Local Jews Deal with Inflation Concerns

KleinLife serves about 35,000 people per year, many of them elderly Jews. (Photo by Stephanie Hampson)

Libby Cohen, a 78-year-old Jewish resident of Lower Moreland, probably would have struggled more with inflation in pre-COVID times. But since the pandemic started in March 2020, she has cut out her extra expenses.

Cohen describes herself as “very COVID-phobic,” and the feeling prevents her from restarting many of the activities she enjoyed in 2019. No longer does she take bus trips to New York City to go to the theater or drive to her local movie theater. She doesn’t go out to eat anymore, either.

“I hardly drive anywhere,” the senior said.

Her only drives of the week are to KleinLife in Northeast Philadelphia for a Wednesday morning art therapy class and to the occasional doctor’s appointment. Otherwise, Cohen does “so many Zooms that I love,” she says, like free events from libraries and other organizations. She starts each day by doing Wordle and Spelling Bee from The New York Times.

“There’s so much out there that really I’m never bored,” she said. “The one disadvantage is the lack of human contact.”

Since Cohen is a senior citizen, her approach to COVID is perhaps more cautious than the average person. But in cutting back on nonessential activities, she is like many area Jews right now, according to Andre Krug, the president and CEO of KleinLife, the community center in Northeast Philadelphia.

With inflation near 40-plus-year highs, lower-income Jews are not necessarily falling short of covering their basic needs. But they do not have much room to pay for much beyond them.

Krug’s organization serves about 35,000 people a year. About 90% of them live within 200% of the federal poverty line. Roughly 25% are seniors, and most of those seniors are Jewish. And it’s those seniors, many of whom are on fixed incomes like Social Security and a pension — usually receiving between $2,000 and $2,500 a month — who are struggling the most.

“People are definitely complaining about the cost to drive, about the cost of food,” Krug said. “They come to us looking for emergency food and things of that nature.”

In the Northeast, there is minimal public transportation, so residents need to drive to get to places. This causes them to make choices. Instead of getting lunch with friends, KleinLife clients go to the grocery store to make sure that their refrigerators are stocked.

There are plenty of other tough choices, too. To fix your car or to buy a new one. To get your house repaired or to just let it sit as long as it’s still functional.

“It’s a struggle,” Krug said. “We’re just coming out of COVID and now this.”

KleinLife often hosts meals for senior residents of Northeast Philadelphia. (Photo by Stephanie Hampson)

Many Jews around the Philadelphia area probably feel the same way. The 2019 Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia study “Community Portrait: A Population Study of Greater Philadelphia” found that “24% of Jewish households in greater Philadelphia have an annual household income of less than $50,000.” The study also found that 12% of Jewish households are food insecure, and that “households with children are more likely to be food insecure.”

The date of that study, 2019, shows that food insecurity is an ongoing problem for local families. But in 2022, according to Marianna Salz, the director of client services for the Jewish Relief Agency, which helps hungry families within 150% of the poverty line, inflation is what people cite when they reach out now.

In many cases, residents are on SNAP, or food stamps, and they can get through the first three weeks of the month without a problem. But they need help during the last week before they get their next SNAP distribution.

JRA has averaged about 40 new clients per month over the summer, according to Salz. In the past six months, it has taken on 155 new people to bring its total to more than 6,000. Sometimes, she notices on JRA’s website that residents are requesting help with electric or rent bills, too, even though JRA focuses on hunger.

“Food is expensive. Gas is expensive. Everything has gone up,” Salz said.

Laura Flowers, the program manager for Jewish Family and Children’s Service, an organization that helps families in the five-county area, said increased expenses fall into four main categories for JFCS families: food, gas, rent and utilities.

Out of those basic needs, food is the one that people most often skimp on, she explained. JFCS clients will make sure they have gas in their car, a roof over their heads and electricity in their homes before focusing on food.

They approach it that way because food, while more essential than any of those, can also be more flexible. You can use whatever money you have left to buy just enough. And that is what a lot of people are doing, Flowers said.

JFCS works with low-income families, middle-income families living paycheck to paycheck and seniors with fixed incomes, among others. Across the board, Flowers is seeing people make tough decisions. Sometimes, they skip a bill for a month and pay for cash expenses.

Then the next month, they will target a different bill.

Credit card debt is mounting, according to Flowers.

“The person will say, ‘I’ll just use my credit card and pay the minimum. That’s all I can afford,’” she said. “A lot of our clients don’t have savings, and that’s why they are coming to us in the first place.”

Beyond basic needs, some Jews are being forced to make difficult decisions regarding longtime staples of Jewish life like summer camp and synagogue membership.

Justin Guida, the director of the Golden Slipper Camp in the Poconos, said that 27 families canceled on the 2022 summer due to issues stemming from inflation and COVID job losses.

To help the camp’s hundreds of families that still could send their kids, Golden Slipper allowed payment plans to start as early as November. In a normal year, those payments would be completed by May 1. This year, some extended into June.

“Every year, there’s a few,” Guida said. “This was way more than typical.”

Darchei Noam, an Ambler synagogue that opened in the summer of 2021, did so without mandatory dues because its founding group of women believe that Jews should be able to practice their religion without having to pay. But like any organization, Darchei Noam needs money to operate, so its leaders inform their members about what a sustaining rate would be per adult.

It’s $731 per year, according to synagogue President Brandi Lerner. And while all of Darchei Noam’s 212 congregant families pay something to help keep the lights on, most do not pay $731.

“Paying those dues is a huge financial burden to many families,” Lerner said. “We had many families join us because they can afford our dues model.”

“We have to change with the times,” she added.

KleinLife in Northeast Philadelphia helps Jewish seniors in the surrounding area. (Photo by Stephanie Hampson)

What makes today’s inflation problem particularly difficult for local families is that it’s both day-to-day and long-term. The Federal Reserve is slowly increasing interest rates in an attempt to slowly bring down inflation. And from June to July, the rate did fall from 9.1% year over year to 8.5%.

But even as inflation comes down, it remains a daily problem, and even if it keeps going down, local Jews are worried that the economy may fall into a recession. Krug, Salz and Flowers all spoke of a general feeling of anxiety among clients.

Krug said, “People get mentally impacted by this whole thing.” Flowers mentioned that “people are having trouble sleeping.” And Salz concluded that they simply can’t afford to plan for the future.

“People are dealing with their immediate needs. [They say] I need to buy groceries now; I need to pay rent now,” she said. “I don’t really think they are projecting.” JE

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