Fiscal cliff threatens all Californians


Who should worry about the looming package of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that will hit this nation if Congress cannot come to a deal to avoid what has come to be known as the “fiscal cliff?”

Everybody.

Calif. Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D – San Fernando Valley) said the numbers of Californians who would lose access to particular services – the 12,000 children who would lose access to Head Start programs or the 2,000 women who would not be screened for breast and cervical cancers – only begin to hint at the potential fallout.

“It’s also important to talk about pure economics,” Blumenfield said in an interview on Dec. 17, two weeks before the Dec. 31 deadline by which a deal must be reached. “Everybody understands that we are in a very fragile time right now. We still have double-digit unemployment.”

As chair of the California Assembly budget committee, Blumenfield has spent the last two years hammering the state’s spending plan into balance. “We’re looking at only a $1.9 billion deficit,” Blumenfield said, a marked improvement over previous years, when the state was facing projected deficits of more than $20 billion.

“We’ve been doing our part on the state level to get the state’s financial house in order,” Blumenfield said, but if leaders in Washington, D.C., can’t agree on a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion by the end of the year, Blumenfield and his colleagues in Sacramento could be having very different kinds of conversations in January, staring at a hole where $4.5 billion dollars of federal funds used to be.

And though the impact of cuts in spending would most directly affect the beneficiaries of social service programs, the hurt wouldn’t end there, Blumenfield said. Retailers, who’ve lately been buoyed by an increased level of confidence among consumers, would likely customers flee the stores and put away their wallets. Foreclosures could go up. California – indeed the country as a whole – could go back into recession.

“Even if you don’t see how you’re benefiting from a particular state or federal program,” Blumenfield said, “everybody is affected by the ups and downs of the economy.”

Don’t let the stress of ailing economy kill you


Downtown Hospital is just a block from Wall Street. Walking through its beefed-up emergency room recently, I came upon Terry Jung, the hospital’s very thoughtful head triage nurse. She told me that despite the financial crisis and roller-coaster stock market, the number of patients with chest pain or heart attacks was not yet increasing.

“Nothing’s different,” she said. “Except the feeling that something’s about to happen.”

In all likelihood, that “something” is happening to millions of people who are worried about their jobs, retirement plans, the prices of their homes and the ability to keep food on their table should a worst-case scenario play out.

Americans are receiving a daily barrage of gloomy news that could inevitably begin to take its toll. The focus on the front pages of newspapers and on the screens of the nightly network news is of a financial calamity engulfing the planet.

But it starts at home. A neighbor’s house is being foreclosed. Food is more expensive. A friend loses his job. The daily stock market tickers on cable news shows remind people, in real time, how their investments are faring.

A survey by the American Psychological Association indicated that financial concerns “topped the list of stressors for at least 80 percent of those surveyed,” according to a recent front-page story in USA Today. More than half reported the most common symptoms of stress being anger, fatigue and an inability to sleep. Close to half responded by overeating or eating poorly, a trend that will definitely lead to killer diseases that include heart attacks and strokes.

And if the economic woes continue? Well, our collective national health could just follow our economy into the depths.

The Last Crash

In the 1980s, concerns about the failing economy after the 1987 crash led to so much stress that urgent-care centers sprang up around Wall Street. With the economic rebound of the 1990s, many of these centers closed.

Tales of traders suddenly throwing themselves out of windows on Wall Street in the wake of the 1929 crash that was the precursor to the Great Depression were largely myths, as John Kenneth Galbraith noted in his 1955 account. But millions did turn to drinking and smoking in greater numbers, which led to heart attacks, strokes, bleeding ulcers and clinical depression.

Stress is cumulative; it wears down the body and leads to disease down the line.

Research based on 17 years of Pennsylvania unemployment records concluded that workers affected by mass layoffs at a plant were 15 percent more likely to die of any cause over the next two decades.

Though stress in society at large is impossible to measure, we’re already seeing anecdotal evidence suggesting that angst is spreading. In New York, calls to the Hopeline network for people with depression or suicidal thoughts increased 75 percent in the 11 months ending in July. According to UnitedHealth Group, the largest U.S. health insurer, hospital admissions for psychiatric services are up 10 percent this year over last year. Medical illness is sure to follow.

