Some Jewish Groups Tackle Budget Cuts, but Avoid Tax Cut Fight

Several Jewish organizations are reaching out to lawmakers hoping to minimize budget cuts that could hurt the bottom line for numerous Jewish social service programs, but many are avoiding a related fight over tax cuts. Jewish leaders privately acknowledge that pressure to avoid addressing the five-year, $70 billion tax cut being debated in Congress this year stems from prominent Republican donors in the Jewish community.

A plea from the Reform movement last week against the tax cuts was notable for the lack of signatories.

“A number of organizations were not comfortable with the language on tax cuts,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the movement’s Religious Action Center, which initiated the letter to members of Congress.

Jewish leaders acknowledge that much of the pressure to lay off taxes comes from major donors who benefit from the cuts, and others who aren’t keen to take on a White House that has been accused of freezing out critics.

The House of Representatives is weighing large cuts to Medicaid and food stamp programs, among others, for a total savings of $54 billion over the next five years. The Senate passed a bill last week that trimmed $35 billion over five years.

Jewish leaders say the cuts mean the federal government will serve fewer people, increasing pressure on private groups while budgets that are heavily reliant on federal programs inevitably shrink.

“There clearly are going to be people falling through the cracks,” said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York. “Those will be the people that are coming to us.”

The RAC letter was circulated to numerous Jewish groups, but only a few major groups signed on, including B’nai B’rith International and the National Council of Jewish Women.

“After investing billions in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, many in Congress now say that the federal government must now tighten its belt,” the letter said. “We certainly understand the need for fiscal responsibility. However, any claims to fiscal prudence on the part of budget reconciliation’s proponents are undermined by the $70 billion in tax cuts proposed alongside the spending reductions.”

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the tax cuts were important because they’re intended to boost tax revenues and stimulate the economy.

“The tax cuts are working, the economy is being stimulated,” he said. “But at the end of the day, spending has to be brought under control in a prudent manner.”

Brooks said a “shared sacrifice” was necessary, especially in the wake of the hurricanes that hit the Southeast this year.

Notably absent among signatories to the RAC letter were two groups actively engaged in poverty and social service issues — the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Stephan Kline, UJC’s director of government affairs, said the federation system has not taken a position on tax cuts in recent years. Instead, he said, the organization is focusing primarily on eliminating an expansion of rules governing the transfer of assets.

Under the proposed law, Medicaid applicants would be barred from receiving coverage for five years after transferring assets; the current law stipulates a three-year period.

Kline said the changes could put a significant strain on Jewish social services. He estimates that half of the $5 billion to $7 billion that Jewish federations and affiliated agencies receive from public funding sources comes from the federal government.

“If you cut a program by 10 percent, then hypothetically you would expect 10 percent of our funding to be cut,” Kline said. He estimates that close to 1 percent of Medicaid funds go to Jewish institutions.

Budget cuts have garnered national attention and rallied numerous liberal constituencies, but the Jewish community has not spoken loudly on the issue. Ethan Felson, JCPA’s assistant executive director, suggested there’s a limit to the Jewish community’s influence on the budget.

“What the community can do and needs to do is identify key programs that are slated to be cut and make sure the recipients of those programs are protected,” he said.

JCPA has identified several programs for preservation, including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and the Supplemental Security Income for poor, elderly and disabled people.

Felson said the cuts “are the opposite of where the country needs to be going, and they would decimate the social service delivery system of which the Jewish community is so proud.”

Republicans say their cuts target waste and inefficiency, and put the burden back on individual states. For example, the Medicaid legislation would allow state governments to receive a co-payment on additional services provided to the poorest Americans.

Rapfogel said it’s hard to estimate the exact impact budget cuts would have on the community. But he said eliminating people from Medicaid and food-stamp rolls would leave a larger number of people seeking alternative assistance from sources like his organization.

Already, Jewish groups provide extensive help to the “near poor,” those who are not eligible for federal assistance but cannot make it on their own.

The number of households receiving kosher meals from the Met Council each month has risen from 5,000 in 2001 to 13,000 this year.

Rapfogel said he agrees with Republicans who say there’s too much waste in the federal programs, but he fears needy people will be adversely affected as Congress trims the fat.

“We don’t want to take a chance and gamble that people will lose benefits they need to get basic healthcare,” he said. “It’s not worth the gamble.”

House Republican leaders were hoping to vote on the package Thursday. Some moderate GOP lawmakers are concerned about the cuts, the effect on their communities and the implications for next year’s midterm congressional elections.

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