President Barack Obama’s signing Tuesday of a landmark budget agreement to raise the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion signaled the start of intense lobbying by Jewish groups to convince lawmakers to use a scalpel and not a hammer as they make $550 billion in discretionary domestic cuts.
William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, said the next six to eight weeks will be crucial as decisions are made about what areas to cut. He said the JFNA has seven registered lobbyists who are working with members of Congress and the administration to “ensure their eyes are open and that compassion is part of the formula for ensuring that our nation is able to balance its budget but not on the backs of the most vulnerable people.”
“They have committed to cutting it,” Daroff said of the $550 billion in the first round of two rounds of cuts. “Those cuts have to be made immediately. Entitlement programs like Medicaid have been spared, but among the types of programs that may be cut are social service block grants, human service block grants, housing subsidized programs and emergency food and shelter programs.”
Among those who may be hurt by the cutbacks is Molly Lewis, 86, of Coney Island who lives on Social Security. Officials at the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island said she can “barely afford her rent, food and clothing expenses.”
Because physical disabilities prevent Lewis from cleaning her apartment, shopping or doing her laundry, the Community Services Block Grant pays for a homecare aide to handle those chores. And she receives transportation to take her to doctor appointments, the bank and a senior center where she eats her only nutritious meal of the day. In addition, a caseworker ensures that she applies for the proper medical coverage to which she is entitled.
Obama’s 2012 budget called for a 50 percent reduction in the Community Services Block Grant. How that would impact Lewis is unclear, but officials at the JCC of Greater Coney Island said without the help she now receives, Lewis “would have no option other than institutionalization in a nursing home at an annual cost of close to $100,000 to the taxpayer, in contrast to the $7,000” it now costs.
Should the 50 percent cut in the Community Service Block Grant take place Oct. 1 and be passed along by New York State and city to the local agencies, Susan Fox, executive director of the Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, said it could mean about a $40,000 cut in certain programs serving low-income families during the next fiscal year.
The $40,000 includes adult literacy programs and a program that helps low-income immigrants and refugees adjust to life in the U.S. The adult literacy program also receives city funding, which had been cut nearly in half in July.
“Within the Jewish community, these cuts are a big deal,” Fox said.
The adult literacy program, she pointed out, is “core to a person’s ability to get gainful employment and to become a taxpayer. If we are not going to be able to offer them that much classroom activity, they won’t be able to afford private lessons. And when they learn in a classroom, they not only learn the coursework but how to adjust to life in this country.
“We also do a lot of vocational assistance, including how to prepare for getting a job, interviewing for a job and keeping a job. We’re looking to build good citizens so they can become engaged in the American community locally and nationally.”
As she waits to see what lawmakers will cut in discretionary domestic programs, Fox said she is also waiting to see what the City Council will be doing regarding funding for other programs.
“These are uncertain times for everybody,” she said. “We have an after school program for children with autism. We understand funding is there, but we have not been notified if our contract is to be continued and the program is scheduled to start Sept. 1.”
Although the congressional package was completed with bipartisan support, there were a number of people who complained that the Republicans prevailed because the deficit was reduced strictly by cuts and without any new taxes or the closing of any tax loopholes. And 35 percent of the cuts being made immediately will be from the defense, homeland security, foreign operations and veterans budgets.
“It was a total disaster,” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, which focuses in part on human rights. “I think it will screw most of the human beings in America and a number of others in the world — the poor, the elderly, the sick and the kids who want to go to schools that teach something.
“This is a deal that seems to be massive, drastic cuts in all aspects of the federal budget, causing state budgets to not meet the needs of their people,” said the rabbi, who was one of 11 clergy arrested last week during a peaceful sit-in in the Capitol rotunda to protest the budget cuts.
By not including tax reform, he said, it means “the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans who own about 50 percent of the wealth in America will not pay a reasonable tax — not even at the level they were taxes under Ronald Reagan, who the Republicans used to view as an upstanding conservative.”
Even as the first round of federal budget cuts are made, members of Congress will create a bipartisan so-called supercommittee to develop ways to cut another $1.5 trillion. Daroff said it would be discussing, among other things, entitlement programs.
“We are focused on Medicaid, which brings in billions of dollars to help Jewish federations and federation agencies care for the vulnerable,” he said. “The committee will also look at tax reform, particularly a proposal to reduce the deductibility of charitable contributions. This proposal has been around and we have been leading the fight against it for three years because we feel — and the data backs us up — that reducing the deduction will reduce the amount of charitable contributions. This is particularly true in a recession when charities are called upon to help those in need.”
The report of the supercommittee must be accepted or rejected by Congress in December without any amendments. If that doesn’t happen, Daroff said “across the board cuts that would be even more devastating would be imposed because they would be done without consideration for those who are the most impacted.”
“It would cut farm subsidies the same as it would programs for pregnant women in need,” he said. “I’m hopeful the super committee will be thoughtful and by made up of congressmen and senators of goodwill.”
In a statement after passage of the debt ceiling agreement by both houses of Congress, Cheryl Fishbein, chair of the JFNA domestic affairs cabinet, said her organization recognized the “importance of Congress’ historic decision to maintain America’s good credit while protecting our nation’s most economically vulnerable populations.”
She said she hopes “the ideals and needs of our nation” are upheld as Congress tackles the next round of budget cuts.
“We must not turn our backs on people who need our support,” she said.