until it’s their turn for help?

I hope that’s not the case, because tragedy is not all that can unite our union. Lending a hand to our neighbors in need is a responsibility that every American values and must agree to uphold.

The last few years have proven that there are no quick fixes for our nation’s economic woes. But in the meantime, there are actions we can take to help our fellow Americans cope.

Although the Jewish Federations of North America doesn’t pretend to have all the solutions, we certainly do have a few.

First, the United States must invest in the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which is designed to help Americans who find themselves in sudden economic distress and need a lifesaver to prevent their immediate economic troubles from spiraling into long-term despair.

The number of these Americans in need is growing; requests for emergency food assistance climbed 24 percent last year. By providing extra support to more than 13,000 nonprofit and public food banks, shelters and homelessness prevention organizations nationwide, this program is helping Americans stay afloat.

While the banks were bailed out and put back on track, millions of Americans have been silently losing their homes as the foreclosure crisis has swept across the country. Our neighbors deserve support getting back on track, too. Congress should preserve funding for low-income housing assistance and housing for the elderly who may have lost the financial support of their families in this down economy.

Numerous other programs that help our seniors are endangered as lawmakers engage in the important battle to reduce the deficit. But instead of cutting these life-upholding services to seniors, we must choose new, more efficient ways to provide them.

Because a quarter of the Jewish population will be eligible for Medicare in the next decade, Jewish Federations has taken a keen interest in planning innovative home- and community-based programs that serve seniors and save the government money. Persevering with this type of innovation will be crucial as we seek to balance the budget without abandoning our parents and grandparents as they age.

The Jewish Federations will keep working with our allies in Congress and the White House to make these ideas a reality and find even more solutions that will improve the everyday lives of our neighbors.

As an organization, the Jewish Federations represents Jewish Americans of all viewpoints, but despite our differences we all unite around our belief in tikkun olam and tzedakah, repairing the world and charity. As our union struggles, it’s time for the rest of America to come together in the same spirit.

(William Daroff is the vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America.)