Bush Budget Strong on Israel, but Spurs Worry for the Elderly

Spending on Israel remains strong in President Bush’s proposed budget but domestic programs are under the knife, including those that most affect Jewish lives.

Surveying the details in the budget Bush handed to Congress on Monday, Jewish organizational officials were especially worried about funding for the elderly.

In Israel aid, Bush is proposing$2.58 billion for fiscal year 2005, which formally starts on Oct. 1 this year.

That includes $360 million for economic aid and $2.22 billion in defense aid. The figures are consistent with the seventh year of an aid restructuring program agreed to by the two governments, gradually reducing economic assistance to Israel while increasing military aid.

Also unaffected is $50 million for refugee resettlement in Israel, primarily for Ethiopian immigrants. Pro-Israel officials were not commenting publicly on the figures, but were quietly expressing satisfaction that the numbers remained steady.

The State Department also is budgeting $25 million to explain U.S. policy — including support for Israel — to the Islamic world.

Such expenditures reflect the budget’s overall priority: protecting Americans at home and abroad.

The vast majority of the increases in Bush’s $2.4 trillion budget are for defense and homeland security needs. Domestically, few programs outside the Education Department get perks, and a number of social service programs are targeted for elimination.

That’s bad news for Jewish social services, which rely on federal money for about 60 percent of their funding — about $6 billion out of $10 billion per year for spending on nursing homes, hospitals and services for the elderly, according to unofficial figures.

“Looking at the budget as a whole, we’re concerned that it would freeze non-defense and non-security programs,” said Charles Konigsberg, the top Washington lobbyist for the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of the North American Jewish federation system.

Konigsberg outlined several areas of Jewish concern directly affected by the budget:

President Bush will not extend emergency federal contributions to Medicaid beyond June. The emergency contributions to the program, which deals with the poor and the invalid, were introduced last year to address the fiscal crisis in the states, which has not abated. Konigsberg called the contributions “vital” for programs serving the Jewish elderly.

“The need for the federal contributions has increased,” he said.

Cuts in the Health and Human Services budget are likely to adversely affect the Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities program pioneered, to great acclaim, by the UJC and member federations. The program, which brings services to elderly people not ready to leave their communities, has been emulated by other groups.

Cuts in the Department of Transportation budget target transportation for the elderly, despite advocacy in Congress last year for substantial increases. The money is “vital in assisting our elderly in accessing social services programs,” Konigsberg said.

One bright light, he said, is $80 million earmarked for elderly immigrants, which will extend a seven-year assistance program to immigrants who have not yet become citizens.

Konigsberg said the program, which affects many Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, was crucial for older immigrants unlikely to pass citizenship exams because of language barriers and frailty. That also meant that the problem was unlikely to go away.

The program now needs congressional approval.

The White House called the UJC to give it a heads up on the money for immigrant elderly — a sign that Bush is eager to assuage Jewish concerns about the aged.

Other cuts of concern cited by Konigsberg — especially in their effect on the elderly — include some affecting housing programs and assistance to military veterans.

One group already organizing action is B’nai B’rith International, which announced plans Monday to set up a grass- roots network to lobby on behalf of the elderly.

“We have members around the country, and our job is to make sure they know what is and isn’t in the proposed budget,” said Joel Kaplan, president of B’nai B’rith.

Despite the nod to the immigrant elderly, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society said it was unhappy with funding for refugee resettlement.

Bush’s proposal seeks $730 million, $25 million less than the fiscal year 2004 budget currently in place — which itself was a decrease from 2003.

“Jews in particular know how critical it is that America keep its doors open to people in need,” said Leonard Glickman, HIAS’ president. “We can’t turn our backs on these vulnerable people now.”

More troubling for some is the prospect that the president will not be able to sustain even these levels of funding.

The budget projects a deficit of a half-trillion dollars. Though Bush also proposes measures to drastically reduce the deficit in coming years, critics are concerned that his insistence on making temporary tax cuts permanent renders that pledge unrealistic.

The Reform movement especially has promised vigorous lobbying to maintain at least current levels of domestic spending.

“By arguing that tax cuts should be made permanent, the president is signaling that for the foreseeable future, resources to meet the needs of our fellow citizens in need will be unavailable,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, who heads the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“Since this will affect not just the level of justice in America but almost every social welfare program run by our communities, this should be a decision of significant alarm and concern to the entire Jewish community,” he added.

Representatives of Orthodox groups in Washington had no comment on the budget.

Future crunches might also affect Israel funding: Pro-Israel groups have noted that last year’s crunch ultimately cut $15.5 million from Israel spending, reflecting an across the board 0.59 percent cut.

The battle over the budget already has featured prominently in the election year debate: Bush is promoting his prioritization of defense needs, while Democrats are emphasizing Americans in want.

“Given the continued terrorist threat against the American people, my budget nearly triples homeland security spending over 2001 levels,” Bush said in his radio address this weekend. “This money will help tighten security at our borders, airports and seaports, and improve our defenses against biological attack.”

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the front-runner in the Democratic campaign, said Bush’s tax cuts showed that he is beholden to special interests.

“With George Bush in the White House, we have been losing two jobs every minute,” Kerry said in a statement. “With this new budget, every minute, we will be adding one billion dollars to our deficit.”

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