Task Force Faults Bush Budget Cuts For Rising Poverty

By Ori Nir

Published August 08, 2003, issue of August 08, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — A national task force on poverty, set up in June by a coalition of major Jewish groups, is calling for community action to “raise public awareness” of how federal budget cuts are affecting health and social service programs “and the people they serve” — but stops short of proposing a plan to lobby against the cuts.

The report, submitted to the sponsoring groups last week, notes that poverty is rising among Americans, including Jews, and hints that changing government policies are partly at fault. It urges Jewish organizations to focus their “public awareness” efforts on specific federal programs for the poor and elderly that are seen as critical to social service planning within the Jewish community.

The task force’s sponsoring groups include the national synagogue unions of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism, the main Jewish civil rights agencies and the Jewish welfare federations in several of the nation’s largest cities.

“Poverty in America is not the result of immutable economic laws, or of a global economy,” the report states. “It is the result of the attitudes, actions, policies, laws and unstated rules of our society. These laws and rules have been changed before, and they can be changed again.”

The task force was created by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which coordinates the public policy work of 13 national Jewish agencies and 123 local community-relations councils. The poverty task force was augmented by representatives of local Jewish welfare federations in several of the nation’s largest cities, including New York, Chicago, Miami and Baltimore.

The task force also included two anti-poverty groups: Mazon and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a New York service agency.

United Jewish Communities, the national roof body of Jewish welfare federations, originally declined to participate in the task force. But, according to sources familiar with the situation, UJC is now exploring ways to join the task force.

While the task force is urging communal leaders to spend this month discussing the issue with members of Congress, several organizational leaders complained that the report failed to propose a concerted lobbying effort for legislative action against current federal budget priorities. “This has to go past the issue of public education, because so many Americans — including Jews — are suffering as a result of the economic downturn that we have,” said Robert Zweiman, chairman of the Jewish War Veterans of America and a member of the task force.

The task force’s cautious approach resulted partly from differences among its members, who agreed that the situation was cause for alarm but did not achieve consensus on how to proceed. “Different people have different views in terms of what would be the most effective action plan,” said task force chairman David Steirman, who wrote the report.

For now, said Steirman, the JCPA’s treasurer, the idea is to “put it high on everyone’s social agenda, so there will be more of a chance for this to end up being something on which there will be action taken.”

The report, which was submitted to the boards of directors of all of the council’s member organizations, recommends an intensive public-awareness campaign within the Jewish community, cooperation with anti-poverty organizations nationally and locally and an immediate advocacy campaign that focuses on maintaining funding for three key federal programs.

Several members said that lobbying Congress would begin in earnest in the fall, once lawmakers return to Washington from summer recess.

The task force’s chief concern is Medicaid, the federal-state partnership that provides health insurance for the poor and disabled. Several groups are opposing the administration’s plan to restructure the federal share of the program from matching funds to a block grant, a move that critics say would end up encouraging states to balance their overall budgets by cutting contributions to the Medicaid system.

In addition to Medicaid, the task force is also urging organizations to focus public attention on the funding needs of the Older Americans Act, a 38-year-old program that provides senior citizens with assistance to live independently in their current communities. Federal funds, which totaled $1.1 billion in the 2001 fiscal year, are currently distributed using a formula based on each state’s share of the American population age 60 and over. The program provides nonmedical services to persons who require long-term care.

Congress is set, after its summer recess, to consider whether to reauthorize the program. Advocates say they fear Congress will try to transform it into a block-grant program, which they say would encourage states to shrink seniors’ services as a way to trim deficits.

The final item addressed in the task force report is the Social Services Block Grant, also known as Title 20 of the Social Security Act. At $2 billion a year, it is a relatively small block-grant program that can be used by the states to fund a wide variety of social service programs, including adoption, daycare, employment services, family planning, housing and transportation. Funding for this program has been steadily reduced since 1995, and Jewish activists fear further cuts.

Several participants emphasized that despite the gradual, community-based strategy adopted by the task force, it was expected that member groups would move quickly to direct lobbying.

“This is like the scene in the movie where the guy sticks his head out the window and shouts, ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more,’” said the director of the community relations committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Michael Hirschfeld. “Well, we’re mad as hell and we’ll not take it any more. That’s our message.”

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