Harvey Brenner, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, projects that an increase of 1 percentage point in a nation’s unemployment rate could cause as many as 47,000 more deaths — including 1,200 more suicides and 26,000 additional heart attacks — over the ensuing two years.

The Biology of Stress

Stress is creeping; it damages the body’s organs just as alcohol and cigarettes do. Cumulative stress is a well-documented cause of depression, suicide, heart disease, stroke, predisposition to infection and certain kinds of cancer. The body builds up the vessel-constricting, heart thumping hormones noradrenaline, adrenaline and the steroid cortisol. The problems cascade from there throughout the body.

What To Do?

The best advice is often the simplest: Eat healthy food, sleep right and avoid obsessing on the doom and gloom. Do yoga, meditate or exercise regularly to combat the growing stress.

A new study from Utah researchers shows that touch, in the form of massage, hugging and kissing, decreases stress hormones, increases the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, and lowers blood pressure.

I am all for more touching and hugging, but people who feel a disaster is looming generally are resistant to altering their increasing unstable lives. A sleepless Wall Street trader or even a Nebraska farmer is too concerned about his or her bank account to consider health.

But for each one of us, awareness is a vital weapon, and we must consider that there is still time for us to take the same kind of common sense approach to health — eat right, exercise, sleep, manage stress — that might have saved our economy from this crisis in the first place.

As the father of stress research, Hans Selye, once wrote, “It’s not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it.”

This article originally appeared in USA Today.

Dr. Marc Siegel, associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, is the author of ”False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.”

Communities can use High Holy Days to help ease economic angst


With the start of the High Holy Days, the pace of communal life starts to change, and our focus is on reflection, reconciliation, repentance and the annual response to new beginnings.

For too many in our community, however, this season will hold more angst than joy.

The economic situation in our country presents us with challenges unseen for nearly a generation. Too many will sit in synagogues through this season and be equally concerned with their own economic situation as they will the state of their soul. Increasingly, senior citizens on fixed or limited incomes are seeing their resources challenged. Young adults are concerned about job security. Too many of our people of all ages have lost jobs, been downsized or live on the edge of job and financial uncertainty.

This reality presents our community with a unique and necessary opportunity to become an even more meaningful “caring community.” This is a time when no one should be left to feel that they are “l’vado” (alone). This is a time for community and relationships to be enhanced and expanded, so that our congregations can be seen as responsive to and involved with those who are hurting.

In every community are untapped human resources: people who may have some time to give, who have experienced life and, if asked, might be willing to assist leadership in developing support systems for individuals and families in need. At the least, a call can be made to members who have experience in the workplace, who have counseled people in job changes and career moves.

Establishing a congregational or communal service corps with members willing to give advice and direction — or just lend a sympathetic ear to those who might be searching for new directions — is one possible course of action.

During a similar economic downturn in the early 1980s, I worked in Philadelphia and was involved in helping congregations create a communitywide job bank. It had some success helping people in our community get back to work. We simply polled the members of the community’s congregations for possible job openings and advertised those openings throughout the area so members could see what was available from those within their own community.

This could be done again. Synagogues can join other local organizations, JCCs, Jewish Family Service and others to broaden the base of opportunities to search. Even in this day of electronic and Internet job searches, personal networking and relationships go a long way in opening doors.

A difficulty in some of this may be the unwillingness on the part of many to come forward. So often we face this challenge of having people admit they may need some assistance, guidance or help in establishing goals. Transitions are tough and filled with fear. But let us not forget the power of the pulpit. The simple act of the rabbi offering a sermon on the need for this type of caring “inreach” can help worshipers see their congregation as more than a life-cycle institution.

The High Holy Days are a perfect example of a moment in time when Jews attend synagogue. Why not take a few moments at each service to launch this internal support network? Why not have in each prayer book a form that someone can fill out who has a job opening or position request, or has a willingness to give time to counsel or advise a fellow congregant on career change and possibilities?

Use your caring community committee to organize these forms and launch, right after Yom Kippur, a Sukkot of Transition so that all can feel the possibility of a “sukkat shalom.”

We soon will enter our season of possibilities. In each of our communities there are those we need to support and those with the ability to create that sense of support and caring. All we need to do is ask.

Rabbi Richard F. Address is the director of Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns (www.urj.org/jfc).

Article courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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