Charity Chiefs Decrying Lack of Coordinated Opposition to Tax Cuts

While Heads of Local Federations Fear Trickle-Down Effect of Budget Crisis, National Leaders Remain Silent

By Nacha Cattan

Published June 13, 2003, issue of June 13, 2003.
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With social service agencies nationwide squeezed between rising need, stagnant budgets and shrinking state aid, growing numbers of local Jewish charity officials are grumbling over the failure of their national leaders to oppose the administration’s tax cut policies.

Volunteer and professional leaders at Jewish welfare federations across the country said their social-service agencies are facing crises because of cuts in state aid, particularly in Medicaid, resulting from the recession and changed federal budget priorities.

But, they said, the leadership of United Jewish Communities, the central coordinating body of Jewish federated charities, has squelched efforts by Jewish advocates to press for changes. And, they say, the silence is having a trickle-down effect on local efforts to move state funding.

“Social justice is a Jewish issue, and tax cuts are about social justice,” said Alan Solomont, chairman of the board of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and a prominent Democratic fundraiser. “It’s outrageous that there isn’t a hue and cry from every corner… at the juxtaposition between the tax cuts — which by and large go to people who don’t need them — and the failure to fund programs for those who do need them.” Solomont noted that he was not speaking on behalf of his federation.

The CEO of UJC, Stephen Hoffman, confirmed to the Forward that he does not favor organized Jewish opposition to the administration’s tax policies, including the recent $350 billion tax cut enacted by Congress. The way the government taxes its citizens, he said, is not a “Jewish issue.”

Hoffman said it is not the Jewish community’s place to comment on any other federal tax policy “outside those tax issues related to charitable giving.”

Critics say the tax cut will have a trickle-down effect on local Jewish federations plagued with growing waiting lists while struggling to hold onto state and federal funding — especially the shrinking funds of Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor funded by states and the federal government.

Many worry that the Bush tax cut undermined any opportunity to achieve Medicaid relief from federal coffers. The situation would be worsened, they say, under a separate Bush plan to overhaul Medicaid. The plan would grant fewer federal dollars for Medicaid in exchange for more state flexibility in how to spend the money. It was not clear at press time whether UJC would oppose the plan.

The state that appears to be most drastically affected by reductions in Medicaid is California. With a deficit of $38 billion, its Medicaid program faces a 15% cut. In Los Angeles alone, 50,000 Jewish seniors are served by Medi-Cal, the state’s version of Medicaid.

“There is a domestic crisis in this country, and it has to be addressed,” said Jessica Toledano, director of government relations for the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. “At the Jewish Home for the Aging, there is a 350-person waiting list. That’s a three-year waiting list.”

In Chicago, where the $52 billion state budget is short some $5 billion and Jewish households in need have doubled, the local Jewish Family and Community Service is being pushed to its limit. “If someone calls, unless it’s a life or death emergency, they’re not getting services,” said Joel Carp, senior vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Carp’s federation was lobbying on Capitol Hill this week for its 270,000-strong Jewish community.

Carp said he appreciates the UJC’s efforts to push for increased social-service funds. He declined to comment on the UJC’s silence on the Bush tax cut, but he noted that his own federation has a position on state taxation: “When tax changes are made, it should not be made in a way that hurts the people at the lowest level of income.”

Several people in public affairs roles within the federated Jewish philanthropic system told the Forward in off-the-record conversations that their hands were tied and that leaders of the federated system — UJC and its affiliates — have on several occasions tried to stop them from mobilizing on the tax cuts.

Leaders of the national bodies note that they have been outspoken on issues of funding to welfare programs. The UJC has been lobbying heavily this week, together with local federations, to pass the so-called CARE act, an initiative that would likely direct some $2.8 billion to social-service agencies in bloc grants. It has also lobbied in the Senate to extend the tax cuts so as to include a tax credit for low-income families with children, which had been left out of the Bush tax bill enacted by Congress. And it pushed for a Senate amendment to include $20 billion in fiscal and Medicaid relief to the states — a measure critics see as inadequate since some states have deficits larger than the entire grant.

Hoffman distinguished between his organization’s efforts to increase funding to social-service agencies and his commitment to stay out of the tax fight. “How Congress decides to assemble revenue of the United States is not a Jewish issue,” he said. “The Jewish issue is what Congress does with the money it raises taxes for, what are the priorities of the budget.”

Some local leaders say that although the federal tax cut is a fait accompli, the silence of the UJC and its affiliates continues to hobble their efforts to win funding at the state level.

Portland, Ore., has no sales tax to offset plunging income tax revenues, and public schools have shut their doors early as a result. The local Jewish Family and Child Services has seen its caseload skyrocket while clients are increasingly showing up without Medicaid coverage that the agency counts on to pay for its services.

Robert Horenstein, community relations director of the Jewish Federation of Portland, said he has been lobbying his state capital on various proposals to increase funding for his agencies and others like them.

Horenstein said the Bush tax cut should have been opposed because it “is going to hurt us in the end.” But now that the battle is over, Horenstein is more troubled that the UJC and its public-affairs arm, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, have not adopted explicit policies to push for states to increase their revenues to make up the shortfalls.

If there was a clear mandate from the national bodies, Horenstein said, “we wouldn’t have to go back to the federation board every time there is some kind of proposal we want to support.” JCPA passed a resolution against the first round of Bush tax cuts in 2001.

Some UJC leaders argued that the organization could not weigh in on the tax cut issue because there was no consensus in the community. Said UJC’s financial relations chairman, Richard Wexler: “There are many who believe, and I’m one of them, that we should be narrowing our focus to those issues which constituents with unanimity believe to be Jewish issues.”

On the other hand, Wexler said, when programs to aid the elderly are slashed significantly at the state level “then we have something to fight for, more than getting into the political morass of the Bush tax cut.”

Solomont spoke to the Forward from Washington, where he was lobbying to bring some relief to his beneficiary agencies back in Boston that are suffering from large cuts in Medicaid due to a $3 billion deficit in Massachusetts. Solomont said that if funding isn’t found an 850-bed long-term senior facility in Boston will lose a “few million dollars” and a 1,300-strong community housing program for low-income elderly will be threatened with extinction. “Those services for residents that would enable them to stay there independently are at risk because of state budget cuts.”

Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the JCPA, said her organization did not speak out against the most recent tax cut because her leadership was unable to meet in time on the issue.

But she expressed disappointment at the Jewish community for remaining silent. She admonished those who raised the argument that challenging the administration on domestic issues could weaken support for Israel.

“We in the Jewish community can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Rosenthal. “No one questions our committee’s support for our beloved Israel. And we can also meet and be very concerned about cuts in Medicaid or the humaneness of any public policy at the federal level… I don’t know how you could talk about the needs of the communities without visiting the tax cuts.”

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