Community gears up for federal budget cuts

With major federal budget cuts expected to slash social services over the next several years, local Jewish agencies and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation are busily devising ways to thwart the potential damage.

The Jewish Home for the Aged in San Francisco, for example, is looking at initiating its first annual fund-raising campaign. Staff members at Jewish Family and Children's Services, also in San Francisco, plan to up private fund-raising efforts to full blast.

"The restructuring of welfare as we know it means there will be more people who need assistance and there will be more agencies that are going to have to find innovative ways to help them," said Anita Friedman, executive director of JFCS. "The alternative is not poverty. It's destitution."

Meanwhile the federation, which annually allocates money to local Jewish agencies, has created "field-of-service" grants, enabling donors to set up endowment funds aimed specifically toward at-risk recipients. The JCF says it may also supplement its annual fund-raising drive with additional campaigns to aid the community's most vulnerable groups and individuals.

But even if private philanthropy efforts are successful, most community leaders agree they can not wholly reverse the expected decimation of government funding.

Last year, a total of $21 million in public funding reached various local Jewish agencies supported by the S.F.-based JCF, with an additional $1.7 million going to agencies supported by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. The funds went to support such essential services as Medicare, Medicaid, refugee resettlement, nutrition programs, vocational training and subsidized housing for the elderly — programs that may decrease in scope as legislators struggle to balance the federal budget.

The funds also supported education and the arts.

"Philanthropy alone cannot possibly make up a reduction of 50, 60, 70 percent" in federally supported programs, said Wayne Feinstein, the federation's executive vice president. "No matter how well we do in the annual campaign, it won't be enough."

A number of local Jewish agencies depend on public funding for a major portion of their budgets.

For example Menorah Park, a housing facility for Jewish seniors operated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, last year received $975,000 in federal dollars, which accounted for 65 percent of its total budget.

Jewish Vocational Services, which provides job listings, career counseling, vocational training and job placement support, last year received approximately $1.5 million from a range of federal sources. The funds, whose sources included the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education, comprised 40 percent of the agency's total operating budget.

Other local Jewish organizations dependent on some degree of federal funding include the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and Camp Tawonga. The Jewish Film Festival receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council and Berkeley Civic Arts Commission. The Holocaust Center of Northern California receives a small allocation at the state level to pay part of its library assistant's salary.

Until lawmakers hand down their federal budget — and it is unclear exactly when that will be — it is impossible to give a precise forecast of future losses to the community. However, even if efforts to balance the budget by the year 2002 lead to relatively mild cuts, Jewish leaders say those cuts will hurt.

"Just when we thought we could worry about education and enrichment, we're back to the business of core human needs," said Ami Nahshon, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Added Feinstein: "We're going to face downsizing, contraction. It may wind up that it takes longer to get into the Home [for the Aged] or Menorah Park. We're going to try very hard to avoid that."

While the impending cuts are attracting a good deal of attention, they cannot be viewed in a vacuum. In fact, they are sustaining the past decade's movement away from the public sector and toward the private sector.

That shift started with the 1981 election of Ronald Reagan as president and subsequent rethinking of the government's role in providing services.

For some local agencies, the reduction in federal dollars, coupled with the cut in social programs, has hit hard.

The Jewish Home for the Aged, 75 percent of whose approximately 400 residents rely on MediCal, this year suffered a loss of several dollars per day in state medical funding.

"That translates into a quarter of a million dollars less on an annual basis," noted the home's executive director, Jerry Levine.

Jewish Vocational Services today serves five times as many people as it did a decade ago, according to its executive director, Abby Snay. And JFCS has seen a 500 percent increase in its intake during the same time period.

"The problem is, we have more and more requests for services and less resources available," said Anita Friedman, JFCS executive director.

Friedman expects that gap to widen but points out that impending federal cuts will not be perceptible all at once. Once the federal budget has been submitted, it will take a while for federal funds to be allocated at the state and local levels, and it may be several years until the cuts' full impact becomes clear.

Even so, some local Jewish leaders started planning for the cuts as early as December 1994.

"Either we decide as a community that we're going to get ahead of the curve, or one day in July of '96 or '97, it's going to come up and bite our behinds," Wayne Feinstein said. "At that point, it's too late."