Economic fallout still taking a toll

Leonard Rifkin received a loan from the Jewish Federation’s Lifeline Fund to help pay bills while he searches for a new job. Photo: Kristi Foster

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Not long ago Melvin Zuhler seemed to have it all — his family, his health, a successful business and a bank account totaling near six figures.

Yet as 2011 draws to a close, Zuhler is looking for only one thing — help.

“I want a second chance,” said the University City resident.

After years of decline, Zuhler sold his once-prosperous eyeglass business in 2010, the same year his mother passed away. His divorce was finalized in earlier this year. In May, he had to have a seven-hour surgery to save him from cancer near the head of his pancreas. Now having declared bankruptcy, he’s been unable to negotiate a deal with the bank to take care of the debt he owes on his home, on which he is five months behind on payments.

“If I’m out of that house, I’m really out on the streets,” said Zuhler, who now pulls in only about $2,000 a month as a commissioned sales representative.

It’s not enough to pay the bills.

“Unfortunately, I have to live day by day,” he said. “I’d like to save my house that I’ve lived in for 25 years and I want a second chance.”

“I’ve lost everything, except my life,” he added.

‘They will just take any job’

Not all of Zuhler’s woes have been caused by the economic crisis but it has certainly hasn’t eased his troubles. Like so many Jews who have either been laid off or seen their businesses fail, Zuhler has had to deal with the fallout from the fiscal collapse that shook the world in 2008. It’s a tsunami that has squeezed both philanthropic and governmental budgets in a vice of shriveling revenues and skyrocketing needs while simultaneously contracting the job market, often affecting individuals who just a few years ago never thought they’d have to ask anyone for assistance.

“It’s pretty widespread who’s been affected by the downturn,” said Louis Albert, executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Service, noting that job loss can be devastating for some high-income professionals who frequently have debt loads commensurate with their salary. “Someone who was making six figures really can’t manage on a minimum wage job or even two minimum wage jobs, no matter how hard they are willing to work. The economics of it just don’t work.”

Fran Kravitz, a financial assistance social worker with the agency, said she understands the issue all too well.

“What I have seen is that many of our clients are essentially underemployed. They will just take any job because they have families or people to support,” she said. “I’ve been amazed at the number of people who are working full-time and are just not making enough money to support a family.

“I know on TV they keep telling us that everything is turning around but I’m not seeing the return of the high-paying jobs our clients had in the past,” Kravitz added.

Worse, thanks to the end of the real estate bubble, even the last-ditch effort of selling one’s house has often become a dead end. Homes can’t be liquidated quickly in the present market and usually fetch an underwhelming price even when they can. Many homeowners have seen all their equity vanish leaving them underwater on the mortgage, owing more on once-valuable residences than the glutted property market will pay.

At the onset of the crisis, the Jewish Federation initially responded by creating the Lifeline program, a pool of money, administered by JF&CS, to assist Jews in need. Originally capitalized with half a million dollars, the fund has given out about $673,000 in grants to 786 people, with each grant limited to a maximum of $5,000. Loans, which require a co-signer, have been far less heavily used with about $55,000 given out.

In a potentially positive sign, Albert said volume has dropped off.

“I would say we are getting only a handful of new requests coming in but as I’ve said, most of the people we’ve already helped are still out of work,” he said.

However, Albert said the reason for the decline in demand is hard to pin down and could be related to a lack of knowledge about the program. He doesn’t really think that the economy is getting better.

“From where we stand as a social service agency, we do not see things improving at this time,” he said. “We see people still struggling tremendously and we see this reaching broadly and deeply across the Jewish community.

“I don’t know if the congregations would freely talk about this but our perspective is that virtually every congregation has a significant percentage of their members who are on reduced dues,” he added.

The other question is about Lifeline’s future.

“We are all trying to think through whether the best thing is to continue giving people this financial assistance, which in one way is kind of a band-aid solution, or whether we should be thinking about investing community dollars to help retrain people for new jobs,” he said. “Then the question is retrain them for what kind of job.”

Unemployed in your 60s

What kind of job awaits Leonard Rifkin is a question he ponders a great deal. Laid off in early 2009 from a graphics position, the 63-year-old found himself living off savings when his unemployment ran out but even that didn’t last forever. He declared bankruptcy in August.

“By then things were really starting to get bad,” he said. “I’m sorry to say that I was starting to lack money for food and a proper diet.”

Even routine expenses were a nightmare.

“It took three months to recover from buying a car battery,” he recalled.

Rifkin connected with Lifeline through the Jewish community website and has since received about $2,500 from the program. He said it’s helped tremendously to get him ahead on bills.

Still, his job search has been a depressing one. He said that employers often seem interested – until they find out his age. He feels that’s a factor working against him.

“There’s nothing,” said the St. Peters resident. “It’s just beating my head against a wall and being frustrated, angry, sad, depressed. If it weren’t for what the Jewish Federation is doing for me, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Rifkin said that he’s prioritized bills ahead of food in an attempt to combat the accumulation of debt. Ironically, that’s actually hurt him in one respect since mortgage help from some federal programs is only available to those who are already behind on house payments. He is now trying to seek help under the federal Making Home Affordable program.

He said that one prominent emotion he has is shame, even though he knows that many others are going through a similar situation.

“I’ve stood on my own two feet my entire life and you never believe you are going to reach this point in life and this is what it’s going to be,” he said.

Margo Newman, a development associate with the Federation’s Employment Assistance Program, said demand for her services has stayed pretty steady after a sharp upward spike in the first year of the crisis. EAP helps connect out-of-work professionals with individuals in their field in hopes a job match might be found.

“We give them access to people they wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” she said.

Newman said she has seen some drop in demand over the past two months but she noted it was unclear whether that’s just a normal lull. She has seen some change in clientele however.

