The impact of $1.2 trillion in federal funding cuts is so abstract to members of Congress that when David Brown asks them to tell him what they think it will be, they shrug.
"They say, 'We owe too much to China. We need to reduce our debt,' " he said. "Yes, we do, but in a thoughtful way. Across-the-board does not consider the impact."
Mr. Brown, chairman of the Human Service and Public Policy Council of the Jewish Federations of North America, was in Pittsburgh on Wednesday on a national campaign to rally nonprofits to appeal to Congress for a solution before automatic budget cuts -- known as sequestration -- take effect on Friday.
"We represent hundreds of thousands of people who pay taxes and care about the vulnerable," Mr. Brown said. "If they hear from enough of us, ultimately they're going to listen, or at least they should."
He described the current situation as an untenable spiral of growing need and diminishing funds.
About 30 representatives of nonprofits turned out for the discussion at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh in Oakland, but a real-numbers sense of the pending impact on each is fuzzy.
Talking about the bigger picture, Floyd Cephas, executive director of the North Side Christian Health Center, said, "900,000 citizens of the U.S. will possibly go without health care if this goes through."
The health center is among the safety net nonprofits that, if starved of funds, will lose clients to for-profit centers. These people "will go to the emergency room, which drives up the cost of health care. Duh."
"At the end of the day, the idea of saving" by cutting $1.2 trillion "isn't based in reality," Mr. Brown said.
The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is likely to see more demand if subsidies for WIC -- or women, infants and children -- are cut.
"About 17,000 women and children could be dropped," said Lisa Scales, CEO of the food bank. The senior meals program is estimated to lose $849,000, meaning that more than a million local meals could be lost.
As of Monday, when Mr. Brown met with congressmen in Washington, he said, "nobody had high hopes" of warding off the cuts. "But I don't see sequestration as the law of the land for long. At some point, they'll sit down and someone will say 'uncle.' "
Rashad Byrdsong, founder of the Community Empowerment Association -- a community development nonprofit in the East End -- said the crises of crime and education failure have been part of his community "all my life." To deal with government failure, he said, "there's got to be a groundswell. In the '60s, we [baby boomers] changed the world in the streets and on the campuses. People vote and the landscape still looks the same. We need to hit the streets again."
As a lobbyist for the federation and its member agencies, Mr. Brown said his concerns are "for the most vulnerable people in the country," not those who will be inconvenienced by cuts to air traffic control operations.
"Health care, the ability to feed people and poverty issues are of most concern to us," he said.
The Jewish Federations of North America has 154 chapters nationwide. The local chapter raises about $30 million a year for local Jewish organizations, support of Israel and collaborative work with social services nonprofits that include the Urban League, NAACP, and YMCA.
"Nonprofits leverage service that otherwise would be done by government," Mr. Brown said. "Somebody has to do it. If we do our part, [Congress needs] to do their part.
"It's essential that the public-private partnership continues to be essential."