Economy taxes agency resources

Economy taxes agency resources

'Second wave' of needy feared as nation's financial picture worsens

Stocking shelves in a food pantry are employees of JFS of Bergen County and North Hudson (from top to bottom) Mimi Paperman, director of elder care; Suad Gacham, director of the school-based program; and Amy Adler, elder care case manager. courtesy JFS of Bergen and North Hudson

In the wake of the economic downturn three years ago, many people in our area turned to local Jewish social service agencies for help, according to those agencies’ directors. Last week, as stock markets seesawed wildly, those same directors said their agencies were preparing for the possibility that another wave of requests for help is on the horizon as uncertainty grips the U.S. economy.

“We are bracing for a possible second wave, although the market went up yesterday,” said Leah Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey in Wayne. “We still don’t know how many people will lose their jobs.”

“We are preparing for a second wave of unemployment if things get worse,” said Lisa Fedder, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson in Teaneck.

The big increase in clients seeking services for financial reasons came in the aftermath of the economy’s dramatic plunge three years ago, social service directors say. Around that time, local agencies were hit with a wave of Jewish clients seeking their services for financial reasons. In the past week, Fedder said, she noted an increase in calls from individuals seeking help for financial problems, and all directors interviewed noted an increase in anxiety.

Faith O’Connor, information, referral, aid and advocacy coordinator for JFS of Bergen and North Hudson, said, “The anxiety levels and depression levels are skyrocketing.”

“It’s been ongoing, but more so in the last six months,” she added. “‘Til then, people were getting unemployment benefits. Now that’s run out and it’s ‘What do I do?’ People are going to the board of social services for food stamps who never in their lives thought they’d need that kind of help. There is high demand on whatever small help exists for rent assistance and utility assistance.”

Other agency directors reinforced this picture of client anxiety.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty [among clients] around what is going to happen regarding possible entitlement reductions,” said Reuben Rotman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of MetroWest in Florham Park serving Essex, Morris, North Union, and Lower Hudson counties. “Things are so up in the air politically [and] people can’t even contemplate what that will mean.”

Fedder said, “In the last month, as the budget discussion became so public, no one knew what would happen with benefits and entitlements.”

There “was genuine anxiety,” she said, over such issues as “whether Social Security checks would go out.”

While she noted that the greatest increase in calls for help from clients with financial issues started in the summer of 2008, Fedder said last week that she saw a slight increase in such calls.

“Three years ago, we got 130 to 150 calls a month around financial issues,” she said. “Then by early 2009, we were getting 230, 240 a month, then 250 a month, which was a huge increase.”

That trend has continued for approximately three years, said Fedder, who added that “last week alone, we got 60 calls” related to financial issues, which could reflect a slight, if not statistically significant, increase. She said she noted an increase in anxiety among clients that she speculated might stem from the frenzied stock market fluctuations.

One trend all directors interviewed noted is growth in poverty among the formerly middle class.

“Three years ago, people who were donors, making contributions of $180 or $360 a year, started coming in, a little regretfully, as clients,” Fedder said. When you think of people in need, she said, you do not think of “the mainstream American family, but we are seeing those families.”

The financial problems these middle class clients are struggling with “are deeper” now that they were three years ago, she said.

“Imagine you are 50-something years old, you’ve raised a family, you and your wife both worked, or maybe you were fortunate enough your wife could work [at home] raising the family,” she said. “Let’s say you lose your job. You have to draw on your savings.”

Because “the recession has been tenacious,” she said, savings did not last for very long.

“In the second year, people had gone through their savings, and still could not find work. They could not sell their houses and, in some cases, their families are in similar situations so there is no one to turn to….We are seeing deep, complicated problems.”

Kaufman echoed Fedder’s observations about the increase in demand for help.

“Three years ago, we saw a lot of Jewish individuals who had corporate positions, who were earning six-figure incomes, who had to make major career shifts,” she said. Typically, these individuals sought both vocational counseling and financial assistance.

One client of JFS of Bergen and North Hudson, Harry Perkal, 59, of Paramus, spoke with The Jewish Standard on Tuesday. Unemployed or underemployed for the past two years, Perkal has sought job counseling. He has not sought financial assistance, he said.

His field was human resources, but he moved into finance around the time “financial markets collapsed,” he said. Prior to losing his job two years ago, he said, “I had never been without a job and had never been without income.”

He has taken several full-time temporary jobs in the interim, including as a tax preparer.

At one time, he says, he was a donor to numerous charitable organizations. He can identify with the shock directors say many of their middle class clients experience in having to seek help.

“I never thought I would be on the other side,” he said. “Perhaps falling from grace is the right phrase.”

He has the sense he is not alone. In attending networking events, he said, “I see the same faces for well over a year. People like myself [who are] still looking-all professionals, all people who thought they’d never be out of the labor market or it would be easy to get back in.”

Working as a tax preparer, Perkal said, he saw many people who are struggling. He believes the government’s unemployment statistics underestimate real hardship. “I saw a great many people in foreclosure, people who received unemployment as part of their income for the year,” he said.

At present, he is trying to get a job in human resources. Because he has not held a permanent, full-time job in two years, he believes he is at a disadvantage in seeking employment. “Once you’ve been out of work for more than a year it gets harder,” he said, adding, “It’s sort of amazing how may people are in this position.”

All social service directors interviewed said that increased client need has coincided with stark government cutbacks, leaving the agencies strapped.

Services the agencies provide include emergency financial aid, food assistance (JFS of Bergen and North Hudson has a food pantry for clients of the agency), job counseling, access to job search networks, financial counseling, therapeutic counseling, and elder care management. JFS of North Jersey in Wayne, which also has an office in Fair Lawn, provides child therapy and parenting counseling, as well.

Sometimes the desperation-even among formerly middle class families-is overwhelming. Fedder said she has worked with “good decent middle class people [who] have [had] to make the choice…to feed their children, they’ll skip a meal.”

How to help
Local social service agency directors say they are in need of “gift cards” from food stores such as ShopRite or Stop & Shop, gas stations, and purveyors of other essentials. These items, or the money to buy them, may be donated to the agencies, which will give them to clients. For more information or to arrange a donation, write or call Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, 1485 Teaneck Road, Teaneck, NJ 07666, (201) 837-9090; Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, One Pike Drive, Wayne, NJ 07470, (973) 595-0111; or Jewish Family Service of MetroWest. 256 Columbia Turnpike, Florham Park, NJ 07932, (973) 765-9050.
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