We Can Do Better

runyan_josh_ot$10.10 an hour. It’s quite a rallying cry, something we can all get behind — a living wage for hard-working Americans who, by circumstance or fate or a combination of the two, are living paycheck to paycheck and are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Whether or not raising the minimum wage is a religious imperative, as argued by Gov. Martin O’Malley, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders Monday, is beside the point. Establishing an hourly wage more in keeping with the rising costs of living in the United States has, with President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address last week, become one of the top domestic policy issues currently facing this country.

In this week’s JT, you’ll read about the debate between those on either side of the question, the small business owners who fear a rising cost of labor negatively impacting their already slim profit margins and the workers of all stripes for whom a higher minimum wage means not having to choose between food and heat or rent and a car payment.

Unfortunately what tends to get lost in discussions of this type is the realization that living paycheck to paycheck is a reality not just experienced by those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. In the Jewish community in general, and in Baltimore in particular, droves of two-income families who could be classified by any objective standard as firmly entrenched in the middle class find the idea of improving their economic lot as little more than a dream. Two seemingly simple things prevent these families from advancing further: children and the education to support them.

In Jewish tradition, having children and educating them in Jewish ways are two fundamental mitzvot, right alongside the prohibitions of murder and idolatry. Just as idol worship is the ultimate negation of a belief in the Divine, bringing children into the world is the ultimate affirmation of one’s faith. And whereas murder robs the world of life, education preserves it, ensuring a better future not only for the student, but for all of his descendants as well.

The problem is that while we as a community have affirmed Jewish education as an ideal worth preserving, we have families who, while not poor, struggle day in and day out to afford the rising costs of tuition. Maryland falls woefully behind other states in terms of freeing up public dollars to make private education more affordable. And while communal organizations led by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore disburse millions of dollars to day schools, it’s still not enough.

This is not to suggest that families with means are not helping. To be sure, Baltimore is one of the most giving of communities, with a wealth of programs designed to help those on the margins and in need; it’s even a place where the Jewish community has begun to look outside its borders to bring economic vitality to the predominantly non-Jewish neighborhood south of Northern Parkway.

Nor is this an attempt to argue against raising the minimum wage. In these trying economic times, hard-working Americans need more than ever to know that society is behind them in their struggle to attain and maintain the American dream.

My hope is instead that economic progress not be relegated to either the top 1 percent or those straddling the poverty level. Not being able to afford the chance to impart a Jewish future to one’s children is a nightmare no God-fearing person deserves. The global Jewish community can, and will, do better.


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