Lost amid the Washington battles associated with the “fiscal cliff” is the lingering debate surrounding an alternative to automatic, across-the- board federal spending cuts, known as sequestration. Congress has given itself until March 1 to devise a plan to avoid these cuts. Should these cuts proceed, this would be the first of 10 annual sequestration cuts that were mandated in the 2011 Debt Limit Act to pare $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit through 2023.
As our country continues to struggle with a range of questions related to social issues, including gun control, mental health, and the affordability of Medicare, to name just a few, many experts worry that the need for a strong and responsive social service network may get lost in the shuffle.
From schools to construction, from defense to parks and recreation, all sectors of our society that draw resources from the federal budget will be affected. Here in New Jersey, much of our state funding is federal flow-through dollars that support and strengthen the functioning of our state. Yes — these cuts will have an impact on everything and everyone.
While a great deal of the debate stems from the universally accepted need to reduce the federal deficit, there seems to be very little discussion of the impact of the proposed reductions on the most vulnerable among us. Of the non-defense spending cuts, federal agencies and programs funded within the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations bill — the largest of all non-defense spending bills — are expected to be hit the hardest should sequestration occur. Of them, Health and Human Services is the largest department, funding a wide range of programs designed to support the social service needs of our country.
Jewish Family Service of MetroWest is a nonprofit agency that depends on government funding to sustain and extend that which government can’t do alone. JFS considers itself a partner with the government in ensuring the safety net for the most vulnerable. Today, 14 percent of JFS’s operating budget is augmented by federal funding sources that support a wide range of concrete needs:
• Emergency rent and utility payments for those struggling as a result of today’s economy.
• Home-delivered kosher meals-on-wheels and congregate lunch programs to enhance the capacity of seniors to live independently.
• Specialized outpatient mental health counseling for victims of domestic violence and children who have been exposed to violence and trauma.
• Specialized legal consultation services for victims of domestic violence.
• Comprehensive social work services to coordinate homecare, transportation and emergency financial assistance for at-risk seniors, and to help them to access entitlements.
• Volunteer services to support at-risk seniors living in the community with essential household tasks such as bill paying and check writing.
Proposed sequestration reductions in these areas will affect an estimated 1,075 local community members, resulting in an increased waiting list for JFS services and even more dire unanticipated consequences. From growing waiting lists to a sense of hopelessness among those needing to navigate the bureaucracies seeking help, our country will undoubtedly suffer the unintended impact of reducing vital human services.
It is important that we ask the right questions, stay informed, and make our voices heard — for the sake of the vulnerable among us who are unable to speak for themselves.