Problems Unspoken

July 10, 2014
BY Heather Norris
Many in Jewish community silently struggle during economic downturn

For many Americans, the 2008 recession was the tipping point, with millions of people losing jobs and savings. Six years later, many are back at work but for wages far lower than they were making before the recession.

The Jewish community in Baltimore is no exception. And religious restrictions on some observant Jews may make just getting by even more difficult.

In the Baltimore area, according to the Living Wage Calculator provided by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the living wage for a family of two parents and three children is $53,805. For a family of two parents and two children, the living wage is $45,547.

The MIT’s figures take into account expenses such as food, child care, medical costs, housing and transportation, but what if a family keeps kosher and pays up to 20 percent more for meat and perishables? What if they want their children to receive a Jewish education and have to pay day school tuition? What about synagogue fees?

In 2012, U.S. Census Bureau statistics showed that 46.6 percent of Baltimore residents live below 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($44,000 for a four-person household), and 23 percent live below that income marker in Baltimore County. Figures for the Jewish community aren’t far off, with 12 percent of Jewish households reporting having incomes below the 200 percent mark in The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s 2010 community survey. For the senior population living alone, that number shoots to 27 percent.

“It is frightening and stressful to run out of food days before your next paycheck arrives,” said one Baltimore Jewish Community Services client in a letter to the organization. Just months after the client’s husband had lost his job, she was laid off from her own job, putting the family in a bind for money. After using their unemployment benefits to pay their rent and utilities, they feared they would not be able to feed their two daughters or themselves.

Today, said Rachel Goldberg, director of aging policy at B’nai B’rith International, shrinking pensions and retirement accounts are contributing to a greater need than ever before.

“People retire and are often living at a much lower standard than they did before,” said Goldberg, “so even in communities where you think of the people you know as being comfortable, there’s a real question as to how comfortable they’re going to be when it becomes time to retire, whether it’s because you want to or because physically, you have to.”

In the six years following the recession, some local organizations have had to change the way they operate in order to accommodate increased demand. JCS, an agency of The Associated, for instance, had to change the way it handles those seeking financial assistance, increasing the amount of time it provides benefits for any specific client.

The majority of the people JCS helps experience episodic poverty, said executive director Barbara Levy Gradet. They make up part of the one-in-three local Jewish households that, according to the 2010 survey, are just scraping by at best. A bump in the road, like an illness in the family or a job loss, can put them over the edge into needing assistance.

In the past, JCS — which also provides marriage counseling, parenting workshops and addiction and mental health support — provided help to those in need in the form of grocery store gift cards, career counseling and eviction prevention for a maximum of about three months. But in the past few years Gradet and her organization have had to double and even triple that length of time. Additionally, Gradet said, the yearly average for direct assistance given out to community members in the years preceding the recession was about $700,000. This year, JCS gave out $2.6 million to families and individuals unable to get by on their own.

“It’s big, and it’s real,” Gradet said of the poverty problem in the local Jewish community. Making matters worse, she added, is the stereotypical myth that poverty doesn’t exist in the American Jewish community.

“This was an equal-opportunity great recession,” she said. “The community study shows that as a group, we are better educated, we do send more of our kids to college — education is such a deep Jewish value — but in an economy like this and in a job market like this, all bets are off.

“We are better educated, but a lot of people think that makes all Jews affluent, and that is not the case,” she continued. “Those myths are alive in the Jewish community as well.”

B’nai B’rith officials, who have been reaching out to Jews in need for more than 170 years, say stereotypes have hurt their organization in the past. Part of their work involves helping ensure Jewish seniors have a home to live in, something that has become increasingly difficult for many elderly citizens across the United States, as the cost of living has skyrocketed alongside an increasing life expectancy. With a fixed income and little to no access to additional sources of funds, many seniors turn to B’nai B’rith for their affordable senior apartments.

“Obviously there are a lot of images of Jews in media as ostentatiously wealthy and all these ideas about running the entertainment industry and what not,” said B’nai B’rith’s Goldberg. “Those stereotypes about what Jews are and what Jews have still really do exist, and it affects not only public perception and anti-Semitism, but it makes it a little bit more difficult for low-income older adults who are Jewish to reach out for the services they need because people internalize those kinds of things. It’s one reason, in this community, that people are a little uncomfortable asking for help.”

Mark Olshan, associate executive vice president at B’nai B’rith, can recall one not-so-distant memory of a town in southern Florida denying the organization’s zoning request to build affordable senior housing there because, town officials and community members said, “there’s no poverty in the Jewish community here.” A nearby town got wind of what happened and offered land for the units, but the experience was a wakeup call, said Olshan.

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