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Op-Ed: Federal gov’t must act to help the most vulnerable

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William Daroff, left, and Hadar Susskind ()

William Daroff, left, and Hadar Susskind ()

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Officials at the National Bureau of Economic Research announced last month what economists and most people had known for quite some time — our nation is suffering through one of the worst economic recessions since the Great Depression.

The need for chesed (kindness) and tikkun olam (repair of the world) has never been stronger than it is today. Despite numerous signs of a worsening economy and pleas for assistance, the lines of those seeking help have grown longer, the demand for food pantries and soup kitchens has risen precipitously, and volunteers and service providers have been stretched to the limit.

Local Jewish federation agencies are reporting a profoundly disturbing nationwide trend whereby a whole new group of workers — bus drivers, teachers and trash collectors, who once made a steady and sufficient living — are now joining the long lines of those seeking assistance. Jewish communities across the nation are finding that increased levels of poverty, hunger and economic insecurity are growing concerns of social service agencies and other partners that do not have the financial resources to meet the increased need.

It is becoming quite apparent that without federal intervention, it is only a matter of time before our nation’s safety net for the most vulnerable will be in severe risk of collapsing.

It is no coincidence that tzedakah, the word we commonly translate to mean the Jewish obligation to give charity, literally means "justice." As Jews, we are commanded to act so that there will be "no needy among you," not only because it is moral but because it benefits the whole. Now is the time to raise our voices in support of federal aid for those who are most affected by the recession — to advocate to our elected representatives that they institute comprehensive legislation to protect our nation’s most vulnerable.

Our country worked its way out of the last economic recession in 2004 by implementing a series of tax reforms and direct aid to states. Most notable was a multibillion-dollar infusion by the federal government to increase the federal medical assistance percentage rate, or FMAP. Simply put, FMAP provides funds for Medicaid that help make health coverage affordable to low- and moderate-income families, whose members are generally the first to be laid off and lose company health benefits when the economy goes into a downturn.

The FMAP increase was credited as one of the most effective and immediate measures taken to reverse the previous recession. Since then, despite repeated calls from our nation’s governors and others, Congress has not used this tool to ward off or reverse today’s current economic decline. It is time to dust off this option and take serious steps toward ending the recession.

Some will argue that it is the responsibility of the states and not the federal government to provide food, health care and shelter to those most in need. But no state is immune from the economy’s collapse. Nearly every state is now experiencing severe budget shortfalls and deficits that are paralyzing their efforts to provide needed services for the most vulnerable among us. Unlike the federal government, the vast majority of states are required by law to have a balanced budget. This means that when a state revenue declines, the legislature has two options to fill the void: cut spending or raise taxes, both of which have dire ramifications for an ailing economy.

The federal government has more flexibility in setting its budgets. Increasing aid to FMAP would allow states to avert further budget cuts and enable governors to allocate limited resources to other programs. It also would allow the most vulnerable to continue to access affordable health care when they need it the most. Congress can immediately implement this action without having to raise taxes or cut services elsewhere.

President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional decision makers from both sides of the aisle already have pledged their support for a temporary, timely and targeted increase for FMAP. Additionally they have promised that an economic recovery bill would be among the first pieces of legislation considered in the 111th Congress. As economic conditions across the United States and specifically within 43 states grows worse, we must ensure that any economic recovery legislation includes an FMAP increase.

History will judge our nation by the quality of life it provides for its most vulnerable citizens. We as a community must advocate in favor of these proposals if they are to become reality.

(William C. Daroff is the vice president for public policy and director of the United Jewish Communities’ Washington office. Hadar Susskind is the director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ Washington office. This article first appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.)

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