Baltimore feels economic squeeze as food, housing prices continue to rise


Grocery bills are skyrocketing. Housing costs are rising. High oil prices mean that heating costs are expected to soar as winter begins. Plus, federal government aid programs, such as free food distributions for families with children regardless of income, that were enacted during the height of the pandemic are now coming to an end.

Robert Barbera, director of Johns Hopkins University Center for Financial Economics (Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

For those who are already struggling to make ends meet, it is a particularly difficult time.

There’s no question that people have been squeezed financially in recent months, said Robert Barbera, director of Johns Hopkins University Center for Financial Economics and an Economics Department Fellow, but he noted that the cause cannot be attributed to a single factor.

For starters, he explained, when the federal government sent Americans checks during the COVID-19 pandemic to ease financial loses and encourage spending, people were homebound. So they didn’t use the funds to pay for services like haircuts or a movie. Instead, they purchased goods like new appliances or big-box store items, creating big demand at a time when factory workers, like many people worldwide, feared going to work before the vaccine.

This created a “big pop for prices,” he stated.

He noted that energy prices are still up 17.6% from 2021 and food is up 10.9% year over year. Add to that geopolitical instability in Ukraine and Russia due to the war, which has affected global grain supplies and a lessening of heating oil to much of Europe.

Lastly, said Barbera, the data used by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index (CPI) to calculate rental rates includes what homeowners would charge themselves to rent their own residence, making it what the professor calls a fictitious number.

The costs for “shelter” rose 0.8% from September to October, which the CPI said is the largest monthly increase in that index since August 1990. Overall, the costs for shelter have risen nearly 7% from October 2021 to October 2022.

That may explain why the Jewish Community Services of Baltimore is seeing a “huge demand in rental assistance and eviction prevention,” according to Lisa Gorman, senior manager of career services and economic advancement at the agency. From July 2022 through September 2022, JCS saw a 58% increase in the number of clients receiving aid for housing cost over the same period in 2021.

She noted that the JCS, which serves all communities in Baltimore, also had a 43% increase in the number of clients we gave food cards for use at grocery stores.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen come further into the winter because a lot of these [emergency governmental] subsidies will be ending,” said Gorman.

Joan Grayson Cohen, executive director of Jewish Community Services, said “we are fortunate that philanthropic foundations, individual donors, state and local government, and, of course The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore have been responding to the growing need among families in our community. With the persistent high rates of inflation, requests for assistance are threatening to outpace our resources. Consequently, support from public and private grants and donations is critical to our ongoing efforts to help people overcome the challenges caused by rising inflation and to assist them in meeting their basic needs.”

Also recognizing the squeeze facing people in the region is the SECU MD Foundation, which announced the allocation of $1 million in grant money to three organizations, including the Maryland Food Bank. (The other nonprofits sharing in the grants from the charity arm of the SECU credit union are Sinai Hospital of Baltimore and Morgan State University.)

‘An uptick in applications for food assistance’

The Maryland Food Bank, which also has been the recipient of a number of recent communal food-collection drives by Congregation Beit Tikvah in Baltimore, issued a report in late July on food insecurity statewide. One of its findings was that in “June 2022, 46.9% of families said that their children were sometimes or often not eating enough because food was not affordable.”

South of Baltimore, “we have indeed seen an uptick in applications for food assistance due mainly to the increase in food prices couples with the end of the USDA Child Nutrition Program food boxes which were distributed during the COVID emergency,” said Stephanie Savir, director of operations at Yad Yehuda of Greater Washington. The organization runs the Capital Kosher Pantry and provides gift cards to a local kosher supermarket for people in need.

At least one state has taken steps to ensure that most children will continue to receive free lunches even without help from Washington. Voters in Colorado passed a measure last week that authorizes free lunch to every public-school student in the state.

It was a move that was praised by Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, noting that with the federal aid ending and “inflation deepening food insecurity nationwide, millions of children can no longer rely on the basic right of a nutritious school meal — often their only healthy meal all day.”

“At this pivotal moment,” she said, “we urge states nationwide to follow Colorado’s bold example and make universal free school lunches a reality.”

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