Though the coming battle over the 2012 budget will be waged across line items on spread sheets and political talking points, those most affected will be real people with real problems.
Above it all looms the ballooning deficit and a new Congress replete with members from both sides who campaigned on cutting spending and lowering the budget. In such an atmosphere, the decisions facing the President are not easy ones: how to make the investments in our future and protect those suffering because of poverty and the recession while not contributing to the deficit.
But without any serious proposals on entitlement reform, discretionary domestic spending is left as the low hanging fruit of budgetary belt-tightening. These domestic programs are the easiest to cut, but doing so flies in the face of the President’s State of the Union promise not to balance the budget on the backs of our country’s most vulnerable.
In the President’s proposed new investments in education, nutrition, and energy, there is much for the Jewish community to praise and look forward to. As Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack recently pointed out, the Jewish community has been at the forefront of the anti-hunger movement (perhaps it’s the Jewish mother in each of us that wants to see everybody fed), and thankfully, the President’s proposed budget takes seriously the challenge facing the millions of families unable to eat decently in this country.
Programs like WIC (Women, Infants, and Children Program) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps) that help families and single parents with young children put healthy food on the table are strengthened at a time when the only option for millions in the pit of hunger is cheap, non-nutritious food.
New funding for Head Start and public education will enable more children to start on the path to success while investments to develop clean energy will build a new workforce of green-collar jobs for when they graduate.
More than setting priorities and charting the course for the economy, though, the budget is a moral document, reflecting our values as a country. When the imperative of the day is fiscal discipline, Jewish and anti-poverty groups begin the budget process already playing defense. Rolling back programs like Community Development and Community Block Service Grants may help address a 10-year deficit projection, but there is little help in sight for the millions of individuals who depend on these programs to deliver needed community services.
The Jewish community is one of the fastest aging communities, with an already large number of seniors in need of care and support. With estimates that 75% of seniors will experience food insecurity in the coming years, cuts to services like LIHEAP will put more pressure on individuals already facing the question of heating their home or paying for food and medicine.
When budget proposals recommend slashing human needs programs, there are profound consequences. Less help from the government means a greater reliance on tzedakah, and our Jewish community agencies and other nonprofit providers need to remain strong to be able to serve the growing number of those at risk.
Charitable contributions enable nonprofit agencies to provide vital emergency and social services, often filling the gap when the government and private sectors are unable to provide needed assistance. With the needs in our country at staggering levels, budget proposals should give thoughtful consideration of all of the resources – public and private – that can be brought to bear to address the challenges we face.
It is clear that the President’s budget is only the starting point and that more austere proposals will be on the way, placing other Jewish priorities on the chopping block as well. Already, the focus on deficit reduction has raised the prospect of a cut to US foreign aid including to Israel.
There is no question that addressing the deficit is our responsibility to future generations. But we must not do it at the expense of abdicating our moral and ethical responsibilities of today. In Deutoronomy, Moses instructed us to not ignore the needy among us. And right now, as our nation climbs out of the recession, there are seemingly endless lines of the needy in all of our communities. "Do not harden your heart and shut your hand", implores the Torah. Caring for our neighbors is an unconditional obligation, and we must remain true to this calling, even in challenging times.
Crafting the budget can be a reminder of government at its best: providing a safety net through which no one should fall if stricken by poverty, unemployment or illness; a platform from which the worst-off can lift themselves up to compete and contribute equally in our economy. We must view the budget as our open hand, not a hardened heart. These are the values that we hope will guide Congress as it engages in the budget process.
Rabbi Steve Gutow is the President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Josh Protas is Vice President and Washington Director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. JCPA, the public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community, serves as the national coordinating and advisory body for the 14 national and 125 local agencies comprising the field of Jewish community relations.