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Relative Silence on Social Security Reflects Divisions in Jewish Community

January 26, 2005
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Several American Jewish policy groups are considering remaining uncharacteristically quiet during one of this year’s most contentious domestic political debates. The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of the federation system, is expected not to dive into this year’s discussion about overhauling the federal program, relying instead on an old statement of support for Social Security programs.

And the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella group of local community relations councils and national organizations, does not plan to make it a top issue at its annual plenum here next month.

With Congress and a second Bush administration back in action here this week, the issue of Social Security reform already is shaping up to be a hot one.

President Bush has made it clear that such reform tops his domestic policy agenda. But he has not yet detailed his proposed reforms, leaving Jewish organizations with no specifics to respond to.

The issue is important to the Jewish communal system because a disproportionately high percentage of Jews are seniors — 19 percent of the Jewish population is over 65 years old, compared to 12 percent of the general population.

If seniors, especially poorer seniors, end up losing benefits under a new Social Security system, local federations could find themselves forced to devote more resources to that population.

But the reluctance to jump into the debate reflects larger political and economic divisions in the Jewish community, say those involved in domestic policy issues.

Organizational officials attribute the groups’ reticence to pressure from the financial sectors as well as from major Jewish donors with ties to financial industries that could benefit greatly if Bush’s initiative to create personal accounts for investing Social Security income comes to fruition.

While Jewish concerns about poverty could lead to skepticism about overhauling the Social Security system, many younger Jews, and financially savvy ones, are interested in the potential market gains from private investment of Social Security income, insiders say.

Other Jewish officials say groups that might be inclined to take on the issue are reluctant to exert much energy on a question that already is being fought by so many outside the Jewish community, including some prominent Republicans who have spoken out against major reforms.

They say they would rather expend their energy on other items of potential concern, including expected budget cuts for social services and judicial nominees.

The UJC, in listing its top domestic policy priorities this week, excluded Social Security reform.

Instead, the organization plans to focus on proposed reforms governing nonprofit institutions; increased homeland security funding for high-risk institutions, which includes Jewish institutions; and several issues relating to seniors, including pressing for funding for retirement communities and senior transportation and blocking Medicaid cuts.

“When we set priorities, we focus on issues that have drastic impact on Jewish communal programs and issues we can have a real impact on,” said Charles Konigsberg, UJC’s vice president for public policy.

At the end of the document, the organization cited a resolution the group passed in 1999, which called for Social Security to retain its original purpose as a “universal system” to benefit retirees and their heirs.

But the 1999 resolution suggests concerns about what changes could mean for the system, and encouraged local communities at the time to assess that impact. The UJC resolution also calls for no significant increase in administrative charges to the system, out of concern that such increases would lead to cuts to the beneficiaries.

Insiders say the pressure to stay out of the debate is coming in part from UJA-Federation of New York, which has many donors and activists tied to the financial sector.

Ronald Soloway, managing director of government and external relations at the federation, said his federation is not exerting pressure, but there is an interest in having all voices heard before the national Jewish organizations weigh in on the issue.

“We think there ought to be a conversation about this when there is something on the table,” he said, suggesting the 1999 resolution should reflect the community’s views until then.

The JCPA also enacted a resolution on Social Security in 1999, similar to UJC’s, and is relying on that as it plots its next move. No resolutions on the issue have been drafted for next month’s plenum, and it will not be the focus of any major panels.

Instead, JCPA officials said they plan to include Social Security reform in a broader discussion of poverty. They note that Social Security is used to keep more than 50 percent of the elderly above the poverty line. The merits of Bush’s reform plan are not expected to be broached.

“We have been building our ‘confronting poverty’ initiative for the last four years, and Social Security is the most successful anti-poverty program,” said the JCPA’s executive director, Hannah Rosenthal.

Several officials said part of the problem stems from reforms in the JCPA resolution process. Resolutions were drafted last fall  when Social Security was not a hot topic in the presidential and congressional elections  and in recent years it has become more difficult to add new resolutions in the weeks leading up to the national conference.

Beyond the umbrella organizations, the nation’s two major women’s groups  Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women  are planning to take on Social Security in their advocacy.

Both groups say they see it as a woman’s issue, because of the number of senior women who rely on Social Security income. They stress the importance of including their opposition to personal accounts, in addition to such hot topics as abortion, judicial nominations and stem cell research.

“Although you have to prioritize and worry about being spread too thin, you can chew gum and walk at the same time,” said Sammie Moshenberg, NCJW’s Washington director. “It remains to be seen how much time it takes up, and that is based on how the debate is going.”

Meanwhile, underscoring the economic and political divide on the issue, the Republican Jewish Coalition has launched a print advertising campaign in Jewish newspapers, advocating private accounts for Social Security.

“Long-term investing has historically generated a significantly better return than money in the Social Security Trust Fund, so this is an opportunity for families to build their retirement savings,” the ad reads.

The organization is planning to hold events across the country with surrogate speakers to engage the community in a discussion on Social Security reform.

Officials at the National Jewish Democratic Council say they expect to weigh in on the issue when warranted but do not have any campaign planned on the issue.

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