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Bush’s Budget Boosts Foreign Aid, Slashes Funds for Jewish Programs

February 10, 2005
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President Bush’s controversial budget includes no surprises in aid for Israel, a dramatic increase for the Palestinians — and drastic cuts in domestic programs that affect Jewish programs and Jewish lives. The $2.57 trillion plan, which landed on Capitol Hill this week, calls for a 1 percent cut in domestic spending, which includes a severe reduction or elimination of 150 programs.

While much of the voluminous budget has yet to be deciphered, many Jewish organizations are expressing concern that funds for programs that aid elderly and impoverished Jews — as well as other Americans — would decline dramatically and it would be hard to launch new programs.

“A 1 percent cut doesn’t matter if a program has been flush for a number of years,” said Stephan Klein, director of governmental affairs at the United Jewish Communities. “But it is a problem if programs are already bare bones.”

Under Bush’s proposal for fiscal year 2006, which begins Oct. 1, the total amount of non-defense, non-homeland security discretionary funds would remain frozen for the next five years.

Given the rate of inflation and population increase, this would amount to a 16 percent cut, Klein said.

“If it were to be implemented, it would be devastating,” Klein said of the freeze in total funding. “Many of our programs are dependent on these discretionary funds.”

Of particular interest to the Jewish community, the president’s budget request includes:

$2.52 billion in economic and military aid for Israel, part of an overall 14 percent increase in foreign aid spending;

$150 million for the Palestinians; an additional $200 million is expected to be part of a separate supplemental budget request from the administration;

A $60 billion cut over 10 years in funding for Medicaid, which is the largest funding source for Jewish nursing homes and hospitals, providing more than $2 billion a year;

A $6 million cut in funds for independent living in retirement communities. The program, which was cut by $31 million last year, is used by more than 100 federation facilities, to provide assisted living facilities, communal meals and other programs for the elderly; and

$29.3 billion in funds for homeland security, an increase of $258 million or 1 percent from last year, which could include additional funds over the $25 million now earmarked for high-risk nonprofit sites, including Jewish institutions.

Many of the earmarks for specific programs of interest to the Jewish community are added by lawmakers in Congress when they tackle the budget. They are not in the president’s budget proposal.

There is some hope that many of the proposed cuts in programs will be salvaged by Congress. That has happened in the past.

Several Jewish groups already are prepping for a fight with Bush and congressional Republicans over plans to transform Social Security and cut Medicaid by $60 billion over the next 10 years.

“I think there is a philosophy in this administration that says that government is not responsible for providing a safety net for people,” Marsha Atkind, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, said, echoing the view of several Jewish organizations.

“We believe very strongly that programs like Social Security are programs people need and is the role of government.”

Some groups also expressed concern about Bush’s budget requests for programs that blur the line between church and state, and about the growing reliance on faith-based initiatives, which fund social service programs at religious institutions.

Among the budget items are a $1 million increase for a pilot voucher program in Washington and $50 million in new funding to develop new school choice programs nationwide.

In addition, there is a $508 million increase in funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grant to states, which can be used for parochial schools.

Some Jewish groups remain concerned that school choice programs take funds away from public schools and allow federal funds to be used for religious instruction.

“The increased reliance on charter schools and other school choice schemes is a further abdication of American public schools,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

But Orthodox groups back funding of private school programs.

Abba Cohen, Washington director and counsel of Agudath Israel of America, said he was pleased with increases in remedial education funding for the disadvantaged and increases in special education funding.

“Yes, programs were eliminated and reduced, but at the same time, other programs have been boosted,” Cohen said of the budget in general.

Some groups expressed concern about a growing reliance on faith-based programs.

Many Jewish groups, except for the Orthodox, oppose faith-based initiatives, saying it crosses the line of separation of church and state, and if misused could create state-funded proselytizing or worship.

While many Jewish communal officials expressed frustration with some of Bush’s domestic choices, several said they were impressed with Bush’s proposals to fund new efforts to combat AIDS and provide international debt relief.

In fact, Bush’s budget includes a 14 percent increase in foreign assistance, totaling $18.5 billion.

Under the Bush plan, Israel would receive $2.28 billion in military aid and $240 million in economic assistance. Those numbers, down from a combined $2.58 billion last year, are in keeping with a restructuring plan agreed to by Israel and the United States, which raises military aid by $60 million each year and decreases economic aid by $120 million.

Israel would also receive $40 million for the resettlement of Ethiopian refugees, a drop of $10 million because of a decline of Jewish immigrants to Israel.

The budget calls for $1.795 billion in aid for Egypt, down $40 million from last year, in accordance with a similar restructuring plan for Israel; and $456 million to Jordan, which reflects no change from last year.

The White House also doubled economic assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to $150 million.

A State Department report said the new money will focus on longer-term development, including revitalizing the Palestinian economy in Gaza after Israel’s planned withdrawal later this year.

The administration says the Palestinians would receive a total of $390 million in the coming year, including money from the supplemental budget request, which largely deals with military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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