I’m not sure there’s anything more demoralizing than watching Congress and the Obama administration sputter away about an economy that seems to heading south once again.

The past few week’s newspapers have overflowed with economic news, ranging from bad to really terrible; economic pundits like the New York Times’ Paul Krugman tell a terrible story of economic ineptitude at every level and speak ominously about much worse to come.

Today’s Washington Post reports on new census data indicating that the poverty rate is now “the highest number in the half-century that the government has kept such statistics.”

Those numbers represent “nothing short of a national disaster,” said National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) president Nancy Ratzan.

There’s talk high unemployment may be with us for a decade; smart economists are making comparisons with Japan’s “lost decade”; the Fed has used all the tools in its kit, to no avail.

And what our our leaders doing about it?

Well, the only things the Republicans have to offer are the same ideology-driven policies that may have gotten us into trouble to begin with – lowering taxes at a time of war, cutting regulation, letting all those bankers who screwed up big time with our money in the last meltdown do it again, free from government interference.

And the Democrats? I’m sorry, I can’t figure out if they have any policies at all.

Democratic members of Congress seem concerned primarily with deflecting attacks by Republican challengers. Just listen to them on the issue of tax cuts and try to figure out where they stand.

President Obama, who came to office promising a new kind of leadership, mostly just seems confused. Now he’s offering a non-stimulus stimulus, and it’s hard to find serious economists who think it’s going to make much of a difference.

Off on the sidelines are the angry Tea Partiers, some of whom are demanding an end to Social Security and maybe a return to the gold standard. Great idea: in this age of a worldwide economy, let’s go back to the policies of the 1800s. That’ll fix things.

Isn’t this a crisis that demands something more than the crazy partisanship and rigid ideologies that seem to be all we can get from Congress?

Isn’t it time for some real presidential leadership, not this finger-to-the-wind , halfway stuff we’re getting from President Obama?

Isn’t it time for leaders of all political persuasions to sit down and seriously discuss the complex challenges we face and work together to find solutions and pretend that they have an ideological magic bullet that will fix everything fast and pain free?

Oh wait, this is 21st century Washington, where partisanship and ideology are the only things that matter. I forgot.

What does this have to do with the Jews?

Well, we’re Americans, after all, with a huge stake in our nation’s future, which is looking a lot less rosy these days.

Jewish poverty is real and, according to most accounts, growing as the community gets hit by the double whammy of a growing elder population and economic woes that have hit sectors where Jews are likely to work.

And we have a big communal infrastructure that serves our needy – an infrastructure that depends heavily on government programs that will be in dire jeopardy if our economic troubles deepen.

Also, we care about U.S. support for Israel, which will inevitably be affected if the nation plunges back into recession.

And, judging by the long list of Jewish groups that strongly disagree with Glenn Beck that “social justice” is a synonym for communism, we still care about the nation’s poor, who have been particularly hard hit by the recession-without-end.

Which leads me back to my perennial question: why, with all that’s at stake for our nation and our community, and with their traditional focus on social justice, do most Jewish groups stay clear of the great economic issues of the day?

Sure, they’re against poverty and want action to stop it, but don’t you dare ask most what they think of issues such as tax policy.

It’s not a “Jewish issue,” some say. I beg your pardon? What other issue has such vast potential to affect virtually every aspect of Jewish life and every area of Jewish activism as what happens to our economy?

Before you start pounding on the keyboard to accuse me of a partisan hit on the Republicans, let me reiterate: neither party has done anything resembling a good job on the economy.

I fault congressional Republicans for rigidly sticking to policies that have produced dire results, but I also fault weak, confused Democratic leaders who have failed to articulate alternatives or to break free of their own ideological strait jackets.

And I blame a president who doesn’t seem to realize that we’re in a situation that calls for new and creative solutions, not retread policies with new packaging.

NCJW’s Nancy Ratzan today called on Congress and the President to “do everything in their power to mitigate the effects of this disaster by prioritizing policies to combat unemployment and strengthen the safety net.”

Shouldn’t that call be echoed by many more Jewish groups? And shouldn’t they become more active participants in the critical debate over what those policies should be?