What’s at Stake in Montgomery County: Economic Justice
Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nitza’s house,
in Lod, when this question was asked of them: Is study greater or is action greater?
Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater.
The others answered and said: Study is greater, because it leads to action. — Kiddushin 40b
Locally, primary election voters from one party usually choose who ends up running our county. This is the second in a series of weekly posts on specific county issues, walking you through what the outcome of the June 26 primary could mean for our local community.
Last week we wrote about what’s at stake for our immigrant neighbors and all of us who stand with them. This week, I’ll be sharing what’s at stake for people who are struggling to find good jobs and make ends meet.
On June 26, you can choose leaders who will lift up our values and priorities — or not.
Jewish tradition teaches us that study leads to action. We want you to go to the voting booth armed with knowledge. And we encourage you to forward and share this information — every vote will really matter.
Economic justice: the short version
In a wealthy county, in a wealthy state, in the wealthiest nation the world has ever known, no one should be hungry or homeless. The presence of wealth only makes the struggles of poor and working families more starkly unacceptable. Every job should be a good job that makes it possible for working people to provide for themselves and their families. And we need strong government programs to support people who can’t work or who struggle to find good jobs.
To make sure everyone who lives in our county has what they need to live and thrive, our county government needs to prioritize spending our tax dollars to support services and infrastructure, like public transit, affordable housing, and access to nutritious food. People like you in the JUFJ community worked hard to raise the minimum wage and to pass earned sick leave. Our partners in county government made those wins possible – and they must build on those victories to ensure that no one is without their basic needs.
Go deeper: for everyone to thrive, we need to share the wealth.
Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, but the presence of affluent folks sometimes obscures the many people who struggle to make it. Nearly 100,000 people who live here work minimum-wage jobs. That’s about 10%. Nearly 7% of our county lives in serious poverty – meaning an income of $24,600 or less for a family of four. Many more rely on services that our county provides, but every year in budget negotiations, those services are threatened. A small handful of very wealthy, very vocal residents and business owners fight hard to prevent the county government from asking them to pay their fair share of taxes.
Meanwhile, too many people work long hours at multiple jobs for lousy pay and almost no benefits. JUFJ and our partners have worked hard to set minimum standards for decent jobs, but we have more to do to make sure people can earn a decent living with basic benefits like health insurance and family leave.
Psalm 128 teaches us: “When you eat the fruit of your labor, you will be happy and it will be well with you.” Our tradition’s earliest rabbis supported themselves through manual labor, working as tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, tanners, construction workers, and shoemakers. They built into Jewish tradition the notion that work is honorable and every worker ought to be treated with dignity. They taught that the Torah demands that we create ethical and mutually respectful contracts between employers and employees. We must work towards a county that honors that tradition.
We need the right partners in office to help
In recent years JUFJ has worked in partnership with County Councilmembers on successful campaigns to increase the county’s minimum wage, and to ensure paid sick leave for everyone – and especially people who work hourly and low-pay jobs that don’t otherwise come with basic benefits. These measures have improved quality of life for tens of thousands of working families, but there is more for the new Council and Executive to do.
People need fair and predictable schedules. Right now, many companies hire only part-time employees, in order to avoid providing benefits like health insurance required for full-time employees. This means that the people who hold these jobs have to find a second or third job – even if they are willing and eager to work more hours at the first. They spend more time hustling from job to job and are still left without decent benefits even when they work long hours overall.
Employers also use “just in time scheduling” and demand that staff be available “on call” – but only assign and pay for part-time work. Supervisors notify staff that they won’t be needed today, or send people home before a shift ends, without compensation. Schedules and income vary wildly from week to week, making it hard to arrange childcare, work another job, or take classes, and of course, making it harder to afford the basics of life. Part-time and on-demand jobs mean more stress and struggle for working people, all so that businesses don’t have to pay for basic benefits or one millisecond of staffing they deem unprofitable. The county government should incentivize employers to hire full-time employees with benefits.
The Council and Executive can also do much more to help folks afford the basics of life: housing, food, and transit.
Housing is a human right. There are many ways to make housing more affordable, safe, and stable in Montgomery County, and we need to pursue all of them. We must build new affordable housing, especially family-sized 2- and 3-bedroom units. This new stock should be built on county-owned land when possible, to reduce costs, and near public transit centers. We also need to create housing that is affordable for truly working class and poor families. Right now most new ‘affordable housing’ is priced for people making $60,000 per year – which is way more than many of our neighbors earn. The county should also do more to support the 40% of residents who are renters, including passing “Just Cause Eviction” legislation, to keep landlords from discriminating or retaliating against renters when tenants ask for needed repairs and good management. Finally, the county must stabilize rents to prevent people from being displaced from rapidly gentrifying areas.
Tens of thousands of local adults and children are hungry or “food insecure” on a daily basis. It is unacceptable that people don’t know where their next meal is coming from – or must spend time tracking down help after working too many hours for too little money. The county government should address both immediate needs and long-term solutions by expanding existing programs for kids and seniors, investing in local food production and recovery systems, and reaching out to connect underserved people to existing services.
People need to be able to get around – and good public transit is essential for environmental justice. Transportation planning should prioritize helping working people get around without needing more cars. Working-class and poor communities especially depend on transit and we must make sure that new housing and economic development is designed around public transit. This means increasing the frequency and reliability of bus service, as well as moving forward on rapid bus transit and ensuring adequate support for Metro. It also means ensuring the Purple Line will benefit the residents and small businesses along its route – not displace them.
Finally, we need a strong social safety net to catch folks in crisis and struggle. And we need the county to raise the dollars from those most able to pay, to support those who are most vulnerable. Ever year JUFJ and our partners advocate for a moral local budget, and every year, we have to fight off a few vocal and wealthy residents and business owners unwilling to be taxed fairly even while their neighbors go homeless or hungry. In a progressive county, elected officials shouldn’t have to be persuaded to tax the rich and spend on the poor.
Too many people in our affluent county are struggling to make ends meet and going without basic needs for themselves and their children. It is crucial that we elect leaders who will prioritize the needs of poor families.
JUFJ Montgomery County Leadership Team
Co-Chair of JUFJ’s Economic Justice for Working Marylanders Team
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