It’s been a hard one-two punch for many in the local Jewish community: more than two years of the coronavirus pandemic, and now record inflation.
People are hurting, said Joan Grayson Cohen. She is the executive director of Jewish Community Services (JCS), an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.
“From August of 2021 to the spring of 2022, we saw numbers double, and we continue to see a steady increase in requests for rental assistance and financial assistance . . . some utility, and certainly mental health. Those have really been the largest increases of requests that we’ve received throughout the entire pandemic,” Cohen said. “With food prices increasing, on the heels of gas prices increasing, we have seen individuals and families struggling.”
‘With gas prices coming down a little bit, one would think it would ease the situation,” she continued, “but many are still struggling, trying to balance all these economics.”
According to CNBC, 58% of Americans are presently living paycheck to paycheck, including 30% of those earning $250,000 or more. At the JCS Ignite Career Center, employees who were temporarily forced to work from home due to the pandemic are now seeking to continue working remotely because of inflation.
“People are looking for remote jobs. You save money on gas, you save money on food prices, and also dry cleaning,” Cohen noted.
Just as the worst of the pandemic and supply-chain challenges were winding down, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent gas and food prices soaring. As home prices and mortgage rates rose, much of the country was hit with a summer heatwave that translated into higher spending on energy for consumers. Now, as summer rolls into fall, there is word of price hikes on back-to-school supplies.
JCS is attempting to aid community members with these challenges on multiple fronts.
For financially eligible families struggling with food costs, the JCS food program, Jewish Community Food Fund, offers gift cards for food as well as a financial wellness program – to help people better budget their stressed incomes. Resources include local food banks.
“We want people to eventually be self-sustaining, giving them good financial wellness skills. And where needed, we may also talk about nutritional values,” she said. “Additionally, anybody can walk into our buildings, no questions asked, for a one-time food bag.”
Cohen added that people who stop in for food are asked to sit with a JCS “access specialist.”
“We want to find out how we can help [them] in a longer-term way,” she said. “But nobody’s obligated to do that for a one-time food bag.”
JCS is also running a school-supplies fund drive, raising money to use toward gift cards for families to purchase school supplies.
Financial strain, family strife
Some families in the process of refinancing mortgages to bring down monthly costs have been thwarted by mortgage rates doubling since July of 2021. Seniors already stressed by isolation and delaying health and mental health care during the pandemic are now faced with new strain on their retirement funds.
“When retirement portfolios change that leads to anxiety,” Cohen said. “Over the last couple of months, we have seen an increase in requests for services for older adults, mostly in case management, which relates to financial assistance.”
Cohen urged anyone facing any of these kinds of challenges to call JCS.
“We understand it’s challenging to make that first phone call, and we want you to be greeted with a live person,” she said. “We also want you to be quickly connected to where you need to be.”
Meanwhile, financial strains also put pressure on family and personal relationships. At CHANA, an agency of The Associated providing support for people experiencing abuse, Executive Director Lauren Shaivitz said the organization has seen “a dramatic increase in domestic violence calls.”
“Over the last fiscal year, we had a 92% increase in calls from victims of domestic violence. Not only have we seen an increase in call volume, but we have seen a tremendous increase in danger in the calls we are receiving,” Shaivitz said. “We believe this is a direct result of the pandemic, such as increased isolation and financial instability. While financial insecurity does not cause domestic violence, there is a clear connection between the two. Loss of employment and financial insecurity contribute to an increase in danger for victims of domestic violence.”
Steve Meizlish, past president of Hebrew Free Loan Association, said Jewish families are also struggling with private school costs, as well as pandemic-related food programs ending, as inflation spikes.
Heading into its 125th year in 2023, Hebrew Free Loan Association, hoffers interest-free loans to those eligible in the Jewish community. As the need for financial assistance grows in the Jewish community, the organization is increasing its outreach.
“Many families were getting these boxes of food per child. Now you have the double whammy of people that were used to getting the food not getting the food, and they have inflation to deal with,” he said.
Meizlish said the community has a wide range of financial needs.
“People that are on SSI disability, that have debt, need dental work, need cars, money for school, colleges, graduate school, all kinds of things. We’ve had loans for fertility, health issues, micro business loans,” he said. “With inflation and high gas prices, it takes time for people to max out their credit cards. So, we’re not a leading economic indicator, we’re more like a trailing economic indicator.”
Citing Maimonides, Meizlish said the highest form of charity is a loan to help people become self-sufficient.
He encouraged Jewish community members feeling the pinch of inflation to visit the HFLA website and apply for an interest-free loan.
“We’re a great resource,” Meizlish said, “It’s hard to find places where you can go and get money as readily, if you qualify.”
For more information on Jewish Community Services visit jcsbalt.org, or call 410-466-9200.
For more information on CHANA, call 410-234-0030, or visit chanabaltimore.org. To apply for an interest-free loan, visit hebrewfreeloan.org.