|Living on the edge|
|By Kara Marziali|
|Friday, 25 October 2013 13:10|
Brandeis: Economic instability has risen dramatically in the Greater Rhode Island Jewish community
Many of our Rhode Island friends and neighbors and, yes, even some in our families, live on the edge: On the edge between economic security and uncertainty – on the edge between hope and despair.
Aware that there are problems in our community, The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, with the support of Alan Hassenfeld, commissioned Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute to examine the economic status of Greater Rhode Island’s Jewish community. The findings of lead researchers Fern Chertok and Daniel Parmer have been reported in “Living on the Edge: Economic Insecurity among Jewish Households in Greater Rhode Island.”
Rhode Island families, including Jewish households, were especially hard hit by the recent economic downturn and there is little indication of improving conditions on the horizon. With fixed incomes, few employment opportunities and the rising cost of living, many find themselves caught in the clutches of economic vulnerability.
The research shows that two percent of Jewish households in the Alliance service area fall below the federal poverty guidelines. Another 18 percent are living near poverty and 30 percent are defined as economically vulnerable. This means that fully half the Jewish households in communities served by the Alliance are financially fragile.
While the statistics will prompt us to action, it is the individual stories from our community that pull at our heartstrings.
“I used to be the one that helped others; now I need help. My income is very low and I’m not able to make ends meet,” said Millie (not her real name) of North Providence. “Between the high cost of gas and my cholesterol medicine, there’s not always enough left over for food. It’s a terrible choice I have to make each week. There’s no one left in my family to help me. I used be the one that helped everyone else.”
Erin Minior, CEO of Jewish Family Service (JFS), indicated that the study confirms “what JFS has been experiencing for years – that people in our community struggle daily to make ends meet, and are faced with varying levels of difficulty – from putting food on the table and paying heating bills to not having the means to pay for car repairs or broken appliances.”
A couple with a young child can’t afford synagogue dues this year because the head of the household has been out of work for 10 months. They are embarrassed to ask the synagogue for abatement, so they have chosen to skip this year and “hope things get better once [the father] finds a job.”
Beth (not her real name) cared for her husband for many years as his cancer progressed. Their resources were depleted. She must get back into the workforce but she needs counseling, coaching and connections. She needs the community to step in and connect her with the right resources.
The Alliance recently received a phone call from a former Rhode Islander who now lives out of state. His sister, who lives here and has battled mental illness for most of her life, is in need of housing and other resources. She’s about to be evicted from her home and there’s no one in their family here to assist her.
Of course, there are many faces of Jewish poverty, and much of it is still concentrated among seniors. However, the study also revealed that even when one or both spouses in a family work full time or are self-employed, many households still face hardship. The economic stability of these households can change from month to month and even modest, unexpected expenses or a loss of hours at work can catapult a family earning median income into hardship and the need for external assistance.
“How can we stand by while a senior citizen is forced to choose between buying food and purchasing his or her medicine, or while a family of four worries about how the heating bill will get paid?” said Sharon Gaines, Jewish Alliance board chair. “It becomes a set of choices. Even the additional costs of participation in Jewish life represent a substantial burden to the limited economic means of families earning the median income.”
Congregation Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Barry Dolinger put it this way: “For me, the Brandeis study confirmed in data what I’ve experienced to be true since my arrival here in Rhode Island. Few are truly destitute, but so many are right on the brink of poverty. Judaism stresses compassion for those in need as perhaps the most important expression of authentic religious experience.”
A reasonable question might be: Isn’t the Alliance already providing for individuals in these types of situations?
Although the Alliance continues to address the issue of poverty and strives to meet the Jewish needs of our constituents, the study illustrates how dire the situation is and demands that a new strategy be taken.
“There is nothing [exclusively] Jewish about poverty,” says Susan Leach DeBlasio, Alliance vice chair for financial resource development, “but our response can be Jewish.”
Reaching out to those who are facing economic insecurity – poverty, near poverty or economic vulnerability – is a central task for the Alliance and the Jewish community. The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island has taken an important first step towards developing an effective, respectful and fundamentally Jewish approach to economic insecurity within its households.
“We kne w poverty existed but we are surprised at the scale of economic vulnerability,” said Alliance President and CEO Jeffrey K. Savit. “This report will guide our coordinated efforts and advance the mission of the Alliance. The men, women and children behind the numbers demand a coordinated response. The findings of this study will help us glean how best to help. So we are going to both buttress existing programs which we have long funded and create new approaches.”
The Alliance is responding with a strategic action plan, convening local agencies, synagogues, community members and lay leaders to tackle the issues facing our Jewish community. Community partners will continue working together to implement a multi-pronged plan in the near future to address the issues this study has illuminated. The efforts involve fundraising (which, as of this writing, has raised more than $220,000), marketing and planning.
We know that philanthropy alone cannot fully address economic insecurity, so the Alliance is looking to harness the power of volunteers, who have the ability to do so much for their neighbors in need. The recently formed Helping Hands committee, funded by a single donor, is exploring how the community can respond, timely, to requests for goods, services or money to meet short-term needs. These efforts represent a good start to creating a larger and more widely supported Jewish community fund.
The Community Relations Council (CRC) continues to advocate with legislators and policy makers on behalf of at-risk individuals and families, a category including people who face chronic poverty and those who have only recently fallen on hard times. CRC Director Marty Cooper: “The poverty study is an eye-opener to the Jewish community … we must remember our obligation as Jews. It is mandated for us to take care of our weary, our sick and those who cannot take care of themselves.”
The data from the study will help organizations in the Jewish community design more comprehensive intervention strategies to protect the most vulnerable members of our community through services, support and advocacy. For example, social service partners, such as Jewish Family Services (JFS) and Jewish Seniors Agency (JSA) would work to build on the current level of assistance and reevaluate current planning, service delivery and resource investment.
“The Brandeis Study affirms for us as a service agency our beliefs and experiences in dealing with the increased demand for Kosher food and overall basic needs of members of the Greater Rhode Island Jewish community across the entire age spectrum,” said Paul Barrette, executive director of JSA of Rhode Island.
Susan Adler, JSA director of the Louis and Goldie Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry, adds, “I know that the Jewish community will come together to help our own. Nobody should feel ashamed to seek help. We are here for each other.”
JFS provides Kosher meals, nursing and counseling services, among an array of lifelong community care practices. “Our clients’ financial difficulties are often complicated by other difficult social issues – including relationship and parenting challenges, mental health concerns, health worries,” said JFS CEO Erin Minior. “Poverty and financial challenges can cause some of these issues or, in many cases, further complicate them.”
“We are about to redefine need and rewrite the way care is delivered,” says Savit. “Some projected strategies include acquiring funds to meet the immediate needs of Jewish households in crisis, teaching the “Torah” of giving and receiving help to fortify Jewish traditions and values, brokering job search services for the under- and unemployed, and identifying resources for assisting those on the edge of society or other populations experiencing economic hardship. We’re not just helping Jewish lives, we’re helping Jewish souls.”
The Brandeis study is posted on the Alliance website, jewishallianceri.org.