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Protecting Entitlement Programs from Threats, Cubit by Cubit

Protecting Entitlement Programs from Threats, Cubit by Cubit

Budget

Over the past few weeks, the weekly parsha, Torah portion, has covered the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle. Parashat T’rumah begins this series of parshiot and details God’s instructions for how the Israelites are to build the sanctuary so that God “may dwell among them.” One of the primary goals of the construction is for the Israelites to connect to God through communal building of holy space.

Debates over the federal government’s budget are in full swing, with President Trump’s proposal released last Thursday. The budget serves in many ways as a covenant between the government and the American people, because it indicates the priorities of the government by the agencies, departments and programs to which funds are allocated. What is funded and at what level can be highly technical, but in many ways these programs are the building blocks of our society: low-income housing services, environmental protection, foreign aid and many more essential roles of government. Furthermore, the complicated manner in which the tabernacle is created can shed some insight and provide a framework for assessing the budget process.  

One surprising element of T’rumah’s description of the tabernacle is that the parsha does not actually provide all the details necessary for the tabernacle’s construction. In fact, assembly directions, and certain details, like the structure of the flooring, are not included. The later parshiot, through Vayakhel-Pekudei, continue this narrative of construction and creation. While certain elements of the federal budget are set irrespective of what the president and Congress want, much of the budget falls within the ambit of elected officials to determine.

Entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Social Security, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), Medicaid and unemployment insurance, provide benefits to all people who meet certain eligibility requirements, such as income level. These are considered “mandatory” spending, because they are funded as needed. What was once known as welfare, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), used to operate in similar fashion. While TANF still operates as an entitlement program, it is capped and operates as a block grant, meaning that states receive a set amount of funding and can determine how they spend the money. This means that even during the 2009 recession, when the number of people in poverty increased, TANF funding remained the same. While SNAP funding fluctuated based on the number of people who needed it, TANF’s stagnant support was devastating for millions of families.

The tabernacle is built with a number of requirements, certain elements that God instructs must be constructed in a specific way. Other aspects, however, are left to the people to decide. In budget debates, different parties and individuals believe some programs to be more important than others. Just as the building of the tabernacle is rigorous and made of sometimes minute details, it is crucial for the Israelites and for the fostering of their community and each individual’s relationship with God. Crafting the budget for the United States is similarly rigorous and made up of many decisions and elements. While the budget process can be hard to grasp because of all its details, it is important to keep in mind its far-reaching consequences. How we shape and build our budget is in part how we shape and build our society, and we will push for a budget that recognizes the needs of all people, especially the most vulnerable. Over the next weeks, we will assess budget proposals through the lens of our abiding Jewish values, emphasizing the importance of building a community that supports everyone. 

Nathan Bennett is a 2016-2017 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. Originally from Wilmette, IL, he is a member of Ner Tamid Ezra Habonim Egalitarian Minyan and graduated from Northwestern University.

Nathan Bennett