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Feeling the Squeeze: Middle Class Finds Itself Vulnerable and in Need

February 26, 2009 By:
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First in an Ongoing Series

At the age of 53, Jay Blum is starting over.

For 30 years, the father of two grown children sold print ads for publications like Philadelphia Magazine and The Northeast Times. But in December, Blum's most recent employer, The News Gleaner, a community paper that covered the Northeast, shut down.

For the first time since graduating college, he found himself out of work. Now he's working toward a certificate in elementary education and hopes to teach in Philadelphia's public schools.

"I thought, 'Where can I be guaranteed to work?' I don't want to sell anymore because it's damn near impossible," Blum said of his decision to look into teaching. "I was steadily employed and lost my job through no fault of my own."

To make matters worse, his wife had lost her job about a year earlier. Although their mortgage had been paid off, Blum had trouble coming up with the roughly $1,000 needed to purchase health insurance for the two of them through COBRA, which enables workers to pay to stay on their former employer's health plan.

So he did something he thought he'd never have to do -- he turned to a Jewish agency for help.

He's not alone. As economists and historians debate how the current recession stacks up with previous economic downturns, there's no disagreement that the woes befalling nearly all sectors of the economy are having myriad effects on Jewish families and life throughout the country.

For Philadelphia-area Jewry, the crisis is hitting home hard. Local organizations, philanthropies, synagogues and day schools are struggling to raise funds and do more with decreasing resources.

It is probably the Jewish social-service agencies that have felt and seen the effects of the recession, especially when it comes to job losses, most acutely. Over the past few months, the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia, JEVS Human Services and the Jewish Relief Agency are reporting a steady increase in foot and phone traffic.

As a result of the squeeze, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which funds many of these agencies, is planning to increase its allocations to social-service groups by $1.7 million over the next 18 months. It has also set aside a $1.1 million reserve fund in case the local needs escalate further.

A Proactive Decision
It's a step that the Federation has rarely, if ever, taken, said Ira M. Schwartz, the CEO of Federation.

"It's better to be safe than sorry," he said, adding that he didn't want to find out in six months that agencies were being overwhelmed with requests for services and there was no money available.

Many of the new Jewish clients -- these organizations serve many non-Jews as well -- are middle-class professionals who are among the newly unemployed.

Career counselors at JEVS, formerly known as the Jewish Employment and Vocational Service, report seeing Jewish clients carting master's degrees, and some, the fresh wounds of losing six-figure salaries. Some are also in danger of losing their homes.

The JRA, created to serve the Jewish poor, has been delivering roughly $20 worth of food to ever more unlikely neighborhoods -- on the Main Line; in the northern suburbs, including Bucks County; and in the Cherry Hill, N.J., environs.

For the most part, these new faces have never found themselves in such a financially vulnerable position, and asking for help often proved a tough first obstacle to overcome.

"The courage that it takes for some families to make that phone call is just huge," said Amy Krulik, JRA's executive director.

Blum acknowledged that he was initially reluctant to contact JFCS for financial assistance, but soon realized that he didn't have a choice.

"I thought if I could get help now, I would be glad to take it. There is no shame in asking for help," said Blum, who volunteered to go public with his story and ultimately got one month of COBRA payments from JFCS.

The Largest Factor: Unemployment
Blum's experience illustrates what local relief experts already know: that unemployment appears to be the largest factor pushing middle-class Jews to ask for help.

The national unemployment rate is currently at 7.6 percent, the highest mark since 1992, and forecasters predict that it may reach 9 percent some time in 2009.

Pennsylvania also hit an 18-year unemployment record in 2008, with 76,000 jobs lost.

The economy has been so shaken that even businesses that once seemed bulletproof have taken hits. Earlier this month, three of Philadelphia's blue-chip law firms -- Cozen O'Connor, Dechert LLP and WolfBlock LLP -- announced major layoffs, handing out pink slips to associate attorneys, as well as support staff.

Over the course of the past year, JFCS has received a 43-percent increase in requests for mortgage and rent assistance through its critical-needs fund, according to Pia M. Eisenberg, vice president of development and communications.

In addition, its seen a 25 percent jump in the number of people seeking food assistance, which generally comes in the form of supermarket gift cards.

JFCS gave out a total of $1.2 million in aid to predominantly Jewish clients in the last fiscal year, which ended Aug. 31.

"We have a larger pool of clients and are anticipating a shrinking pool of resources, but we haven't seen that yet," stated Jack H. Dembow, president and CEO of JFCS.

One client, Donna Paul, said that she has struggled to put food on the table since she lost her position at a Montgomery County synagogue in September.

In fact, in the three years since her husband died in a car accident, Paul said that she's repeatedly had to turn to Jewish agencies like JFCS, JEVS and JRA, which delivers monthly food packages to her home.

"I don't know what I would do without all of the institutions that have helped me," she said. (See Sidebar on Page 19.)

As a response to the dire economy, the commensurate strains being placed on partner agencies like JFCS and the prospects of diminished government funding -- the passage of the $787 billion stimulus package notwithstanding -- Federation has shifted more of its resources to social-service needs.

On Feb. 13, Federation's board of directors approved an $8.7 million allocation over the next 18 months, beginning in March, to programs that address critical needs like senior care, food distribution, child-care scholarships, job-counseling, meal programs and emergency aid.

The figure -- still pending approval from the full board of trustees, which is slated to meet on April 23 -- represents 37 percent of the approximately $23.2 million in Federation allocations this cycle. In the last 18-month funding cycle, these areas got 25 percent of the total pie.