“In the beginning we were seeing more the breadwinners of the families, people who were laid off looking for work,” she said. “Now we’re seeing more younger, just-out-of-school or just-moved-back people so it’s not as desperate of situations as I feel like we saw in the first year.”

She said about 75 people have sought assistance from the program since its 2008 inception. Most have been male, frequently in their 20s, often in financial or business administration fields. About half have found jobs.

‘Your next doorneighbors’

The Federation and JF&CS aren’t the only agencies providing help. Other entities are also involved.

Merle Hartstein helps spearhead Tomchei Shabbos and Moas Chitim, programs run through the Vaad Hoeir to help Jews in need of food.

“We’re serving a special niche in the Jewish community,” she said.

The Passover-oriented Moas Chitim helps about 200 families from all over the Jewish community ensuring they will have the necessary supplies to serve a meal for the holiday. Meanwhile, the year-round Barbara Mendelson Tomchei Shabbos is geared towards the observant community, supplying food for Shabbat meals every week.

Similar Tomchei Shabbos programs exist around the nation. Hartstein recalls a sign she saw for the one in Baltimore.

“It said, ‘These people sit next to you in the synagogue.’ and they do,” she remembered. “‘These people are your next door neighbors.’ and they are.”

She said demand for Tomchei Shabbos meals has risen since five-fold since the program began three years ago. It now serves 30 area families and has a solid partnership with other groups like the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. She calls the increased demand “a sign of the times.”

“I know there are others we are not really reaching,” she said. “A person has to make their needs known.”

Hartstein said the initiative ensures complete anonymity for those who use it, a point of pride for the effort.

“When you are doing a chesed, it is paramount to preserve the dignity and privacy of the client,” she said.

Some assistance comes less formally. Rabbi Moshe Shulman of Young Israel, where Zuhler attends, said shul members attempt to extend a helping hand to friends in a difficult spot.

“It’s a very friendly and generous community and when someone is having trouble, they always try to help where they can,” he said. “There are certainly efforts made by the congregations and the larger Jewish community to try to help people as resources will allow.”

At Central Reform Congregation, Rabbi Susan Talve said her temple will sometimes make efforts to speak with gas or electric providers for a congregant having troubles.

“We’ve got relationships with people at the utility companies and so often we will make a call on behalf of someone,” she said. “People don’t realize that all you have to do is talk to them and they are very happy to negotiate.”

Talve said CRC also considers social advocacy, pushing issues like health care reform or pay day loan regulations, to be a part of its efforts to help the less fortunate. Changing the system changes the lives of individuals, she said.

“I would encourage people to not be ashamed, to create a culture where nobody feels shame,” Talve said. “This could happen to anybody. We need to be able to share resources so everybody gets help.”

Utilities can be a challenge. JF&CS offers a general financial assistance program for just such an eventuality.

“It’s more limited than the Lifeline fund but we have many more people just calling for general assistance needing help with utility bills in particular,” Kravitz said.

She said that’s because many used to receive assistance from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) but recent federal budget cuts have devastated that budget.

JF&CS has also been noticing another kind of problem. Demand for counseling services is up.

“I know we’re still seeing a lot of people in crisis having a variety of needs,” she said.

Food is an issue as well. Donald Meissner, community outreach coordinator for the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, said the Pantry registered 1,728 new clients in the first four months of this year, a figure a third higher than the new clients it brought onboard over the same period in 2010. It served a monthly average of more than 4,100 clients during those first four months of 2011 versus the more than 3,500 during the same period in 2010.

“Year-over-year we are still seeing double-digit increases,” he said. “There’s no end in sight at this point.”

‘I have to believe’

As for Zuhler, his cancer prognosis is good. He hopes the positive news doesn’t end there.

“I want a second chance and I got a good start with my life being saved,” he said.

Now, he’s hoping to find assistance from somewhere to help save his house or at least help him find a more regularly salaried full-time job. He said that the Jewish community has been good to him with his fellow congregants cooking him meals and visiting him daily when he was in the hospital.

“The congregants at Young Israel are the best,” he said. “They are my only family right now.”

Meanwhile, Rifkin keeps job-hunting while living off a very small pension and a reduced Social Security payment. He’d already borrowed from his 401K, which was then decimated in the crisis.

I have to believe something good is going to happen,” he said.

Rifkin sounds a note of both realism and hope.

“There’s optimism but then there’s fear,” he said. “They go hand-in-hand right now.”

How to Get Assistance

Jewish Federation’s Jewish Loan Association and Lifeline Fund are administered by Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS). The guidelines vary. Anyone applying for a loan or cash assistance must have established residency in the St. Louis region for more than six months.

Jewish Loan Association:

How to get a loan

1. Contact JF&CS and ask for a Financial Assistance Intake Social Workers.

Call 314-993-1000.

2. Get a loan application form and fill it out. Clients must show a recent tax form to verify income and ability to make monthly payments and also show their most recent pay stub.

3. There must be two co-signers who live in St. Louis. They have to fill out a form and sign an installment note claiming that they’ll pay back the loan, if the client defaults.

4. The client is given 24 months to pay the loan back. If he takes out the maximum of $3,000, that’s $125 a month. Of course, it can be paid back sooner. There is a 30 day grace period to start paying back the loan.

5. If someone takes out a loan that’s less than $900, a co-signer is not required.

Lifeline Fund: How to get cash or a loan

1. Speak to a JF&CS Financial Assistance Intake Social Worker at 314-993-1000.

2. Set up an appointment and come in to fill out a form.

3. Verify your income by showing a recent tax form and a recent pay stub.

4. One co-signer who lives in St. Louis is required.

5. There’s a six month grace period to start paying back the loan. If the client borrows $5,000, that means he has nearly 5 years to pay it back at $100 per month.