One in Five Jews in Columbus Are Poor

Among the many findings from the Portrait of Jewish Columbus that were released yesterday, the data will finally draw attention to the needs of poverty-stricken Jews in our community.

Fully 21% of our fellow Jews in Columbus fall below 150% of the federal poverty guidelines, based on income and household size.

For the general observer, this may be an eye-opener.  But for those who have been working in the trenches for many years, the newly-released Jewish community study only validates what was long known to be a fact. I and others saw disturbing signs well over ten years ago:  a former CEO of a blue chip company who asked for a $1,000 Hebrew Free Loan; a delivery man who couldn’t afford car repairs; a young couple who needed help paying for a Bar Mitzvah.

Were these isolated events, or perhaps the tip of an iceberg?  No one knew for sure.  The 2001 Jewish community survey didn’t include a single question on Jewish poverty.

Back in 2005 (pre-dating the economic downturn by a long shot) the Columbus Jewish Foundation’s Social Justice Committee stopped speculating and took action.  It launched a modest voucher program offering Kroger SCRIP cards for food, gasoline and medicine to local Jews facing hunger, illness, or temporary financial issues.  They reasoned that people in need would surface if emergency assistance were offered.  Easy access and confidentiality would overcome shame, stigma, fear of rejection, or institutional mistrust. The cards were made widely available — not just at Jewish Family Services, but also at local synagogues and Jewish agencies.

During its first year, only 23 people received SCRIP cards, but word began to spread.  The Social Justice Committee tracked the numbers; later, the Foundation’s Jewish Needs Committee took over. In its second year, the Foundation raised its funding cap from $500 to $1,000 per person.  Most users were highly restrained in availing themselves of the cards.  While some only received $50, the average recipient got twice that amount.

By 2008, the number of users nearly tripled. When the economic crisis hit in 2009, the number of households receiving SCRIP spiked to 123.  Many users returned several times for help.  On average, they got $153 per visit. In 2010, $25,000 in SCRIP cards were distributed.   SCRIP cards had become a true safety net of last resort. In 2011, 281 SCRIP cards were distributed.

As of this date, $120,000 has been distributed, helping 720 Jewish households.  SCRIP cards have been given out 1,400 times during the past decade.

We learned that most users are clustered between ages 35-65.  They cite a litany of compelling needs, almost always tied to employment, home, and health.  Most get their SCRIP through Jewish Family Services, although many deal directly with a congregational rabbi.  Users generally live in the Berwick, Eastmoor and Bexley —but it’s likely that most residents in outlying areas aren’t aware that SCRIP is available.

The SCRIP program is still operative, providing modest sums without forcing anyone to jump through hoops.  In that respect, it has been successful. But to be perfectly frank, SCRIP is just a band aid among a menu of community offerings.

During the downturn and afterwards, the Foundation provided grants for short-term therapy at JFS, financial aid for the JCC pre-school and early childhood attendees, Kosher Meals on Wheels, transportation for job-seeking Jews, and start-up dollars for a JFS program in which volunteers with legal, dental, medical, and repair skills help people who can’t afford such services.

All of these lifelines, as well as Passover and High Holiday food baskets, are terrific.  But poverty persists despite the turnaround in the stock market.  JFS services, Federation campaign allocations to other front-line agencies, Rabbis’ discretionary funds, and SCRIP are commendable.  All are far more than a drop in the bucket, but certainly not sufficient.

Notes Jewish Family Services Executive Director, Dr. June Gutterman, “With the recent reduction in both Food Stamps and the subsidized lunch program, we are seeing families and seniors not being able to make their food dollars stretch to the end of the month.”

According to Rabbi Howard Zack of Congregation Torat Emet, “There are far too many Jewish families and individuals in Columbus who are without jobs, without proper housing, and without sufficient food on a daily and weekly basis for us to deny or ignore.”

The Portrait of Jewish Columbus study confirms the existence and dimensions of a hidden landscape of Jewish poverty.

Jewish poverty is no longer a secret. The shame is ours if we close our eyes to it.

 As seen in the Ohio Jewish Chronicle.

Jackie Jacobs

Chief Executive Officer

Columbus Jewish Foundation

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