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Mending a safety net worn thin by recession
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Mending a safety net worn thin by recession

Despite the rumblings that the Great Recession seems to be waning, recent government issued reports reflect a growing underclass in our country and no concrete plans to reduce the numbers of those who are now becoming “near poor.”

The data is most compelling. A recent report issued by Legal Services of New Jersey found that nearly one in 10 NJ residents lived below the federal poverty level in 2009, which is defined as earning less than $17,285 for a family with one parent and two children. And nearly one in four residents lived in or on the brink of poverty, defined as earning less than $34,000 for that family.

At the end of March, a report by the Advocates for Children in New Jersey revealed an even crueler truth: New Jersey’s children are faring far worse than the state’s adults, with nearly one out of three living in a low-income household. The number of children receiving State of New Jersey-supported Supplemental Food Assistance (formerly known as food stamps), jumped to 300,000 in 2009, from 210,000 in 2006.

The data we see in these reports reveal a crisis and make a compelling case for robust intervention on behalf of the needy.

Here in our MetroWest Jewish community, the cases of what we are now calling “the near poor” are becoming increasingly commonplace. At Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, requests for emergency assistance and subsidized counseling support have more than doubled since two years ago. The most common profiles include adult wage earners in their mid-50s who had never before experienced a period of extended unemployment. Many have exhausted their unemployment benefits and have let COBRA payments for health coverage lapse.

Additionally, JFS is seeing a growing number of older adults who struggle to find affordable and supportive housing as well as couples — some with young children — who are contemplating divorce, many drawn to this decision following years of stress related to financial insecurities.

Long thought of as the partner to government in supporting the needy, JFS and other social service non-profit agencies now find themselves being asked to extend or even supplant the government benefits which are increasingly scarce and/or insufficient. The federal and state guidelines for what is determined “low or moderate income” are still exceedingly low, often leaving those who struggle ineligible for this support.

The state’s current budget included a reduction in the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. While an increase was supported for the State’s Children Health Insurance Program, most services to the low income among us were cut or held flat, including support for legal aid, school breakfast programs, and women’s health clinics. More recently, the courts have begun to question the state’s cuts to schools, for fear they were unfair to low-income students.

Within our Jewish community, the safety net is stretched and worn. JFS, Hebrew Free Loan of New Jersey, synagogues, and the wide range of Jewish communal agencies and schools have extended financial support, restructured membership dues, and made available flexible payment plans all to keep those within our community afloat. Even those with steady employment are turning to JFS, as the stress of keeping all the balls in the air is often too much for a family to handle.

Working as a community to ensure the continued availability of our Jewish communal social service network is essential.

The state and our own Jewish community must advocate for the interest of all of its citizens. Such advocacy should include a regulatory and tax environment that encourages investment and job creation close to home. It should also include extending the resources of the crucial public programs that keep families in their homes, with food on the table, until those jobs materialize.

Finally, never before have the resources of our own local Jewish agencies been so essential. The partnerships of generous philanthropists, foundations, dedicated professionals, and caring volunteers are so vital to keep those in need within our community sustained and supported.

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