JFCS, for example, is expected to receive just shy of $2.8 million for the upcoming funding cycle -- up from roughly $2.68 million the previous cycle. The agency's total annual budget is about $12 million, with the rest coming from government and private sources; most of the monies are used for predominantly non-Jewish programs.

Schwartz said that this move is part of Federation's effort to focus on its priorities: Israel and overseas programs, Jewish education, serving the elderly and fighting poverty.

"Could we use more? Absolutely. Make no mistake, in my opinion, we are not adequately meeting the needs in the social-welfare area and the food-service area," he said. "The problem that we have right now is we don't have a clear handle on the extent of the needs."

Federation, too, has felt the pinch, although perhaps not as steeply as other federations across the country, according to local officials.

This year's fundraising campaign fell 6 percent in unrestricted gifts from the previous year, meaning donations not designated for a specific program. But with targeted gifts and corporate sponsorships, the overall campaign came out ahead by $400,000, raising a total of a little more than $27.5 million.

But the organization is bracing itself for fundraising difficulties ahead as the economic toll continues to plague the area.

Hoping for Stimulus Relief
Federal and state funding make up a significant chunk of the cash that goes to social-service agencies, including Medicaid funding for senior homes, like the Madlyn and Leonard Abramson Center for Jewish Life.

But local officials are still parsing the $787 billion stimulus bill and the Pennsylvania state budget to determine how those numbers will affect Jewish-run programs in the area.

"From what we are currently gathering, the money coming in from the stimulus package will be allocated towards currently operating and funded programs," Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, wrote in an e-mail. "To what exactly is going to the Jewish agencies, it is unclear at this time."

Krulik of the JRA hopes that the passage of the stimulus package will ease some of her organization's burdens. JRA distributes kosher-food packages to roughly 2,600 households a month, or about 5,000 people.

"This is a three-part squeeze. It's like the perfect storm in a lot of ways," she said. "More and more people are calling us for help. Food prices are still on the rise, and the packaging has gotten smaller. And we have fewer dollars and resources to be able to do that work."

In recent years, JRA typically got about 15 new requests for assistance per month. But starting in March 2008, the number of monthly requests began rising. By December, the organization, which is run out of a small basement in Bala Cynwyd and relies almost exclusively on volunteers to pack and deliver food, received nearly 100 new inquiries.

The increase coincided with a three-month period in which the state could not provide its funding to JRA through the State Food Purchase Program. Due to budget constraints on the state level, the purchase program was forced to withhold $30,000 a month in credits that it normally provided the agency to purchase food.

For several months, JRA was forced to rely on its own cash reserves.

Pennsylvania expects to receive up to $25 million in food assistance under the federal stimulus package, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Krulik said that such assistance might not help JRA directly, but some of its client families might need less from them if they received more from Food Stamps and other programs.

The same State Food Purchase Program also aids Federation's Mitzvah Food Project, which last year served 1,867 Jewish households. Funding was interrupted for them as well.

Both JRA and Federation's Mitzvah Food Project will see large increases from Federation if the recommendations are approved. JRA's allocation will jump from $187,500 to $450,000, and the food project's from $82,500 to $158,000.

"We are stretching every dollar," said Krulik, adding that the agency has done much to cut costs, including negotiating better deals and paying less than market prices for bulk food orders. She added, however, that food donations from large companies have trickled to a standstill.

'A Whole New Something'
No agency is confronting the issue of unemployment like JEVS, an organization whose budget exceeds $70 million annually, with a large share coming from the city and state.

Its Career Strategies program targets a largely Jewish audience, and is funded mostly by Federation. Federation is planning to increase its allocations beginning in March from $945,000 to $1.25 million.

The department offers career counseling, job-placement services, computer training, résumé reviews and interview coaching. Some of the services are free, and some require a nominal fee.

JEVS officials said they did not see a rise in overall numbers over the past 12 months; they expect that will change as the effects of the recession and the slew of layoffs are felt more fully.

"We easily see 1,000 to 1,200 people a year. The difference is that now we have many more professions, as opposed to the chronically underemployed," said Penny Kardon, director of Career Strategies.

Jan Toas, a 61-year-old who lives with his wife in Center City, is one client who suddenly found himself out of work and sought career counseling at JEVS.

In December, the Temple University graduate lost his job at a high-end Center City clothing store.

"It didn't surprise me that it happened. It surprised me when it happened -- before the holidays," he said.

Retiring is not an option, said Toas, yet he's trying to treat his unemployment as a blessing in disguise -- like Blum, he believes it's never too late to enter a new field. Toas has grown increasingly observant in recent years and wants to find a job where he won't have to work on Shabbat, which was pretty much par for the course in his previous jobs.

After meeting with a job counselor at JEVS, he decided to pursue a career in medical billing and data, and is currently taking a course to learn the requisite skills.

"It's difficult to start a whole new something at this time of life," said Toas during a break from his class at a private Center City vocational program.

But he continues to find a bright spot in his recent layoff: "I just have a belief that God is good, and everything happens for the good."

But then he added: "I know that everyone doesn't have the same feeling."
 

 

List of Resources

For support resources, contact:

Jewish Information and Referral Service for information about Federation and Federation-supported social-service programs: 215-832-0821

Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia: 267-256-2254

JEVS Human Services Career Strategies: 215-854-1874

Jewish Relief Agency: 610-660-0190

Mitzvah Food Project 215-832-0531

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