WASHINGTON (Feb. 2)
After facing years of painful cutbacks, elderly and low-income Jews who are dependent on government services received a spate of good news with the unveiling of President Clinton’s budget plan.
Pointing to a new era of budget surpluses, Clinton this week proposed an aggressive plan to shore up the Social Security retirement program and to bolster Medicare, as well as a handful of smaller allocations that would provide benefits to legal immigrants, new housing for low-income elderly and tax credits for long-term health care.
The release of Clinton’s budget blueprint, which requires approval by Congress, marks the beginning of the annual skirmish over the federal budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. This year appears to portend a particularly bitter struggle in light of the impeachment battle and the looming 2000 presidential campaign.
Republicans have already branded the plan as “the rebirth of big government,” arguing that a chunk of the budget surplus should be given back to Americans in the form of an across-the-board 10 percent cut in income taxes, rather than funding new programs.
Whatever the result, the shift from budget-cutting to allocating surpluses comes as a welcome development to many in the Jewish community, particularly immigrants and the low-income elderly, who have been hit hard by budget cuts over the last several years.
Here’s a look at some of the key initiatives in Clinton’s $1.77 trillion budget for fiscal year 2000 that have a direct bearing on the Jewish community:
Social Security: The administration proposes using 62 percent of the estimated $4 trillion surplus over 15 years to save the Social Security retirement program and 15 percent to bolster Medicare. Assuring the continued solvency of the Social Security system has emerged as a key concern for the Jewish community in light of the fact that 20 percent of Jews are over the age of 65 – – a proportion that exceeds any other population group.
Immigrant benefits: Clinton’s budget seeks to spend $1.3 billion over five years to restore health and disability benefits, as well as food stamps to legal immigrants who lost coverage under the 1996 welfare reform law.
Under the proposal, immigrants who enter the country legally would become eligible for Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income after five years. It would also allow people who arrived after the 1996 welfare law went into effect to become eligible for benefits as early as 2001.
Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federations’ Washington office, said the funding proposal would help a small number of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who did not enter the country as refugees and therefore have no access to the special benefits refugees are afforded under U.S. law.
“For a small sliver of people” in the Jewish community, “relief is on the horizon,” Aviv said.
The administration also proposed a $20 million increase in the budget for resettling refugees, as well as increasing the number of slots by 2,000 to 80,000.
The number of refugees from Eastern Europe, including the former Soviet Union, will be determined by the administration and Congress later this year. For fiscal year 1999, 48,000 refugee slots were allotted, with 5,000 to 7,000 Jewish refugees expected to arrive from the former Soviet Union.
Low-income housing: The administration proposes spending $747 million on housing for the elderly. Of that, $660 million has been earmarked for non- profit groups that provide housing for the low-income elderly. That includes $510 million for new construction, $100 million for modernization and $50 million for service coordinators. The administration earmarked an additional $87 million for rental vouchers.
The proposal marks a dramatic turnabout from last year, when the administration proposed spending only $159 million on new construction — a 75 percent decrease from the year before. Jewish activists lambasted that plan and worked successfully with Congress to boost the level of funding back up to $645 million.
“It’s nice to see the administration and [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] responding to the aging of America as a major cornerstone of its budget,” said Mark Olshan, director of senior housing and services for B’nai B’rith, which runs a network of 34 housing projects serving more than 6,000 people.
He said, however, that the community would again look to Congress to boost funding even higher for new construction.
In a separate development that would benefit Jewish seniors, Clinton proposed a $1,000-a-year tax credit to help families pay for long-term care for elderly and disabled relatives.
The Middle East: Israel’s foreign aid package totals $2.85 billion, including $1.92 billion in military financing and $930 million in economic support funds.
That reflects the same level of funding as the current fiscal year and does not continue a process that began last year to phase out economic aid by cutting $120 million annually over the next 10 years. However, negotiations between Israel and the United States concerning that reduction are continuing, and it is expected that Israel’s final aid package will contain an additional decrease.
The budget also includes $2.015 billion in aid to Egypt, $225 million to Jordan and $100 million for the Palestinians.
In addition, as part of the Wye peace agreement, the budget includes a supplemental bill that allocates $1.2 billion over three years to Israel to defray the costs of redeployment from the West Bank, as well as $300 million to Jordan and $400 million to the Palestinians for economic assistance.
Civil rights: The budget includes a 15 percent increase for civil rights enforcement, including new funding for hate crimes prevention and prosecution efforts, and handling discrimination complaints. In a separate move that would aid law enforcement, Clinton promised $10 billion for counterterrorism efforts, focusing on deterrence, prevention and preparedness.