Achieving economic justice — ensuring access for all to adequate food, clothing and shelter — is one of oldest goals of social justice and perhaps the most fundamental. The right to eat is the right to live, and without it, all other rights become moot. And yet, paradoxically, it remains the most elusive and controversial.


What you need to know

The fundamental economic reality of modern-day America is the rise of inequality — the growing divide between a small elite that has enjoyed phenomenal economic success since the late 1970s and the vast majority of Americans who have seen their incomes stagnate or decline during the same period. This divide can be seen through numerous lenses: the growing share of the nation’s income going to the wealthiest 1% of the population (more recently, to the wealthiest 0.1%), compared to the declining share going to the bottom 50% of the population. The decline of guaranteed retirement income as companies switch from traditional defined-benefit pensions to defined-contribution retirement funds, shifting all the risk to the worker. Human-scale media reports on the lives of ordinary Americans and their growing distress


What causes increasing inequality?

There is no consensus, even on the left, as to the cause (or causes) of rising economic distress. Still, several culprits stand out. One is the shifting of the tax burden since 1980 from the wealthiest, who have enjoyed lowered tax rates on upper income, investments and interest, to the broad middle, which loses an increasing share of its income with each new rise in the payroll tax (which funds Social Security and Medicare). Another factor is the decline of trade unions, which permit workers to bargain with employers for their compensation as a group, increasing their leverage. Both those factors—shifting tax burden and union decline—are essentially the result of political decisions by legislatures that have come to be dominated by conservatives.

Another critical factor is the export overseas of well-paying manufacturing jobs. This is partly the result of political decisions that permit companies to move jobs offshore, but in large part is the result of a complex series of technological advances, too often overlooked, that have made global manufacture both cheap and practical.


The Jewish approach to economic justice

The Jewish community has been in the forefront of struggles for economic justice for generations. For many, the iconic historical moment is the period in the early 20th century when immigrant Jewish garment workers, newly arrived from the radical milieu of czarist Russia, united in a mass mobilization remembered as the Jewish labor movement—a broad network that included the great garment workers’ unions, various socialist and anarchist parties and Yiddish newspapers such as the Jewish Daily Forward and the Morning Freiheit.

The Jewish commitment to economic justice is older than that, though. It can be traced back to the biblical dictates of the Torah and the prophets and to later rabbinic literature, as well as the communitarian welfare structures of medieval Jewish communities. And while the heyday of the Jewish labor movement passed as the immigrants’ children entered the middle class, some contemporary Jewish organizations and a great many individual Jewish activists remain deeply involved in the struggle for economic justice.