12/30/2013 02:10 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2014

Fancy Diners: Do You Even See Me?

Many of us have become accustomed to walking by the homeless as they shiver in our city streets, paying as little attention as we can, attempting to not make eye contact. In fact many of us view the homeless, as they beg for help, as a sort of bother or annoyance -- a depressing obstacle on the way to our intended destination.

Though many of us are not among the highest income earners in this country, our relative wealth and comfort puts us in a unique position to offer assistance, yet most of us do not. Our behavior towards the most needy among us begs the question: do the wealthy really see the poor?

How we relate to money and financial giving reveals a lot about us. The Talmud teaches that a person shows his or her character in three ways: koso, kaaso, and kiso (what emerges when one drinks, how one relates to money, and how one handles their anger). In the past few years, there has been a lot of research conducted on the topic of how humans treat one another and the factors that impact our behavior. Psychological experts have been finding more and more evidence of just how powerful a factor economic status is in how human beings treat one another.

Famed psychologist and author Daniel Goleman wrote:

A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a mere five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker.

In a revealing study, social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam and UC Berkeley observed how people of various socio-economic statuses listened to one another and found that more powerful individuals were less compassionate toward the suffering of the less powerful. Professor Dacher Keltner at UC Berkeley and Professor Michael Kraus at the University of Illinois found that those with power in society tend to pay very little attention to those with the least power (even when those with the least power are working for them at work or as caretakers for their children at home).

Politically, this attitude can have catastrophic consequences, as the wealthy can choose to either deny that the poor exist or dismissively blame them for their misfortune. In October 1964, then-actor Ronald Reagan gave a speech reflecting this view: "We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet."

When Reagan later became President, he continued to ignore the poor. While drastically cutting taxes for the wealthy, he cut domestic spending by about 25 percent (hidden in "block grants" that consolidated numerous programs into a single expenditure), and reduced the number of federal housing units. When more than 1 million people became homeless, President Reagan again denied there was a problem, saying, "[P]eople who are sleeping on the grates... are homeless, you might say, by choice."

By the time President Reagan left office, the non-partisan Government Accounting Office took the unprecedented step of issuing a warning that the number of homeless had ballooned to 3 million and was steadily increasing.

Unfortunately, still, many of the powerful and wealthy choose not to, or cannot, see the poor. In its recent budget "compromise," while leaving intact every tax loophole, Congress did not even consider extending unemployment benefits to 1.3-million Americans who will lose their coverage by the end of this year, in spite of the fact that these Americans have been paying into unemployment insurance for years or, in some instances, decades. Congress has also scrupulously avoided considering raising the minimum wage, has not addressed the topic of immigration including creating a path to citizenship for undocumented residents, or even considered a host of other issues that affect millions of poor people in this country.

While a Farm Bill was not passed, the House of Representatives, in particular, has been vigorous in trying to cut food stamps (SNAP), while maintaining agricultural subsidies to the wealthy. Representative Stephen Fincher (R-TN) and his wife, who received $70,574 in farm subsidies in 2012, nevertheless voted to slash the SNAP budget by $40 billion. Compare this with the average food stamp (SNAP) benefit of $1.33 a meal or the $132 monthly allowance for a needy individual in Tennessee.

Financially, government policy still favors the rich while ignoring the poor. In late 2008, the Federal Reserve began a policy of purchasing longer-term government and government-sponsored securities, known as large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs). Eventually, this reached $85 billion per month, which keeps short-term borrowing costs at record lows and mostly benefits the stock market, which has doubled its value and helped ensure record corporate profits. However, since 80 percent of stock wealth is owned by 10 percent of the population, this policy has primarily helped the rich. Big banks have set aside $91.44 billion for their end of the year bonuses, versus nearly $92.5 billion they paid out in 2012. Contrast this with the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Americans desperately looking for work. According to recent statistics, there are still three applicants for every available job, and seven applicants for every job paying more than $15/hour.

In urban America, the myopia concerning the poor is also still evident. Outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has earned praise for his efforts with gun control and health initiatives, has often turned a blind eye to the issue of homelessness. In early 2013, for example, he made the incredible statement: "Nobody's sleeping on the streets."

Recently, as he prepared to leave office, he responded to a story about a homeless person by saying: "That's just the way G-d works."

These statements show a shocking disconnect between the billionaire mayor and the most needy of the city's inhabitants. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, an anti-homelessness organization in New York City, "Each night as many as 60,000 people -- including more than 22,000 children -- experience homelessness. Currently 52,400 homeless men, women, and children bed down each night in the NYC municipal shelter system."

The rabbis taught, "Whoever wishes to live in sanctity, may he live according to the true laws of commerce and finance" (Bava Kama 30a).

This teaching may seem curious because one may have expected holiness to primarily be related to matters of prayer and study. However, the rabbis taught that it is precisely how we handle issues of money and socio-economic status that determine our true character and integrity. The Torah expressed great concern for the financial stability of people, evidencing a keen understanding of how much is at stake for those left wanting (chassa al mamonam shel yisrael); further, the Torah expresses a clear displeasure of the financial burdens that so many of us endure. Adding to the distress and pain of poverty, the impoverished must further live with the deaf ears of the wealthy. We can, and must, do better to ensure that the most needy among us are not ignored and neglected. Let us work to perfect G-d's creation and recognize the light in one another, regardless of socio-economic status.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.