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Sequestration’s Jewish Toll

Lest you think that the thoughtless, cowardly attempt to reduce federal spending, known as sequestration, was nowhere near as bad as it sounded, listen to Nancy Volpert. She’s the director of public policy for the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, the oldest charity in L.A. and one of the largest, an organization dedicated to caring for the frail, poor and elderly. You know — the population that can’t afford high-priced Washington lobbyists to bend the system its way and therefore the population most severely affected by Congress’s decision to slash $87 billion in federal spending because it refused to find a decent budget compromise with the White House.

“We are directly impacted by sequestration,” Volpert said, speaking by phone with the Forward. Her agency, which provides 1,000 meals a day to low-income seniors and homebound adults with disabilities, lost $44,000 in the last quarter of the 2013 fiscal year, from April through June. To minimize the impact on clients, instead of foregoing meals, JFS didn’t buy or upgrade its supplies, such as the warming ovens and tables used for meal delivery.

A manageable temporary solution, no more.

But even heftier federal budget cuts of $1.4 million affecting all L.A. meal providers were announced for the fiscal year beginning in July. Fortunately, Volpert said, the L.A. City Council “decided that allowing seniors to starve was not an appropriate budget-balancing choice” and redirected city money to the meals program for this year only.

Another manageable but temporary solution.

One day, they will run out of temporary solutions.

The pain is blunted for the clients of organizations like JFS because of these stop-gap measures, and because many of the most dire predictions about a breakdown in crucial services did not occur. Yet. Massive furloughs and firings have been averted. The gridlock anticipated at the nation’s airports and borders is no worse than usual.

Clearly, many politicians, including President Obama, issued exaggerated warnings about the consequences of sequestration for rhetorical purposes. They overestimated the ability of federal bureaucrats to skillfully maneuver around the potholes placed in their paths. And surely some federal spending was unnecessary and irrelevant.

But don’t be lulled into thinking that this is a sustainable situation. The sequestration is in place for 10 years, and no amount of clever budgeting or delayed spending can cover the tremendous loss over that extended period of time. Already, other parts of the national economy are experiencing the strain.

Federal unemployment checks have been reduced — in some states, by up to 11%. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration curtailed more than 1,200 inspections of the most dangerous workplaces. The Defense Department laid off a “significant portion” of its 46,000 temporary and term employees. The National Science Foundation eliminated 600 grants.

There’s more. The wait time at the Social Security Administration has increased, in person and on the phone, and field offices are open fewer hours. NASA suspended education and public outreach programs. The Coast Guard reduced its air and surface operations by 25%. Visitor centers at national parks are closed. Schools on Indian reservations, which rely on Washington for up to 60% of their funding, are taking serious hits.

And there still are looming question marks over many federally funded activities. We don’t yet know how many Head Start teachers will lose their jobs, how many drug and alcohol programs will be shut down, how many homeless veterans will be pushed to the streets. But we know that all of these things will happen.

Remember, too, that a decline in federal funding and employment has a ripple effect throughout certain communities. For example, curtailing travel by federal employees may save a few dollars, but it hurts airlines, travel agents, restaurants and rental car companies.

There are also direct ramifications for the Jewish community. Thanks to congressional inaction on the Farm Bill, compounded by the sequestration, the future of food stamps and other assistance is highly uncertain — just when the number of Jews relying on these services is reaching dramatic numbers.

This is what happens when our elected leaders refuse to fulfill their duty and responsibly set national budget priorities. Or any priorities at all. Congress hasn’t passed a single appropriations bill for the fiscal year that begins October 1. And who gets hurt? Nancy Volpert’s clients. “These are real people we’re talking about,” she reminds us.


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